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Jewish World Review July 17, 2002 / 8 Menachem-Av, 5762

Neill Lochery

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Hamas waits over horizon | (UPI) Far away from the television studios and the five-star hotels favored by secular Palestinian leaders a debate is taking place within the radical Islamic movement, Hamas, which could determine the future character of the Palestinian war with Israel.

The argument centers on whether Hamas should participate in the planned Palestinian elections for 2003. Participation, however, is a code for the wider question of whether Hamas should join the Palestinian Authority and try to reform it from inside -- that is coded languagef for Islamify -- or stay outside and continue to co-operate informally with President Yasser Arafat -- or his successor.

It will come as little surprise that in the first elections for the Palestinian Authority held on Jan. 20,1996, as part of the 1993 and 1995 Oslo Peace Accords with Israel, Hamas did not take part. More surprising, however, was the serious nature of the debate that took place in Hamas over this question of participation.

There is evidence that the main reasons that Hamas did not take part were because the elections were part of the now defunct Oslo Accords -- which Hamas totally rejected -- and more interestingly, because Hamas' leadership feared that Arafat would rig the elections. Therefore Hamas feared that its poor performance at the polls would damage its legitimacy within Palestinian society.

Conversely, the major reason put forward by Hamas leaders who supported participation was that if the movement remained outside the electoral process it could become politically marginalized.

So have Hamas suddenly become supporters of Western style democracy in 2002? The answer is clearly no.

Included among all the anti-Zionist rhetoric in their charter, however, are clear references for the need to make tactical choices in order to achieve its long-term goal of a radical Islamic sate in all of Palestine, including the lands that comprise Israel.

Consequently, Hamas leaders are starting to see participation in democratic elections as a necessary evil to increase legitimacy for their radical program of Islamic fundamentalism. For the West Bank and Gaza Strip,read the Algerian model. Islamic radicals win power through democratic means, and subsequently declare all future elections null and void along with basic laws or constitutions.

At least in Algeria there already existed strong state armed forces that did not stand idly by and let the Islamists have it all their own way. Within the Palestinian Authority, there are not the same kind of unified armed forces. Consequently, it is difficult to see how Palestinian secular leaders -- who are becoming increasingly de-legitimized among their own population -- could in such circumstances resist the Islamists.

Today, Hamas senses a golden opportunity. The attempts of both Israel, and now President George W. Bush, to de-legitimize Arafat and the whole Palestinian Authority has initially led to a unifying of the Palestinian leadership, and an increase in popular support for Arafat. These changes, however, are very cosmetic and short-term. The longer-term picture is one of increasing division among senior Palestinian leaders that will translate into new parties taking part in elections.

Also, popular support for Arafat -- or any alternative leader from within the Palestinian Authority -- looks set to remain relatively low. Palestinian opinion polls make Arafat the most popular single leader, but with only around 30 percent support.

This expected fragmentation of the secular vote could allow Hamas to become the largest force within the Palestinian Authority by winning just over 30 percent of the vote in forthcoming elections. All that would require would be a single-digit increase on their current poll rating.

Importantly, with Arafat's lack of credibility, we can expect a large-scale international observation force to be in place for the elections, making it harder for him to rig them.

The role and political agenda of the external sponsors of Hamas cannot be over-estimated. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that mauled the Pentagon and destroyed the World Trade Center towers in New York, the initial sponsors of Hamas from Saudi Arabia have greatly reduced their contributions, fearing exposure through more rigorous CIA scrutiny of funding of radical Islamic groups.

This has not proved to be as much of a problem as commentators, including myself, predicted. Iran has stepped into breach and actually increased funding to Hamas.

For Iran, the alliance with Hamas fits nicely with its general aim of destroying Israel and exporting its brand of Islamic fundamentalism. Iran is willing and able to generously finance Hamas's elections campaign, a fact that would give it a sizeable advantage over the cash-strapped secular Palestinian movements.

Make no mistake. It is correct to try to isolate Arafat and the Palestinian Authority on both moral and political grounds. Too much attention, however, has been given to Arafat's likely successors from within the ranks of the Palestinian Authority. To a degree, this is natural as many of the personalities are relatively unknown outside their respective constituencies.

Worryingly, however, scant attention has been given to groups such as Hamas that could exploit the deepening divisions within the secular Palestinian movement and seize power.

It is important that Western leaders ensure that the price of getting rid of Arafat is not an acceptance of Hamas as the major Palestinian political force. Such a scenario would be disastrous not only for the Arab-Israeli conflict but also for the Palestinian population, who would likely become immersed in a brutal civil war.

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Neill Lochery is director of the Centre for Israeli Studies at University College, London. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, UPI