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Date posted: February 15, 2006
By Eyad El Sarraj

The recent parliamentary elections in Palestine were the equivalent of a political earthquake. It is an earthquake that brings with it the possibility of dramatic change in the Middle East and beyond. The elections represented the first time in history that an Islamic movement came to power in the Arab world through peaceful and clean democratic elections. It is important, however, to note that religion itself played only a small role in the vote, no more, in my opinion, than 15 percent. The bulk of the vote was a protest against Fateh for its dismal record on all fronts and a defiant message against the Israeli occupation and American policies.

Hamas now is challenged by its history to face the future. I believe it has some smart people who will help it climb down the tree, because if Hamas succeeds in running the country and negotiating peace, the next ten years will see the Arab world ruled by Islamic governments. Hamas is currently agonizing over the issue of recognizing Israel and renouncing violence, but I think it will do so with time. This is a historical moment for the Islamic movement and an opportunity it won't want to miss. Hamas leaders have already declared that they will respect all previous agreements between Israel and the PA, and Mahmoud Zahhar, in recent days, further said that America is "not our enemy and she holds the key to peace in the Middle East."

The question now is how others react. Fateh is finding it all very difficult to swallow, from the president on down. However, it is important that there is a serious internal dialogue with Hamas and that the vote of the people is respected. Even if the vote gave people the opportunity to punish Fateh, Fateh should not punish people by letting Hamas run aground.

The Israeli government will be more than happy if Hamas does not change. Israel already started on a unilateral course under Ariel Sharon. Should Hamas show no inclination to change, it will be all the justification Israel needs to stave off any (muted) international pressure to negotiate and instead continue what Sharon started, grabbing whatever land it wants and giving nothing to the Palestinians, who in any case are not considered by Israel as partners for peace.

The declared Hamas positions of not recognizing Israel and refusing to surrender arms play well in the hearts and minds of the masses, who believe that Israel should first recognize Palestinian rights and end the occupation of Palestinian and Arab land. But Hamas would be well advised to declare its commitment to the Arab Peace Initiative of March 2002, which calls for mutual recognition of Israel and full relations conditioned on Israeli withdrawal from all occupied Arab land. Hamas could also form a cabinet of technocrats and give President Mahmoud Abbas the mandate to conduct foreign policy while Hamas restructures and rehabilitates the Palestinian Authority.

Israel, for its part, stands at a crossroads. Israel has never taken Palestinian rights seriously, let alone been willing to accede to them. The ascendancy of Hamas represents a chance for Israel, but, and this goes for whoever sits at the helm of the Palestinian polity, Israel will never achieve peace without recognizing that Palestinians have rights that must be fulfilled. Hamas' victory represents the ultimate proof. If it were not for the Israeli occupation there would be no Hamas and no armed resistance.

Dr. Eyad El Sarraj

is head of the Gaza Community Mental Health Project.

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Source: BitterLemons, 13 February. 2006
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