|Hamas supporters take part in a rally celebrating the results of the Palestinian parliamentary elections.|
In one of the most free and fair elections in the Arab world, and with a remarkably high turnout, Palestinian voters altered the political map of the Middle East. The result of their democratic undertaking is that Hamas will soon begin the task of forming a new Palestinian government. This political earthquake, while no less stunning, has been a long time in the making. For years, there has been growing discontent among Palestinians with Fatah's corrupt and ineffective governance. In going to the polls, many voters were expressing their frustration with the ruling party's failure to deliver peace, implement reforms, improve living conditions or free the Palestinians from their shackles of poverty and unemployment. By casting votes for Hamas, many voters were hitting back at Fatah for its failures, rather than expressing their support for the Islamist party.
Hamas came to power largely because it was able to capitalize on the weaknesses of Fatah. Ironically, many of these weaknesses were the result of Israel's efforts to undermine the authority of former President Yasser Arafat. Israel's campaign to isolate and marginalize Arafat and empower then-Prime Minister Ahmad Qorei served to weaken the Palestinian Authority and the office of the presidency. The efforts to render Arafat politically impotent contributed to the rise of a powerful alternative party, which now, with a weakened presidency, will have even greater authority in government.
Many analysts are expressing fears that Hamas' victory will deal a fatal blow to the peace process. But while Hamas has a history of rocket attacks and suicide bombings, it is not an organization of raving madmen. Overtaking a huge machine like Fatah on the narrow political roads and alleyways of Gaza and the West Bank required adventurism, and like many political adventurers, Hamas turned to brinkmanship. But this does not mean that the party is confined to this role. In fact, during the past year the militant arm of the party has demonstrated considerable pragmatism and self-restraint. And despite provocation, Hamas has remained committed to a cease-fire with Israel since last February.
It is impossible to predict how Hamas will behave in the future. Now that they are in a position of authority, rather than opponents of the ruling regime, their behavior is likely to change. Hamas will be forced to respond to its constituents, the majority of whom want peace and prosperity. For the past few years, Hamas officials have done well at governing at the municipal level, and have earned a reputation for honesty and integrity in governance. But running a municipality is worlds away from operating at the national level, where Hamas will have to deal with Israel, which still holds the keys to improving Palestinians' living conditions.
The elections mark a new beginning, one in which Hamas will take another step in its transformation from a popular liberation movement into a legitimate political party. It is a fresh start - both for the party and for the Palestinians - and marks the beginning of a new reality on the ground. The sooner Israelis, Americans and Europeans accept this reality, the sooner we can move toward resolving differences, and avoiding further conflagration.
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