GAZA CITY — In an overwhelming victory, the Islamic militant party Hamas has effectively taken control of the Palestinian government after winning an unforseen 76 seats in the 132-seat Palestinian parliament.
While both the United States and Israel consider Hamas to be a terrorist organization, which they refuse to recognize or negotiate with, the results of the election are clear. With voter turnout reportedly as high as 77 percent out of the 1.3 million eligible voters, and the elections considered free and fair by outside observers, a Hamas mandate is undisputed.
NBC News’ Tom Aspell reports from Gaza City on the election and the seismic shift that may result from it in the Palestinian territories, within Israel, and throughout the region.
So what happened?
Well, the first of the exit polls came out about three hours after the polls closed last night, and it seemed like Fatah had a narrow lead. But by early this morning the whole situation had turned upside down.
This is an amazing victory for Hamas. This is the first time that they ever contested an election here and they’ve won more than 50 percent of the seats in parliament. With that victory, the mood is definitely going to change here.
The overwhelming majority won by Hamas means it doesn’t need any coalition to run the government. It’s an absolute winner, so they are the new government of the Palestinian territories.
The current Palestinian cabinet, headed by Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, a member of Fatah, is now a caretaker government. In a sign of concession, Qureia submitted his resignation early this morning, and that has been accepted. But Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, also from Fatah, will remain on because he was elected separately a year ago, on a four-year term.
Now, though, if Abbas talks to anyone — for example Israel or the Americans — any decisions he makes have to be approved by Hamas. So, they are the watchdog over the president and he is now reduced to a figurehead role.
When asked about their attitude towards negotiations with Israel, a Hamas representative told us this morning that nothing would change. They will not talk to the Israelis and they will not recognize Israel as an independent state until they receive some concessions from Israel and some incentives to come to talks with them. And even then, they may not talk face to face, but through a third party — that’s according to Hamas officials here this morning.
Israel and the United States have said they would not deal with a government led by Hamas, which has carried out dozens of suicide bombings and which they consider a terrorist group. So, what does that mutual disregard mean for the peace process?
What it means is that the peace process is absolutely dead in the water as of this moment.
The Israelis say that they will not talk to Hamas, unless Hamas disarms and recognizes the right of Israel to exist.
Hamas says that it won’t even talk to Israel until Israel makes some concessions on points that we know Israel will never agree to — the return of Palestinian refugees to their original homes, the future of Jerusalem, the release of all Palestinian prisoners — all matters that Israel has already said a definitive “no” to in the past.
And the American position is that Hamas is a terrorist organization, and they won’t talk to them either.
So, right now, you have the two sides in the process — the Israelis and the Palestinians — neither of them talking to each other, and both of them practically refusing to recognize one another. So, the peace process is really dead in the water.
What does Hamas victory mean for Palestinian internal politics? What happens to Fatah now?
First Fatah was not expecting this defeat at all. They are going to have to reorganize themselves.
Some Fatah leaders this morning were saying that the Fatah party is willing to cooperate with Hamas and willing to serve as a loyal opposition, as they put it. They really have no other choice. They have to reorganize themselves and get ready for elections four years from now. But, until then, Hamas is going to be in charge.
As for Hamas, what are its plans for the political process? It won’t change anything. It’s just won. They first thing it’s going to do is to clean out what it sees as Fatah corruption inside the important arms of the Palestinian Authority.
For example, Hamas says that 32 percent of the Palestinian police forces claiming salaries from the Palestinian government are non-existent — that they are just phantoms getting salaries. Other Palestinian institutions, such as the finance ministry and the local administrations that handle funds going out for projects in the Palestinian territories, all of them are corrupt. All of the leaders of those organizations and various other organs of government will be investigated and brought to trial if they are found to have been taking money illegally during their time in office.
What Hamas say it intends to do is revamp the entire political system inside the Palestinian Authority so that Palestinians can benefit from the vast amount of money that comes into the country to support the Palestinian government. But the money will be shared out fairly. So, for example, anybody who is getting a salary of $400 a month but is living in a million dollar house is going to have to explain where they got the money from.
So it is going to be a process of reorganizing the police, reorganizing the administration throughout the Palestinian territories, and in the meantime, not paying the slightest bit of attention to any outside pressures to resume or even any initiate any talks with the Israelis.
So, is Hamas considered above government corruption? Are there any suspicions that Hamas is also corrupt?
Well, while the Israelis and the Americans view Hamas as a terrorist organization, the fact is that it concentrates mainly on welfare duties inside the Palestinian territories. It runs clinics, it runs hospitals, it runs schools. These are the things that need more improvement inside the Palestinian territories.
