Lessons to be learnt from Hamas assumption of power

Friday 31 March 2006, by Ghada Zughayar

The Palestinian Territories entered a period of uncertainty following the formation of the Hamas Cabinet?

Will a partisan male- dominated government form a key step toward women’s exclusion from the political arena?

On Sunday March 19, Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister-designate, presented President Mahmoud Abbas with a partisan male-dominated cabinet made up of 24-member ministers, half of them representing Hamas senior leaders and including hardliners and moderate. And the other half included independent technocrats and professionals with ideological connections to Hamas. Dr. Maryam Saleh, a Hamas hard-line woman was the only woman named to the cabinet. Apparently, the nomination of a woman is part of the public relation efforts Hamas is making to break the internal and external isolation. Hamas wanted to display flexibility and pledge to the people particularly women that it will not jeopardize Palestinians‚ achievements and women‚s rights because it poorly needs internal support and cohesion at this critical point.

For more than a decade Hamas was a tough opponent to the Palestinian Authority established in 1994. It did not wish at all to be in the same boots in which Fatah found itself. Upon its strong opposition to the Oslo agreement and all successive arrangements, Hamas founded its strategy to sweep enormous support of the Palestinian people. Undoubtedly, Hamas legitimacy is now under test especially after the Palestinian political blocs in the legislative council declined to join the Cabinet. Hamas has to shoulder its responsibilities and commitments made to Palestinian voters alone. It has to prove capability to run the Palestinians‚ affairs without giving any concessions to Israelis or the international community!

Will Hamas succeed to do so? Will the assumption of political power force Hamas to moderate its platform? Are the Palestinians going to face severe years under an unbending government? Will Hamas succeed to ensure the day to day needs, which the majority of the people wish to satisfy? Will Hamas respect and build on the Palestinians‚ achievements in terms of legislations, civil society and women‚s rights? Can we accept the world‚s circumventing Hamas Cabinet by channeling funds through President Abbas? Many questions come across the mind of every Palestinian signaling very much uncertainty and ambiguity about our future.

When Palestinians insisted on convening the legislative elections last January, they had raised hopes to close the chapter of a one-party government and open a new chapter of well-established political pluralism and tolerance through the formation of a national unity government; a salvation government that can reform the internal situations and agree on a powerful strategy for ending the Israeli military occupation. Now, after Hamas handed in its one color Cabinet, apparently we have shifted from Fatah domination to Hamas unilateralism. This thing will inflict further impediments upon the path of democracy and transparency, which the Palestinians aspired to achieve in the January elections.

We were relieved that finally the election of a new legislative council was conducted after many years during which Fatah was reluctant about convening the legislative elections though the term of the previous PLC elected in 1996 had expired in 1999. During this period the legislative council failed to hold the Palestinian cabinet accountable to it. There was no clear-cut separation between the three powers on one hand and between the Palestinian Authority and the PLO branches on the other. The general situation worsened; the PA failed to improve the social and economic situations at the time corruption, nepotism and chaos increased in the Palestinian Territories.

The Palestinian Territories on the eve of the legislative elections

Many analysts explained the landslide victory that Hamas made in the legislative elections by the general atmosphere that prevailed in the Palestinian territories on the eve of the elections. Many agreed that the voters‚ pattern was in favor of reform and change, which were the two pillars of Hamas platform. People were sick with corruption, security anarchy and chaos. Therefore, the massive votes for Hamas reflected anger and protest by the majority of our people against bad management of the country‚s affairs rather than indicated backing for Hamas’s hard-line tactics and political platform. Opinion polls held after the elections indicated that only 12% of the Palestinians voted for Hamas hard-line program, and 84% of the Palestinians asked Hamas to moderate its platform.

The popularity that Hamas has in the Palestinian territories stemmed from providing a safety net for the Palestinians at the time huge funds arrived at the Palestinian Authority did not meet the pressing daily needs of the various sectors particularly the poorest Palestinians due to corruption. Meantime, civil society namely non governmental organizations were unable to compete with Hamas over service provision, which was done in a well-organized and systematic manner. Huge funds and clean hands enabled Hamas to gain the trust of the Palestinian voters.

