- The Washington Times - Monday, February 6, 2006

DOHA, Qatar. — Hamas’ victory in the Palestinian elections has surprised the leadership of the Islamist movement more than anyone else. Hamas never expected to win the majority and inherit the very heavy mantle of having to govern the Palestinian territories — a Herculean task by any means.

The Palestinian Authority, now Hamas’ to govern, is riddled with rampant corruption left behind by the overloaded bureaucracy of the Arafat years. It includes a civil service force of some 131,000 people — an incredible number for such a small area as the West Bank and Gaza with a combined population of 3.7 million.

Unemployment, already frightfully high, is most likely to rise even further if Hamas begins to lay off some of Fatah’s people to replace them with its own. Simply reorganizing the PA’s multiple security forces, which often overlap, will likely put more people out of work. This is the last thing Hamas needs now — more unemployed, unhappy people roaming the streets.

Hamas can draw on its excellent organizational skills and its clean track record on corruption to try and put some order in the house of Palestine. One strength of the Islamic movement is precisely its ability to run a tight ship, avoid corruption and provide services to its constituents. Yet there is a huge difference between providing free health clinics and schools to a few thousands, versus doing the same for the 2.3 million residents of the West Bank and the 1.4 who live in the overcrowded Gaza Strip.

Israel, which Hamas has vowed to destroy, cannot possibly regard its own interest as served in facilitating Hamas’ governing of the PA. A successful Hamas will serve as a model and encourage other Islamic groups in the Arab and Islamic world, none of which can be beneficial for Israel in the long run.

Already, Mark Regev, the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, said Israel would be holding back $45 million collected from Customs receipts and which is due to the Palestinian Authority. That money helps pay the salaries of the 131,000 state employees in the PA.

The United States and the European Union have also said they would be withholding financial aid until Hamas renounces terrorism and recognizes Israel’s right to exist. Funds from the U.S. and the EU are vitally important for keeping the PA afloat.

A pertinent question, were one to play devil’s advocate, is whether a successful Hamas is really in anyone’s interest, other than Hamas’, of course.

(1) From the Israeli perspective, it is very illogical to look positively upon a successful Hamas administration. Even if the Islamic movement altered its charter, renounced use of terror and accepted Israel’s right to exist, can Israel truly trust Hamas in the long run? Hamas has repeatedly said it would accept a truce but not peace with Israel.

(2) From Fatah’s perspective, a successful Hamas would hurt the mainstream Palestinian movement even more than it has already suffered at the polls. If Hamas established a working government and brought some sort of law and order in the chaos rampant in the Palestinian-controlled areas, it would have accomplished something Fatah was never able to do.

The victory by Hamas over Fatah is the biggest single setback the group founded by Yasser Arafat has suffered since being forced out of Beirut in 1982 when Ariel Sharon, then minister of defense, launched Operation Peace for Galilee. The best Fatah can hope for at this point is for Hamas to stumble and fail, while it tries to reorganize and regroup.

(3) From the Arab perspective, a smooth Hamas operation in the PA is likely to frighten a number of Arab governments where Islamist groups have recently made steady headway. In Egypt, the banned Muslim Brotherhood made considerable gains in recent elections, though President Hosni Mubarak’s government tried to prevent the Islamists from running.

The same is true for Syria. Notwithstanding Damascus’ unfaltering support for the Palestinian Islamist movement — Hamas’ military wing is based in the Syrian capital — the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad is indeed quite wary of any progress by the Islamists. Mr. Assad faces his own problems with Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, which is gaining popularity faster than any other political group in the country.

Jordan, too, is unlikely to be very thrilled with Hamas’ success. The Hashemite Kingdom has been struggling with its own brand of Islamists over the years where the Brotherhood has been banned but re-immerged under a different banner.

In short, few tears would be shed were Hamas to fail. And pushing them toward failure should not be difficult. Israel can, and most likely will, play hardball, demanding recognition and a statement by Hamas that it is moving away from terrorism.

Hamas cannot afford a single slip-up. The first sign of violence from Hamas will trigger a devastating Israeli response.

Of course this being the Middle East, miracles do happen. Hamas could well surprise all who wish to see it fail. It could also surprise itself more than anyone by overcoming these insurmountable obstacles. But it first needs to reassure the international community that it can transition from using terrorism to using dialogue.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.


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