On the eve of the Palestinian elections in 2006, Aya Yasmina May asked what we can expect of Hamas
In April of last year, Yusra al-Azami was shot dead in Gaza by a group of men claiming to be a Hamas 'vice and virtue' unit. Her crime? Sitting in a car with her fiancé, who was viciously beaten by the armed squad. A Hamas spokesman attempted to justify the killing by saying that there had been "suspicion of immoral behaviour". The very idea of morality squads operating in Palestine would have been unthinkable 20 years ago, yet increasingly there is a worry that Hamas's religious zeal could overtake the Palestinian liberation struggle. January's election may prove key to the future direction and identity of Palestine.
It is hard to believe today that Hamas was born only 17 years ago. In less than two decades, it has managed to eclipse all other Islamist factions and achieve massive political potency, placing Islam at the heart of what has historically been a secular Palestinian political tradition.
Hamas evolved out of the fundamentalist Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the West Bank and Gaza. Prior to Israel's 1967 occupation, the Brotherhood was depoliticised and fragmented. Its Gaza and West Bank branches operated separately from each other, focusing on welfare provision and education based on Islamic values.
In Gaza, where the Muslim Brotherhood has historically commanded most influence, the Islamists were beaten into submission by then Egyptian President Nasser's secularist ideology. Ironically, the Israeli authorities proved to be much more tolerant of their activities than Nasser ever was. So when young Brothers engaged in a campaign to curtail alcohol consumption, promote the veil, and attack secular leftists Palestinians in the 1980s, the Israeli authorities did not intervene, leading many to believe that Israel tacitly supported the growth of a politically tame Islamist alternative to the revolutionary Fatah.
By the mid-80s, the Muslim Brotherhood had developed an impressive social infrastructure - funded in large part with Saudi money. It also controlled close to half of Gaza's mosques and universities, thus socialising a new generation of young Gazans into their version of Islam and away from political activism.
But the limits of its non-political approach became painfully clear once the first uprising - or Intifada- broke out in December 1987. The Palestinian masses were now rising against Israel's military occupation, and the Brotherhood did not have a political base from which to participate.
That is when the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood's spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, decided to create a political and military wing that would be loosely affiliated with the Brotherhood. The name was Hamas, and the year 1988. Hamas was to become the first significant alternative to the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which had led the Palestinians for over 20 years.
Although the PLO is an umbrella organisation made up of different factions, it has always been dominated by the late Yasser Arafat's Fatah organisation. The differences between Fatah and Hamas are deep, beginning with their actual names. Hamas is the Arabic acronym for Islamic Resistance Movement, whereas Fatah is the Arabic acronym for Palestinian Liberation Movement, a divergence that represents a deep ideological rift and the different historical contexts of the two movements.
Fatah grew out of the diaspora in the 1960s, under the shadow of the Palestinian exodus of 1948. Its rhetoric is heavily influenced by Arab nationalism, anti-imperialist thought, and Marxism, and its top leaders came into political maturity in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of multi-religious pre-war Beirut - all of which has contributed to a socially and religiously moderate discourse.
Hamas, on the other hand, grew up on its own land and under Israeli occupation. Its leaders were socialised in the Egyptian Islamist school of thought. They seek moral and legal legitimacy in the Koran.
Unlike the PLO, which identifies Zionism as the enemy and considers it to be an imperialist political movement, Hamas considers Israel's hegemony over the Palestinian to be a punishment for deviating from the path of Islam. Within such a context, the liberation of Palestine is an extension of jihad, or religious duty - a radical departure from Fatah's principle of liberation as a national duty.
The newly-formed Hamas was politically immature, and its activities were, in the words of Hamas expert Khaled Hroub "free and spontaneous". It failed to make inroads into Palestinian society, as support for it and other Islamist groups only rarely got above the 15 per cent mark. This was the first Intifada, and its lifeline was the civil society of the Occupied Territories that was secular, democratic, non-violent, and open to negotiations with Israel. It was a staunchly pro-PLO era.
The Intifada came to an end in September 1993, when the PLO and the state of Israel signed the Oslo Agreement. Under Oslo, the PLO renounced political violence and committed itself to negotiations in exchange for being recognised by Israel as the "sole representative of the Palestinians" and the promise of a very limited level of autonomy under a newly created administrative and legislative body, the Palestinian Authority (PA).
