Palestine: peace comes dropping slow…

Will Hutton looks at this week’s resounding victory of Hamas over Arafat’s Fatah faction, and finds a situation finely balanced between hope and dispair. But, he argues, Hamas may have nowhere else to spend it’s political capital, but on building an internally strong democracy and ultimately creating civil, if not entirely warm, relations with Israel.

To suppose that Hamas can drop its commitment to liberating all of Palestine and resisting Zionism’s claims to the last is to suppose the impossible. Now that its stance has been validated by voters, perhaps nothing can be expected except violence and political impasse.

My hunch is that we can expect better and that Hamas will try to move away from terrorism. For while it may have earned its place in Palestinian regard through its uncompromising role in the intifidas, it has to do something with the political capital it has won. The decision last summer to participate in elections for a legislative council that was created by the Oslo accords it once fiercely opposed was itself a straw in the wind. Hamas always was as much a political as a religious organisation and its political dimension was there for all to see. Now it has won, it is locked in a political, rather than terrorist, dynamic.

Last Friday, Hamas crossed a line when it became Palestine’s majority party. Suddenly, it is no longer just Hamas leaders in private who can decide that terrorism is justified; they have to justify it in their parliament and before the wider bar of Palestinian public opinion. The occupation may go on, but the political position of the principal resistance movement has been transformed.

His quiet optimism is based on the premise that as a legally constituted authority, Hamas cannot afford the next step up from its terrorist campaign:

Justifying terrorism as a general principle is impossible. There are acts of terrorism which have had desirable consequences, like the end of apartheid in South Africa. But that is no more than our acceptance of realpolitik, reflecting the side we’re on. Palestinian resistance to cruel occupation and the confiscation of their land is understandable, but that does not mean it can shelter under a general moral principle justifying terrorism. The only principle available to justify terrorism is that the consequences of its actions justify the violent means. But if the terrorist has not subjected his or her intentions to any kind of scrutiny, participation or vote by the people for whom he or she is acting, then there is no escaping that the decision belongs in the same category as murder. This is even true if the act of terrorism is to try and right a great wrong, which is what Hamas would claim.

This is why Hamas’s election victory is so significant. The movement cannot dodge the fact that, as the new majority party, its morality is no longer its own. It cannot plan a suicide bombing without opening up what it proposes to democratic scrutiny, legal process and wider Palestinian public opinion – or else expose itself to the charge of fundamental hypocrisy. The Palestinians may agree that they should resist Israel with violence, but this will now become an act of war rather than a clandestine act of terrorism. And Hamas does not want war.

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