A while back a commenter Tom and I had a little discussion about why the popularity of Hamas rose so much during the past decade. I put more emphasis on the corruption of the ruling Fatah party whereas Tom stressed a growing belief in the political Islam espoused by Hamas. Of course, the answer is not one or the other, but some mixture that includes both in addition to other factors. Indeed, the surprising election of Hamas was due to a combination of the following reasons (see chapters 8 and 9):
- A belief that Oslo-era negotiation tactics were simply a waste of time;
- Hamas suicide attacks during the Second Intifada represented the only effective way of fighting advanced Israeli military technology;
- The modest living standards of Hamas leaders as well as the national sympathy after Hamas leaders were assassinated by Israel;
- The thought that the disengagement from Gaza was due to Hamas resistance;
- The provision of ‘religious, spiritual and psychological shelter’ during the most violent years of the Intifada (higher devotion to religion during violent times);
- The extensive social goods and charity networks of Hamas;
- Hamas’s honesty compared to Fatah’s levels of corruption; and
- Fatah’s extreme disorganization.
Tom and I spoke specifically (though not exclusively) about numbers 5 and 7. While it is clear that many factors contributed to Hamas’s success, I maintain that the poor performance of Fatah was perhaps the major factor in its defeat in 2006.
The main reasons for Hamas’s electoral victory can be summarized as follows:
First, the Oslo Accords had clearly failed, thanks in part to Hamas’s actions during the 1990’s, trying to undermine the entire process. Fatah, Israel and the US had promised and failed to deliver an independent Palestinian state before the end of the decade. Of course, Oslo was followed by failed negotiation efforts at Camp David in 2000 and with the Road Map in 2003 (not to forget 2006 and 2010.) Palestinians, were tired to seeing negotiations failing as Israeli colonialism continued. Hamas represented a change from a tactic that had repeatedly failed. Additionally, armed resistance gained legitimacy during the Second Intifada as Fatah joined Hamas in this tactic.
[tweetmeme] Secondly, during the years of the Second Intifada (as well as the First), Israel used advanced military technology against a relatively defenseless Palestinian population. Jets and Apache helicopters were used to retaliate against untrained Palestinians armed with old guns. Palestinian civilians were far too often killed, intentionally or otherwise. With such an imbalance of power, Hamas gave Palestinians hope with each successive suicide bombing.
Third, Fatah leaders were generally seen as living lives of luxury provided by the donor aid money coming from around the world. By contrast, Hamas leaders live far more humble and modest lives that resonated more with Palestinian civilians. This point is highlighted in the 2006 New Yorker article by David Remnick:
After the midday prayers, Sheikh Nayef [of Hamas] accepted congratulations for his sermon on the steps of the mosque and in the market stalls. He shook hands, blessed children, and then, because he does not own a car, started looking for a ride home. He invited me along for lunch.
“Jibril [Sheikh Nayef’s Fatah brother] is rich, but the Sheikh is poor, a simple man,” one of his admirers told me. “He had to seek a loan just to pay the fee to get his name on the election ballot.” The Fatah chieftains are known in the territories for skimming aid money and for taking kickbacks on businesses like oil, gas, and concrete. Their opulent houses, on the beach in Gaza, in the hills of the West Bank, mock the crumbling apartment blocks of their subjects.
Moreover, for the past several decades, Israel has followed a policy of routinely assassinating Hamas leaders (leading the organization to not announce new leaders). The high profile assassinations of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and his successor, Dr. Abdel-Aziz al-Rantisi earned Hamas plenty of national sympathy.
Fourth, the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2003 was largely seen as a victory for Hamas. This situation is similar to that of Hezbollah in 2000; when Israel withdrew from Southern Lebanon, Hezbollah was seen as the resistance which initiated the Israeli defeat.
Fifth, the Second Intifada was a disastrous time for Palestinians. Daily, family members, friends and other loved ones were killed, arrested or went missing, initiated a collective national need for spiritual and psychological guidance. Unsurprisingly, many turned to the Mosque as a means of reconciling such loss. This religious awakening was also due to the economic consequences of the Intifada. As unemployment rose in the Palestinian territories, more people (young men in particular) found themselves attending Hamas religious services to fill the time. The result, of course, was a more religiously devoted Palestinian society. However, it is important to note, as Remnick does, that Hamas also won significant votes in the predominantly Christian areas of Bethlehem and Ramallah.
Like in the previous point, Hamas provided material goods for struggling families during this harsh period. Social and charitable work by Hamas throughout the 1990’s and particularly during the Intifada won Hamas many converts. Despite having the benefit of millions in international aid, Fatah did not provide the same level of social assistance as Hamas.
Linked to this last point is the culture of corruption in the Fatah-led Palestinian government. Where Fatah officials were living well (see point 3), Hamas pooled their little resources and spent money on the Palestinian people. Ziad Abu-Amr suggests that “in this regard that the deep desire for change and reform was the primary factor for Hamas’s wide popularity.”
Finally, Fatah, in the run-up to the elections was divided and disorganized. As Remnick points out:
The most common argument is that Hamas did not win many more votes than Fatah; it took fifty-six per cent of the seats but with only forty-four per cent of the vote. Part of the reason for the landslide is that Fatah ran an inept campaign, often putting forward more than one candidate against a single Hamas candidate, and splitting the vote.
Hamas was not expected to win the elections and, indeed, only hoped to win enough seats to be a worthy opposition party. The disorganization of Fatah – the party did not start campaigning until 2 weeks before the elections and repeatedly tried to delay the vote – was a major reason why Hamas won. Conversely, Hamas was well prepared for the election, having started its campaigns a year in advance. Abu-Amr argues that the victory of Hamas “does not in fact reflect its [Hamas’s] actual strength in Palestinian society. A large number of the votes Hamas won was a protest vote against the ineptitude of the Fatah-appointed municipal councils.”
Overall, it is very difficult to point to one reason why Hamas defeated Fatah in 2006, mainly because there is not one reason. However, although many Palestinians returned to the Mosque throughout the Second Intifada, I maintain that the election of Hamas in 2006 was less about the establishment of an Islamic government than other factors. In addition to a widely shared sentiment that Fatah officials were simply stealing Palestinian aid money while normal Palestinians suffered, the sheer inability of Fatah to organize coherent elections in 2006 was a major contributing factor. Indeed, despite obvious major errors by Fatah, the group still managed to win 42% of the popular vote, compared to Hamas’s 44%.
Due to a bizarre electoral system (somewhat similar to America’s electoral college), Hamas won 74 seats to Fatah’s 45, despite the popular vote numbers. It is certainly clear that Hamas’s platform won many converts thanks to its religious, social, military and economic policies. However, the corruption of Fatah, along with its failure to organize properly for the elections and its complete failure at negotiating with Israel gave Hamas a much needed boost.
Photo from Buck Dog Politics