Hamas's message to the people — that there will be no more corruption, that money will be shared out fairly, and people will be promoted according to their abilities and not according to who they know — this has obviously touched a chord with the Palestinian people.
The turnout among the slightly more than a million Palestinians that were eligible to vote was an astonishing 77 percent. As we seen with the results of these elections, the vast majority are saying that Hamas should be their leaders from here on.
These problems of corruption inside Fatah and the mismanagement and ineptitude of Fatah to run the Palestinian territories over the last few years has certainly struck a chord. So, for the first time, Fatah is giving power to someone else. It’s Hamas taking charge now after decades of Fatah monopolizing Palestinian politics.
How will this development affect Israeli politics?
Well, we’ve already seen Israel shifting over the last few days when they began to realize just how strong Hamas was in the elections and when they saw how likely it was that Hamas would gain some powerful seats in the parliament. But I don’t think that anyone was expecting them to win outright.
However, the Israelis had already begun to make preparations. The acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert, said just a few days ago at a gathering of leaders that Israel must rush ahead and complete the separation barrier that runs up and down between Israel and the West Bank.
This wall should run to be about 600 kilometers long, and they’ve completed about 300 kilometers of it. It is designed to stop suicide bombers coming from the West Bank into Israel. Olmert said that the Israelis should lose no time in completing that wall, so we can expect to see construction of that speed up.
Overall, I think what this victory really does is send a strong message to the Israelis that perhaps they should have treated Yasser Arafat and Fatah a little more gently and maybe cooperated with them a little more closely while they were in power. As a result, they’ve hardened the attitude on the Palestinian side. They now have an implacable enemy, in the form of Hamas, running the Palestinian government.
So, I think that the Israelis will rush to disengage and perhaps speed up more withdrawals from territory inside the West Bank. Now, whether or not that will affect some of the larger Jewish settlements around Jerusalem and closer to the line between Israel and the West Bank remains to be seen.
But, it’s certainly going to prompt the Israelis to go ahead with unilateral disengagement, especially if they can’t talk to the Palestinians.
How about in regards to the Israeli leadership? While their internal politics are already in a bit of disarray at the moment — with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in a coma and elections due in March — won't this lend some strength to some of their more hard-line politicians, such as Benjamin Netanyahu?
It certainly wouldn’t surprise any Palestinians to see the Israelis take an even harder right-wing turn. And there there are leaders out there, like Netanyahu, who will be happy to capitalize on this situation and tell Israelis that they are in more danger than ever.
The reason why Sharon was so popular was because Israelis could count on him to make them feel secure. Whether they have the same feeling about Netanyahu, I’m not quite sure. But for those who are worried, it will certainly drive them closer to his message of a hard-line stance towards the Palestinians.
The Israelis summoned a meeting of their senior security officials already this morning to discuss what this amazing development will mean for the future of Israel. I would think that many Israelis are incredibly worried now and wishing, perhaps, that they’d given more away to a more moderate Palestinian group, like Fatah, in the past.
How about the legitimacy of the election? Are there any questions there? Or were they considered totally transparent?
In the words of foreign observers — and there were nearly a thousand of them here spread throughout the polling stations in the West Bank, east Jerusalem, and in the Gaza Strip itself — these elections were totally free, totally fair and without any real irregularities.
Even Jimmy Carter said that the elections were free, fair and transparent, like other elections that the Palestinians have had in the past. So I don’t think that there is any question on that front.
Evidence of that can be seen in how quickly Fatah seemed to concede this morning — and then the cabinet resigning and telling Hamas that it would be willing to work as a loyal opposition. So, I don’t think that anyone will have any major complaints about the way the election was run.
What does the say for democracy in the Middle East?
It’s interesting that the Bush administration and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have so frequently said that their aim is to promote democracy in the Middle East. Well, we’ve just seen democracy in action here, and the fact is that the radical Islamic group has just taken power in the Palestinian territories.
The Arab street is definitely going to take note that Islamic leaders are now in power in the Palestinian territories. As far as support for them is concerned, it's well known that not every Arab government supports the Palestinian aspirations, but certainly that support is almost unanimous on the streets of every Arab and Muslim country.
This is a message that is going to encourage other Islamic groups throughout the Middle East, not just inside Palestine and Israel, but certainly throughout Jordan and even Iraq, Afghanistan, and perhaps even Egypt as well.
So, we’ll just have to see what happens here. But, right now, Hamas’s main concern is to clean house inside the Palestinian territories. It has no wish to get involved with any kind of negotiations until it cleans up what it sees as widespread corruption throughout the territories.
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