Hamas' remarkable success in municipal elections and its decision to participate in the elections at the national level constitute events that have changed the fabric of Palestinian politics in an irreversible way. Fateh's one party rule has come to an end, at least at the local level, and given the disarray and disorganization in the ruling party, Hamas is hoping to repeat its success in legislative election to be held today. In less than twenty years, Hamas has transformed itself from a militant organization to a political party, reflecting its adaptability and popularity in Palestinian society and politics.
Hamas crystallized in the Gaza Strip in initial months of the first Intifada in December 1987 and it swiftly took on the lead role in the violent struggle against Israel. With a professed aim of establishing an Islamic state in the whole of Palestine, Hamas also established a comprehensive network of social service institutions to broaden its mass base beyond the confines of ideological constituency. Despite the constancy of its objective, Hamas leaders have declared their acceptance of a Palestinian state in West Bank and Gaza Strip, as an 'interim solution' to the conflict ' as part of hudna or 'long-term truce' with Israel. This position of Hamas closely reflects the position of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority leadership.
Abbas negotiated a 'period of calm' or tahdiya with Hamas in Cairo on March 17, 2005, which set conditions for a temporary suspension of attacks against Israel. There is a fear that once Hamas enters the parliament with a significant bloc of seats, the organization will resume its violent activities, maneuvering the so-called 'cooling off' period to strengthen its military capacity. Another concern is that a political Hamas will lead to a hardened Palestinian negotiating position in the event of final status negotiations. This may be true, yet Hamas' participation could also strengthen any arrangement that is eventually arrived at, giving it a greater legitimacy through a wider consensus within Palestinian society.
Hamas' electoral politics alone does not imply that the organization will eventually renounce violence against Israel. The movement leaders have themselves consistently asserted that there is no contradiction between political activity and resistance. Hassan Youssef, the West Bank's most prominent leader stated that 'for Hamas political activity is part of the whole package. Thus the movement's political activities are not an indication of the cessation of its resistance enterprise, which is the cornerstone of Hamas.' Yet assenting, along with other militant groups, to a suspension of attacks, Hamas was partly submitting to public opinion against escalation violence in the wake of Gaza disengagement and also paving the way for its participation in Palestinian political life. The organization has, thus, proven its resilience and demonstrated its ability at gauging the mood of Palestinian society and thereby shifting its policies accordingly.
Abbas believes that giving Hamas supporters and sympathizers an entry into the political process would force the organization to focus on political expediency of survival rather than on violence and terror. While many Palestinians do not necessarily accept Hamas' Islamist goals, they nevertheless recognize it significant contribution in the social service sector and are therefore sympathetic towards the movement. Moreover, Hamas is not perceived to be tainted by corruption as opposed to the Palestinian Authority, especially the ruling faction, Fateh. Any attempt by PA security forces to arrest Hamas militants or to confiscate their weapons would only be met with violent opposition, leading to a civil war, which would further fragment and destabilize the Palestinian society.
As it forays into the political mainstream, Hamas is steadily treading the path taken by Hizballah, which has successfully fought Israel and remains committed to its destruction. Since 1992, Hizballah has participated in Lebanese national elections, playing a significant role in the opposition and earning international legitimacy. Hamas seeks to take a leaf from Hizballah's political course and looks for the recognition that electoral politics will provide in the international arena. Such recognition may already be forthcoming. EU officials have met with elected Hamas representatives and during his visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories in June 2005, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw admitted that British diplomats were in contact with elected Hamas officials.
While it would be unrealistic to assume that Hamas will lay down arms, a key to the organization's integration into the political system lies in the convincing its leadership to respect the rule of law. To begin with accepting the authority of the security services, complying with ban on brandishing of weapons in public, and cessation of weapons' smuggling and manufacturing would go a long way in realizing Abbas' avowed dictum, 'one authority, one law, one legitimate weapon and political pluralism.' It must be recognized that Hamas' restraint on militant activities is unsustainable without concomitant actions on the part of Israel.
Israel's policy of superimposing unilateralism over bilateral negotiations, building of the West Bank separation wall, economic strangulation of Gaza, and swelling ranks of Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli prisons, have strengthened Hamas and actually increased the movement's popularity as a consistent opposition to Israeli occupation.
With Hamas officials firmly in place in the municipal council and others gearing to play an important role in national politics and possibly the government, the United States will soon be faced with the prospect of dealing with the organization, for real. If Hamas agrees to suspend violent attacks and restrains its cadre, together with complying with the rule of law benchmark, the US should reconsider its position of banning contacts with Hamas' leaders and softening the stand calling for its elimination.
Although is clear that Hamas will not renounce the right of resistance and will maintain its military capacity, as long as the conflict with Israel continues, the integration of Hamas into the Palestinian political system appears to be a positive step in the direction of stabilization and integration of Palestinian society. Abbas' political survival, as well as the prospect of future peace talks, depends upon whether he can convince the militants to accept a long term truce. A domestically strengthened and legitimized Hamas does give hope that a long-term benefit of political integration could indeed be reaped.