Palestinian voters stand up to the U.S. and Israel: What is the Hamas movement and what does its victory mean?

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Like most people in the world, Palestinians desperately need change. And that’s the name of the party that represented the Hamas movement on the January 25 ballots in Palestine: the Change and Reform Party.

About 440,000 people voted for Hamas (in Arabic, an acronym for Islamic Resistance Movement) and 403,000 for the Fatah Party, or 44 percent versus 42 percent. So this was not the landslide for Hamas so widely reported.

However, the election upset did translate into 74 seats for Hamas on the Palestinian Legislative Council versus 45 for Fatah. And it certainly sent a definite message of resistance to the Israeli occupation and disgust with the leadership of Fatah.

Justice long delayed. For half a century, Palestinians have fought for freedom from Israel and its handler, the United States. Since the 1960s, Fatah, the party of Yasir Arafat and main group in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), has dominated politics. But in four decades, with Palestine up against the combined might of the U.S. and Israel, Fatah has only managed to become infamous for its corruption.

More than half the Palestinians have been forced out of their own country. Those left are systematically prevented from developing economically, as Israeli soldiers and settlers take over more land and utilities and water. Sixty-five percent live on about $2.00 a day or less. Israel continues to tear Palestine apart with walls and checkpoints and barricades.

Under these conditions, who wouldn’t vote for change?

Unlike Fatah, Hamas ran an efficient campaign. It focused on vital issues of poverty, education, healthcare, and jobs, along with freeing political prisoners, rebuilding homes, and wiping out corruption. It played down religion and emphasized defiance of the occupation, the right of return, the right to resist, and Palestinian unity. Many campaigners were women, recruited from the social aid organizations that Hamas has funded over the years.

Hamas: an opportunistic journey. But what will the Hamas victory mean for Palestinians? A look at its roots and record is not encouraging.

Hamas is an outgrowth of the reactionary Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded in Egypt and sprouted in other countries during the l930s and ’40s. One of its defining slogans was “communism = atheism = liberation of women.” In 1970, the Brotherhood supported the Black September massacre of Palestinians by Jordanian king Hussein. Brotherhood goons attacked Fatah and radical groups with clubs and chains in the 1980s.

Israel encouraged them. “We extend some financial aid to Islamic groups,” said Yitzhak Segev, former military governor of Gaza, “in order to help create a force that would stand against the leftist forces which support the PLO.”

In 1987, the first Palestinian intifada burst out, a genuinely grass-roots, secular uprising led by Palestinian leftists, women, unionists and students. Just after the intifada began, Islamic fundamentalists formed Hamas to ride the wave of this groundswell of revolt.

But the intifada was crushed, and in 1993 the secret Oslo Accords created the Palestinian Authority, fully dependent on foreign handouts. Its job was to police Palestinian dissidents and participate in the phantom peace process.

Hamas, meanwhile, flourished. Hassane Zerouky reports in Canada’s Global Research that between February and April 1998, for example, Hamas raised several hundred million dollars from Arab nations that once funded the PLO. “It is estimated that one Palestinian out of three is the recipient of financial aid from Hamas,” Zerouky writes.

After the start of the second intifada in September 2000, Hamas won widespread respect for attacking Israel militarily (although there is hardly unanimous Palestinian support for its suicide bombings).

Like other Islamic fundamentalists, Hamas wants a religious state that would include Sharia law and the public segregation of women. During the first intifada, it condemned women militants for “un-Islamic” behavior and attacked those who were unveiled.

Today in the Hamas stronghold of Gaza, women without a head scarf or veil are a rare sight, schools are segregated, polygamy is common, and there has been a rise in “honor killings” of women who defy Sharia repression. In the more secular West Bank, women gauge the Hamas victory warily.

Contradictory outside reactions. Israel and the U.S. both expressed shock at the election results.

Israel reacted by freezing the sales tax money and customs duties that it collects for the Palestine Authority, a total of $40 to $50 million a month. It has closed Gaza’s border crossing at Karni, cutting off critical trading. Israel says it will not deal with a Hamas government unless it disarms and officially recognizes Israel as a Jewish state. It has begun again to assassinate Hamas military leaders.

The White House also pronounced on what a Hamas government should and should not do and urged the European Union to withhold aid. At the same time, it encouraged Arab nations to continue their financial support.

Whatever the U.S. and Israel are saying about the Hamas win, it actually serves their ends. For the rightwing government in Israel about to face elections, it bolsters their anti-Palestinian scare campaign and distracts attention from social and economic troubles in Israel. For the Bush administration, Hamas at the head of Palestine neatly shores up the manufactured need for a permanent “war on terrorism.”

It remains to be seen exactly what posture Israel and the U.S. will adopt to Hamas. In any case, their goal continues to be keeping any Palestinian “government” thoroughly dependent and powerless.

The coming days. With its hostility to secular and left revolt, Hamas can only be bad news for the Palestinian fight for freedom.

And it will not even be an answer to the widely deplored corruption of Fatah, as it finds itself in the same circumstances. When there’s not enough to go around, but there’s enough to sustain a bureaucracy in charge of managing scarcity and policing protest, corruption is what keeps the machine running.

Bottom line, no Palestinian entity that is dependent on imperialists and anti-democratic Arab regimes can be expected to lead the way to liberation. What Palestinians need to break free from this trap is the help of workers and radicals and progressive activists everywhere.

It is especially crucial for workers in the U.S. — the cop, puppeteer, and main exploiter in the Middle East — to demand No Aid to Israel and Halt the Occupation of Palestine Now! Only when these conditions are met can Palestinians build the leadership and organizations needed to bring about real change.

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