At the time Hamas succeeded to circumvent the PA, the secular left parties failed to find an alternative to the domination of Fatah party, which is blamed for the state of chaos and personal insecurity. The weak and inefficient leaderships of these parties disappointed the parties‚ supporters. Most of the leaderships were busy looking after their own interests and did not give proper attention to solve party internal problems. The modest results achieved by these parties and their social alliances will definitely back up the tough biˆpolar recruitment in the newly- elected legislative council and in the Palestinian arena.

The legislative elections were held at extremely difficult times during which people lost hopes in the peace process, which was terminated by the Israeli unilateral decisions and continued brutal occupation measures particularly strict closures and the construction of the wall. Israel persisted on its flagrant violation of the international law, resolutions and the agreements it signed with the PLO. Israel‚s destruction of the infrastructure of the secular Palestinian Authority has been the major reason behind the vilification of the PA and undermining its status among the people.

In this atmosphere of mistrust and frustration as well as raised hopes for reforms and change, the Palestinians went to the legislative elections. As soon as results were announced, self blame was heated up among Fatah circles. Transition in the power relations between the various actors in the Palestinian society set in motion. We hope this process will accelerate ideological, structural and functional transitions in favor of the Palestinian people and their just cause.

We hope that everyone namely the left parties, women‚s movements and NGOs will read the results of the elections carefully and conclude lessons from their own performance and endeavor serving the Palestinian society hoping to see a new social and political make up that underpins an efficient secular movement in Palestine.

We pride ourselves on convening free and fair elections and on the peaceful overtaking of authority. We expect our people to utilize the momentum of these elections to build a new political system based on the respect of pluralism, individual and communal freedoms.

Why the NGOs and women’s movements did not do well in the elections?

In my opinion, many actors were defeated in the legislative elections beside the secular parties (liberal and left); the NGOs and women‚s movements. Though, we highly appreciate the active role that the different compositions of the civil society have played during the Israeli occupation and in the election process. Yet, the election results were not up to expectation. Only 17 women won seats in the PLC forming 12.8%. Women succeeded to double their political representation (it was 5.6% in the previous PLC) due to the implementation of the positive intervention (Quota) in the national lists/the proportional system applied to 66 seats out of 132. None of the 14 women independent candidates won seats in the districts. This signaled lack of support women as individuals received from people. It also revealed the failure of the women‚s movements and NGOs to change the societal perception of women‚s traditionally accepted roles and the male concept of leadership. On the other hand, secular left parties did not do much better than women‚s movements.

These results posed further challenges to the civil society namely the NGOs and women‚s movements. The latter have to conduct a critical in-depth review of their vision, strategies and structures. They need to understand the reasons behind their loss as well as their faults in order to improve their performance and impact.

The Palestinian NGOs including women‚s organizations have for decades separated arbitrarily between their work and the public political realm. On many occasions these NGOs did not assume their political obligations. They declined to adopt politics claiming that they should emphasize professionalism and neutral service provision without imposing any ideology and political agendas on their target groups. Furthermore, they recruited many of the intellectuals, unionists and political activists who were encouraged to neutralize themselves and give up political work and ideology at the doorstep of the NGOs. As such, a large gap was created between the elite leaderships of these organizations and the grassroots.

Unlike secular NGOs, Hamas‚ affiliated grassroots and charitable organizations despite their young age have connected their services and work to Hamas ideology and political program. Consequently, they managed to have direct impacts and consequences on the Palestinian society at large and on women in particular.

Undoubtedly, secular NGOs and left parties must admit that they assume part of the responsibility for the emergence and development of powerful Islamite political parties namely Hamas. The roles played by women in society were not visible and though were appreciated by the secular parties and NGOs they did not change dominant patriarchal ideologies and practices. Women were excluded from leadership positions and from the decision making. Despite of a clear vision on gender equality, the secular NGOs have isolated rather incorporated gender equality within a holistic approach. And calls for gender equality remained lip service.

