VIEW FROM HERE: Fear Of Violence, Hope For Pragmatism
By ROBERT A. FRAHM,
FRANCES GRANDY TAYLOR And DAVID LIGHTMAN Courant Staff Writers
January 27 2006
This week's victory by the radical Islamic party Hamas in Palestinian parliamentary elections will jolt Middle East peace efforts, but also could force the party to moderate its militant views, leading analysts and politicians said Thursday.
The ruling Fatah party had been favored in Wednesday's election and was projected as a winner in exit polls, but leaders of both parties said Thursday that Hamas had won a majority of seats on the Palestinian Legislative Council.
"You can't say this advances the prospects for peace," said Norton Mezvinksy, a Central Connecticut State University professor widely known for his advocacy for Palestinian human rights.
"On the other hand, we don't really know," he added. "There's a divergence of opinions and ideas [within Hamas]. Being in a position of leadership sometimes affects people in a way they change some of their ideas and become more pragmatic."
While some in the Arab world greeted the results with delight, observers elsewhere, including many in Connecticut, wondered about the future of Palestinian politics under a group that has vowed to destroy Israel.
"This election doesn't change anything with respect to Hamas," said U.S. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"Simply put, if the newly elected government is going to serve the interests of the Palestinian people, it will first have to disarm, renounce terrorism, and accept Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state," he said. "The Palestinian people voted for change; they didn't vote for more violence and marginalization. It's time for members of Hamas to join the democratic process in its entirety. Anything short of that is unacceptable."
Yehezkel Landau, an Israeli American associate professor at Hartford Seminary who specializes in interfaith relations, said, "If they do not renounce violence, the vicious cycle of atrocity and reprisal will continue and the suffering on all sides will increase, and that will be an enormous tragedy for all. My hope is that a nonviolent approach by Hamas will be evident."
Some said the election results were less about Hamas' militancy than about its promise to replace a ruling party perceived as inept and corrupt.
"Palestinians in the street apparently voted for what Hamas could offer them. The previous authority, Fatah, did not give them much of that," said Mazin B. Qumsiyeh, a former Yale University geneticist and a member of the Connecticut chapter of the Palestine Right to Return Coalition.
"In reality," he said, "95 percent of the work of Hamas is about social services and hospitals and schools and things like that. ... For Israel and the U.S. government to focus on the military aspect is a mistake."
Nevertheless, Qumsiyeh said, the vote "doesn't really matter. It's meaningless, in my view, because there is no authority when you're under occupation. ... It's an election for somebody who's in jail and speaking to the jailer."
The election result is "no surprise whatsoever," said U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, R-4th District, who has two staff members currently in the Middle East observing the election. Shays plans to travel to Israel next week and to meet with Israeli and Palestinian officials, though he has no plans to meet with anyone from Hamas.
"Hamas has this unbelievably strong reputation spending money the way they say they will," Shays said. "They have two priorities, charity and terrorism, and that's what they spend the money on. They have credibility that way."
Some Middle East experts expressed hope that Hamas' emergence as a majority political party would curb its impulse to resort to violence.
"Some of these groups, once they're in a position of power and have been involved in an electoral mandate, have undergone a profound transformation," said Mahmood Monshipouri, a political science professor at Quinnipiac University in Hamden. "It remains to be seen, but I'm a little bit optimistic. ... We have seen radical Islamic groups in Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey become more moderate and centrist after participating in the political process."
Kal Omar, president of the Connecticut Chapter of the American Palestinian Congress, said the election outcome is a healthy sign of progress.
"The process of democracy has long been waited for," said Omar, whose East Hartford-based organization has about 150 members.
"This will give Hamas a chance to prove themselves to the people and earn their trust," he said. "By being involved in the democratic process it will be their responsibility to prove to the world that they are a liberation movement, not a terrorist movement, that they are capable of carrying on an economy and a political process."
Rabbi David Leipziger Teva, a visiting rabbi at Wesleyan University who specializes in interreligious dialogue with Muslim communities, said: "I hope and pray that Hamas, in its new role, finds the courage to turn away from decades of Palestinian violence, corruption and empty rhetoric. No longer in the opposition, Hamas must rise up to the task of creating long-lasting democratic institutions for the Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel."
The Israelis also face a choice, he said. "The Israeli government should also use this unique, malleable moment in history to realize that it has lost too many of its own citizens to continue policies that undermine Palestinians and Palestine. Let's hope the only issue Israeli and Palestinian leaders argue over will be who offers the first olive branch."
This week's Palestinian election is likely to have a strong influence on Israeli elections in March, said Ronald Kiener, chairman of the religion department and head of the Jewish studies program at Hartford's Trinity College.
"We know about one-third of the Israeli electorate is undecided, and that undecided camp is going to turn to someone they believe is strong on security when they're scared," he said. "Most Israelis regard a Hamas government as scary."
He added, "The larger message of Hamas is the end of Israel, but there has always been [another] side that says, `If we need to, we can negotiate.' ... It's really unclear which side is going to win on this."
One veteran Middle East observer scoffed at the notion that Hamas would change its behavior.
"Assuming what we know is true and Hamas controls the government, it's a catastrophe," said veteran Middle Eastern CBS News correspondent Bill McLaughlin, now a journalism professor at Quinnipiac University.
"It is very, very, very bad news," he said. "Hamas is violently anti-Western. They want the destruction of Israel. They have close ties to every terrorist organization in the Middle East. ...
"I think the silent majority in Palestine wanted to work for peace with Israel - certainly in the West Bank - and that's not going to happen now."
Copyright 2006, Hartford Courant