Hamas’s rise to political leadership and the significance of its ascendancy for Israel must be understood on two levels. First, Hamas must be viewed in the local Palestinian context. Second, the jihadist group’s political victory must be viewed in the context of regional developments. On the local intra-Palestinian level, Hamas’s decision to participate the Palestinian political process is the result of its adoption of PLO’s traditional strategy of combining politics with terrorism.
In 1996, Hamas opted not to participate in the Palestinian elections – preferring to suffice with an operational agreement with Yassir Arafat. That decision enabled Hamas to preserve its “purity” as a terrorist organization and social movement rather than “dirtying” itself with questions regarding the management of Palestinian relations with Israel and the rest of the world.
From a local perspective, two events caused Hamas’s strategic shift that brought it to run in Wednesday’s elections: Arafat’s death at the end of 2004 and Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and northern Samaria last summer. Arafat’s death left Fatah without a charismatic, popular leader able to rally Palestinian society behind him and his party. Israel’s decision to withdraw from Gaza and northern Samaria without first reaching a peace accord with the Palestinians gave credence to Hamas’s view that there is nothing to be gained by recognizing Israel’s right to exist, even on the declarative level.
At the same time, local dynamics alone do not explain Hamas’s decision to change its strategy and run for office. Regional developments also played a major role. These dynamics were what drove Hamas to believe that if it were to run and win, it would also be able to rule in a manner that suits its long term goal of destroying Israel.
Caroline B. Glick is the senior Middle East fellow at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C., and the deputy managing editor of The Jerusalem Post, where this article first appeared.
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