Left out of the negotiations, Hamas responded by rejecting the Oslo Accords and focusing on furthering its Islamic-led social infrastructure. It subsequent decision to boycott the 1996 legislative election further locked it out of mainstream Palestinian politics.
The organisation's woes did not end there: Hamas's military wing was to sustain very heavy losses during the first five years of PA rule, as Israel and the PA converged in their pursuit of Hamas activists. However, circumstances were soon to shift to Hamas's favour.
The optimism that Oslo ushered in proved short-lived. Instead of self-determination and economic development, Palestinian life under Oslo was marked by rampant unemployment, Israeli closures and economic strangulation, and ongoing land expropriation.
Moreover, Arafat was running the PA like his own personal corrupt fiefdom, killing off civil society, centralising power, and dispensing of donor money at his own will - the International Monetary Fund estimates that more than $900 million from the PA's total revenues 'disappeared' into Arafat's personal bank accounts between 1995 and 2003.
So when the Palestinians broke into a second Intifada in September of 2000, they were revolting against both a corrupt domestic political order and an ongoing colonial occupation. The Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza wanted a change, and Hamas was well placed to answer their increasingly desperate calls. Its slogans for armed resistance readily filled the ideological vacuum created by the PLO renouncing armed struggle while failing to deliver tangible change on the negotiating front. It was also well-respected in communities, thanks to its social welfare network, and its perceived honesty and transparency.
This was Hamas's chance to transform itself from clandestine political movement to a potent political force, and it grabbed it. While backing for the Islamist movement as a whole had never previously surpassed 20 per cent, Hamas would see its support skyrocket to over 60 per cent, breaking out beyond its traditional Gaza support base - an achievement that is nothing short of extraordinary, given the PLO's monopoly on what has historically been a secular political landscape.
This growing support for Hamas caused widespread alarm. The PA froze many of its assets, while the European Union added it to its terrorist list and the US pressured its traditional financial backers to cut off their support. Moreover, Israel mounted an assassination campaign against its activists and leaders. In less than a year, Israel killed Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, Hamas's founder and spiritual leader, his second in command Abdel Aziz Rantissi, and Hamas military commander Ismail Abu Shanab. Those who survived were forced to either go underground or into exile.
Almost inevitably, this massive crackdown only fuelled Hamas's popularity.
Now that it had proved its revolutionary merits, it was able to enter mainstream Palestinian establishment from a position of strength. Thus between December 2004 and May 2005, Hamas swept through the municipal elections in Gaza, gaining 70 per cent of the popular vote, while making solid inroads in the West Bank, where it won over a quarter of the popular vote.
As the Fatah-led negotiations bore only bitter fruit, Hamas came to be viewed as the sole alternative by frustrated Palestinians. This meant it was well-placed to claim victory when Israel announced its plan to unilaterally withdraw its troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip last August. A September 2005 poll conducted by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research found that 40 per cent of Palestinians credited Hamas for Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, while more than 80 per cent saw it as a victory for Palestinian armed resistance.
Under pressure from the still-dominant Fatah, and keen to distance itself from the destructive bin-Ladenist strand of Islamisn, Hamas has decided to participate in January's national Parliamentary election and its leaders have, for the first time, accepted the principle of a negotiated settlement with Israel.
Analysts across the board have hailed Hamas's decision to run for Parliament as a coming of age and a sign of political maturity. But this is only limited to the political front and does not represent an evolution of Hamas's social agenda, which has always been as central to its raison d'être as armed resistance. In fact, Hamas's record shows that it has never shied away from advancing its conservative social platform, and it is on this front that it stands to make its most long-lasting mark on Palestinian society.
Historically, Hamas leaders have not hesitated to invest political capital towards advancing a socially conservative agenda. Most recently, emboldened by their success at the municipal elections, some Hamas-run municipalities have displayed a zeal for promoting a 'vice and virtue' campaign. In the West Bank town of Qalqilya, where Hamas won all 15 council seats, the local authorities banned a music festival in July, while a popular Palestinian singer had his concert cut short in Nablus by gunmen who opposed him singing non-political songs.
