Hamas’ ascent to power in the Palestinian Authority has thrown Western policy into a quandary. Having touted the great advantages of democracy and the having spent millions on democratization, Western leaders are faced with Islamist victories at the polls. The recent “elections” in Iran, for instance, brought to power an Islamic tyrant who now threatens to detonate an atomic bomb over the “enemies of Islam,” and the “open” elections in Egypt brought an impressive victory to the Muslim Brotherhood. The Hamas victory in the recent Palestinian elections exemplifies the issue: the Palestinian people have chosen a terrorist organization to lead them.
Hamas, however, has based its strength on three pillars, which constitute the foundations of its support in the Palestinian electorate: 1) its social work, in the form of a significant network of schools, clinics and community institutions; 2) its integrity as an institution that is loyal to God and people; 3) and its uncompromising murderous struggle against Israel’s existence.
Facing a corrupt, ineffective regime that had distanced itself from the Palestinian everyman, Palestinians believed that Hamas offered them a new direction. But what may have been an advantage for an opposition group may well prove problematic for a new Palestinian government that needs to be accountable to its own people, its International commitments and the world at large. Hamas must now decide how it will resolve its self-made dilemma, given that persisting in its armed conflict with Israel will make social responsibility all but impossible.
The question of whether taking power will make Hamas a more responsible organization has attracted considerable attention since the elections. Optimists argue that the necessity to deliver services as the official leaders of the Palestinian Authority will force Hamas, against its will, to soften its position and transform itself into a responsible organization, pragmatic if not moderate. While it is always nice to be optimistic, wishful thinking is neither analysis nor strategy. Softening its position on Israel will cost Hamas dearly in another crucial area: its highly valued credibility.
Money has always been a difficult issue for Hamas, as it attempted to maintain an alternative system of charity organizations alongside a terror apparatus. Unable to raise sufficient support in the Arab and Muslim world, Hamas was forced to resort to clandestine front organizations in the US and Europe. But many of these sources – such as the Holy Land Foundation in the US; Committee de Bienfaisance et de Secours aux Palestiniens (CBSP), of France; The Association de Secours Palestinien (ASP) of Switzerland and The Palestinian Relief and Development Fund in the United Kingdom – have dried up as a result of effective intelligence and legislative work.
Now that Hamas has taken over the PA it must come up with $1.7 b. a year, as the PA’s annual tax revenues of $400 m. fall far short of its budget outlay of 2.1 b., 1.2 b. of which pays the salaries of its 135,000 employees. The largest organization within the PA, their armed forces, maintains a payroll of 58,000 members. If their salaries are not paid, the result will be not only widespread poverty, but the threat of open armed opposition to the Hamas led PA.
Iran and the Arab world are not likely to pick up the slack. They might ‘stand by their Palestinian brothers’ and offer a symbolic support, but they have never contributed much over the years and are unlikely to significantly increase their support in the future. This is why the newly elected Hamas leadership is franticly sending its people to Europe and to any other place where they can get a meeting. They know that the PA will not last long without the influx of these funds.
This new scenario provides a unique political opportunity that must not be missed by the world and by the Palestinian people. Having chosen Hamas with all its facets, the Palestinians face a closing window of opportunity to demonstrate that they did not really intend to be led by a terrorist organization. But they are also faced with an opportunity to prove political pragmatism and send a clear message to their leadership that life in Palestine is indeed more important than death to Israel. Hamas should now be tested by its actions and by abrogation of its past statements and behavior. If they refuse to take a pragmatic route, their constituents as well as the rest of the world should hold them accountable for their choices and actions.
The world has helped create the current realities in the PA by not paying enough attention to funded activities that supported extremists or corrupt leaders. It also helped create an unparalleled dependency on foreign assistance. The donor states must now use their money wisely, as doing so will shape the future of the Middle East.