Money wise, secular NGOs and women‚s organizations have depended on external aid rather than relying on internal income generation mechanisms. It was easier for them to mobilize funds from donor agencies especially when the economic conditions in the Palestinian Territories critically deteriorated. On numerous occasions, NGOs had to change or adjust their programs and work according to the donors‚ agendas. Consequently, many of the NGOs abandoned their vision and goals, and departured away from the real needs of their target groups. As such, they enlarged the gap with the grassroots.

Challenges facing secular movements:

Hamas is a local movement connected to Moslem Brotherhood, which forms the think tank for Hamas. The ultimatum goal for Moslem Brotherhood is to enforce Shariah Law and Islamic social codes in the Arab countries by means of having a comfortable majority in parliaments. In this context, Hamas does not only have a majority in the PLC but also forms the Cabinet. However, it faces many external challenges that require support from the Arab and Islamic world. Therefore, I think Moslem Brotherhood will work hard to mobilize support to back Hamas in installing a successful model of an Islamite government in the Palestinian territories.

Unlike the Moslem Brotherhood in the Egyptian Parliament for example, Hamas is controlling the PLC now, it can pass social legislations and codes easily if we take into consideration that it can mobilize some of Fatah members and independents (known as conservatives). In the past legislative council, there was still a great resistance against endorsing some laws like the election law and the women quota system despite the fact that Fatah, which defines itself as a secular party had the overwhelming majority then.

In light of the elections and the formation of the Cabinet, Palestinians expressed a lot of concerns that Hamas would impose Islamic laws and social codes across the Palestinian Territories. People are afraid that Hamas will impose the Hijab on women and gender separation at work, etc. These things might look trivial to some, but definitely they reflect people‚s legitimate concerns about the future of the fundamental freedoms and rights, which people have strived for.

Despite the assurances made by Hamas overall leader Khaled Maashal in Damascus "We don’t impose our thoughts on anyone, we will present our thoughts to our people and they have the right to choose." Meantime, we have been listening to contradicting statements by different Hamas senior leaders, which posed further questions and uncertainty among people. Dr. Maryam Saleh, Hamas candidate to the post of Minister of Women‚s Affairs, said at a public meeting in Ramallah on Monday March 20, that women‚s main work is at home. She also added that there is no objection to giving part of their time to societal charitable work. Does it manifest and reinforce the already structured gender division of labor based on defined roles that our society accepts for women? Moreover, in another workshop held by the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics and Ministry of Women‚s Affairs, Dr. Saleh justified the violence exercised by men against women and family and attributed it to pressures of the general situation under the Israeli occupation and of the way Palestinian women are dressed.

In light of these statements our fears and concerns increase and bring back sad memories from the past; Hamas intimidation and threats during the first Intifida against uncovered women and student elections in local universities in which Hamas used iron chains and daggers to intimidate secular students particularly women.

What is to be done?

Unless the secular political parties and NGOs including women‚s organizations revive their political stand and restructure themselves giving primacy to the principles and values of gender equality, transparency and accountability, they will not regain influence in the Palestinian society at the time Hamas will exert huge efforts to consolidate its impact and position in the Palestinian arena.

The international community particularly the US and European Union has a moral and legal responsibility toward the Palestinian people. It has to review its passiveness toward the continued Israeli politics and brutal policies against the Palestinian people, infrastructures and assets. Israel must be compelled and pressured by all possible means to respect and implement the international law and resolutions. The international community has also to draw lessons from the past relations with the Palestinian Authority. It must realize its moral responsibility toward strengthening and supporting the PA to enable it to successfully run the Palestinians‚ affairs.


Ghada Zughayar

Assistant to the General Director for External Relations

PARC- Beit Hanin,- Jerusalem

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