Rami G. Khouri is editor at large of the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper, published throughout the Middle East with the International Herald Tribune.
I had the opportunity last week to explore firsthand the implications of the victory of Hamas in last month’s Palestinian parliamentary elections. I went to talk to Hamas leaders at the Palestinian refugee camp of Burj Al Barajneh in Beirut, where poor, disenfranchised Palestinian refugees live in rather atrocious material conditions.
After two and a half hours of discussions among Hamas, other Palestinian parties and an Anglo-American visiting delegation, I now know better why Hamas swept the Palestinian elections. The human contact also reveals what the news does not convey: This exiled, marginalized, downtrodden and vulnerable refugee community walks today with its head held higher than any other group of people in the entire Middle East, because of its unique combination of self-confidence, perseverance, success and legitimacy. They are the only Arabs who enjoy an authentic mandate from their people, genuinely manifested through victory in two free elections at the municipal and national levels.
What does one learn from such encounters? The two most significant themes that emerge from discussions with Hamas officials, and from their many statements, are a commitment to national principles and a clear dose of political pragmatism. Both dimensions are important and cannot be separated.
It is not very helpful to focus (as so many pro-Israeli American apologists do) mainly on Hamas’ theology or its 1987 founding charter, any more than one should deal with Israeli parties that base their claim to all of Palestine/Eretz Yisrael on the Book of Genesis account of God’s land patrimony to the Jewish people. Political theologians and collectors of historical ideologies, please go home for a while.
Now that Hamas will share or hold power, it is likely to persist in both its principled and pragmatic ways. The party will assert rather than drop its existing principles related to domestic governance, resisting Israel and liberating the Israeli-occupied territories, and potentially coexisting with an Israeli state under certain conditions. It is foolhardy to expect Hamas to reverse its principles at the moment when it has achieved a historic victory precisely because it has adhered to them. At the same time, it will surely continue its 3-year-old slow shift toward more pragmatism and realism, because it is now politically accountable to the entire Palestinian population, and to world public opinion. Incumbency means responsibility and accountability, which inevitably nurture practicality and reasonable compromises.
Here is where Hamas’ experience is instructive, and why it is so important to speak with members to understand how they are likely to behave. My sense from such discussions, along with 35 years of watching Islamists at work, is that they do make compromises and practical concessions. But they only do so on four conditions:
They talk and compromise in a political context of negotiations between two equal parties;
They give only when they get something of equal value in return;
They respond emphatically to the consensus position of their national constituency; and,
They do not compromise on what they identify as core national rights of equality, dignity, liberty and sovereignty.
One more vital point to remember: Hamas and Hezbollah are the only two Arab groups that have ever forced Israel’s fabled military to withdraw involuntarily from occupied Arab land (south Lebanon and Gaza). American presidents and other purveyors of fantasy are free to call this sort of unilateralism a “courageous initiative for peace,” as George Bush said of Ariel Sharon. The rest of the rational world calls this what it is: a retreat, and a tacit admission of defeat. Hamas will build on the policies that achieved this, not repudiate them.
Hamas lives in the real world, not in fantasyland. It and its supporters are not so impressed with having tea in the White House. They are much more focused on bringing back a degree of personal dignity, communal self-respect, and national integrity to Palestinian life. They also know that the majority of Palestinians, other Arabs and world nations wish to coexist in negotiated peace with the state of Israel, if Israel in turn reciprocates the sentiment to the Palestinians and other Arabs whose lands it has occupied. How to reconcile these realities is a priority issue for them in the coming months.
I expect that Hamas will combine its legacy of both principles and pragmatism in slowly making important decisions on key issues in coming months. These will include sharing power in Palestine, reforming corrupt and mediocre national institutions, galvanizing an effective national Palestinian leadership representing all Palestinians in the world, negotiating peace with Israel while resisting its occupation, and fostering the development of a society that is not necessarily ruled by Islamic law.
A Hamas-led Palestinian government and the new Israeli government to be elected next month face a historic opportunity, if they are prepared to see each other as representing peoples and nations with equal rights. Hamas has reached this triumphant moment precisely because it has insisted on such equality, rather than pander to Israeli-American promises as other Palestinian leaders did without success.
Hamas can be pragmatic only because its resistance and consistent principles have brought it success. Understanding the dynamic relationship between these factors is the key to movement forward to a win-win situation for all, including Palestinians, Israelis and the slightly dazed denizens of fantasylands far away.
Copyright ©2006 Rami G. Khouri / Agence Global