Elsewhere across the West Bank, women electoral candidates have complained of being harassed and their family members threatened with violence if they did not withdraw their candidacies. In April, came the brutal murder of Yusra al-Azami
Incidents like these led the Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish to remark in July that "there are Taliban-type elements in our society, and this is a very dangerous sign."
To make matters more complicated, some Fatah activists have joined their Hamas counterparts in enforcing a socially restrictive code of behaviour in the name of religion. Thus, political Islam in Palestine today has transcended Islamist parties, evidence that Hamas's drive to put Islamicism on the political map has in fact succeeded.
But how political Islam will get actually institutionalised into Palestinian national politics is still to be determined, starting with the January 25th election. The latest polls put national popular support for Hamas at the 25-30 per cent mark, against 40-45 per cent for Fatah. Fatah's lead is explained by the fact that, unlike the municipal elections, where corruption ranked highest on voters' list of priorities, the legislative election will also depend on the parties' economic platform and plans for the peace process.
Even here, the religion factor has undeniably increased in importance. A recent poll conducted by Al Najah University in November found that over 77 per cent of those surveyed ranked 'being religious' and having a 'patriotic history' as the two most important characteristics they seek in a candidate. In other words, religiosity has caught up with nationalism when measuring a future leader's political merits for the overwhelming majority of Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.
This reality is hitting secular Palestinians hard. Carole Dabdoub, director of civil society initiative Open Bethlehem, is one of them. Dabdoub believes that Hamas's political gains are linked to a rise in religious fanaticism. "Palestine has changed," she says. Look at Gaza: there are restrictions there even if they are not enshrined in law as of yet. As a secular person, this is definitely an uncomfortable possibility."
Hamas's core message that Islam is the solution has irreversibly altered Palestinian political thinking. But this message would not have been received so strongly had it not been for Israel's unabating occupation. Take Qalqilya, for instance: two-thirds of the residents live in poverty, and Israel has expropriated half to 80 per cent of its most arable land to build its separation barrier.
Like other Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, the residents of Qalqilya are desperate for a solution, and it is Hamas - not the PA - that is delivering tangible progress in the form of social and educational services, financial support, and with the Gaza disengagement, perceived political gains. Thus, for Palestinians deeply affected by Israel's occupation policies, Hamas's slogan 'Islam is the solution' rings true, both literally and metaphorically. Veteran politician and human rights advocate Hanan Ashrawi articulates this relationship between fundamentalism and oppression clearly when she says, "if Israel continues to act as an occupier, Fatah and the reformers will be further undermined. The political map is shifting. Unless there is a serious change and a contribution to nation-building we will move toward the Islamisation of Palestinian politics."
Where does this leave the Palestinians, and what does it say about the future of Palestinian society and possibly statehood?
From Egypt to Jordan and Turkey, modern Arab and Islamic histories are ripe with examples of Islamists making inroads off the back of national governments' failures to tackle nation-building and economic development, and Palestine, in that sense, is no different.
But Palestine is different because of its history of dispossession and occupation. It shares commonalities with Algeria's experience with French settler-colonialism. In fact, Hamas's crackdown over the last few months bears disturbing similarities to the process through which Algerian fundamentalists destroyed that country's cultural fabric by attacking artists and intellectuals.
It is also true, however, that unlike Algeria's Islamists - or Islamists in a number of other Arab countries - Hamas is not being locked out of electoral politics. Moreover, the Palestinians have always displayed more liberal and democratic and secular tendencies than other Arabs by virtue of their unusual history and outsider status. It is from their midst, after all, that the late Edward Said emerged to become one of the 20th century's most eminent humanist intellectuals. It is possible that a peace process that is genuinely committed to ending the occupation of all post-1967 Palestinian lands could provide the Palestinians with a space to develop their own brand of a progressive Palestinian nationalism, one that would celebrate - indeed, elevate - Palestine's Islamic heritage while building a democratic society that is accommodating of diversity.
Palestinians' history of progressive politics and Hamas's access to the political system are key to forcing Hamas into moderating its religious zeal to capture the support of a broad-range of Palestinians. But so is an end to Isreal's occupation. If this does happen, the Palestinian people could very well stand to gain a great deal from Hamas's presence in parliament: it would undoubtedly force the PA to think twice before it gambles away Palestinians interests and rights.
Aya Yasmina May is a pseudonym