Why Hamas Won and What It Means: Cutting off Aid to the Palestinians Would Be an Experiment in Famine
Gordon, Neve, National Catholic Reporter
Although it is still unclear what the future holds for Israelis and Palestinians, a few things can be said about the processes that enabled Hamas to win a landslide victory in the Jan. 25 democratic elections and how the organization's triumph will likely affect the local political arena.
Founded in Gaza at the beginning of the first Intifada in December 1987 by Sheik Ahmad Yassin, Hamas is a direct extension of the Muslim Brotherhood. Although in the media Hamas tends to be identified with its military arm, Izzeddin al-Qassam, which is well known for its suicide attacks against Israeli targets, the organization's popularity in the occupied territories actually stems from its being seen as the voice of Palestinian dignity and the symbol of the defense Of Palestinian rights at a time of unprecedented hardship, humiliation and despair.
People who voted for Hamas emphasize not only the heroic acts of its combatants but also its reputation for clean conduct, modesty and honesty, which have been pointedly contrasted with the corruption of the Palestinian Authority. Many of its followers do not subscribe to religious fundamentalism but rather support the organization's pragmatic approach characterized by support for the short-term objective of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem while still maintaining the long-term goal of establishing an Islamic state that would replace Israel and offer a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem.
Most important, perhaps, Hamas acquired much of its political credit from its charity and social service networks. It built kindergartens and schools that offer free meals for children, education centers for women, and youth and sports clubs. Its medical clinics provide subsidized treatment to the sick, and the organization extends financial and technical assistance to those whose homes have been demolished as well as to refugees living in substandard conditions.
In other words, Hamas was elected not only because it is considered an alternative to the corrupt Palestinian Authority, but also because Israel created the conditions that made it an indispensable social movement.
Allow me to explain. According to the United Nations, the poverty rate, defined as those living on less than $2.20 a day, climbed to 64 percent in the occupied territories in 2005. Even this figure, however, is inaccurate considering that haft of the 64 percent, or some 1.2 million Palestinians, live not on $2.20 a day but on $1.60 or less. Impoverishment of this proportion has produced new populations that need assistance just to sustain life, or as one member of an Islamic charity stated, the past few years "have engendered new types of need, which has increased the number of eligible beneficiaries and diversified the social groups requiring such assistance." These new groups currently include landowners, shopkeepers and those whose homes have been demolished by Israeli bulldozers; in other words, they are not just the traditional poor.
As Israel destroyed the infrastructure of existence in the territories, it also engendered an institutional vacuum by targeting the Palestinian Authority. Hamas took advantage of these dire developments and used them as an opportunity to promote its own agenda.
The organization adopted a policy of providing assistance on the basis of socioeconomic need rather than religious or political criteria so that families in economic distress did not need to be Hamas members or even practicing Muslims in order to qualify for aid. Its charitable institutions rapidly became the second largest food donor in the occupied Palestinian territories after the United Nations Relief and Work Agency. As the chairman of one Islamic charity pointed out already two years before the elections, "The expansion of poverty has vastly increased the pressure upon our organization, because we are receiving many more applications than before. …