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Middle East: Why Did Hamas Win Palestinian Poll?

(ITAR-TASS) All indications are that the Palestinian militant Islamist group Hamas has won heavily in the Palestinian parliamentary elections, perhaps even taking a majority of the seats. What accounts for such success against the previous dominant force in Palestinian politics, the secular Al-Fatah movement? RFE/RL correspondents Charles Recknagel and Breffni O’Rourke put that question to several regional analysts.

PRAGUE, 26 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Elias Kukali, one of the directors of the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, located in Beit Sahour on the West Bank, said that, in part, Hamas rode to victory on a wave of anti-Western sentiment in the Palestinian territories.

"All the time, Israel and the United States and Europe said that we do not need Hamas to win," Kukali said. "So that means telling the Palestinian people to vote for Hamas, because people here are not happy with the Europeans or the Americans and they think [those countries] are helping Israel. So if the United States or Israel says ‘we don’t need Hamas’ then the people will vote for Hamas."

He also said that the continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank contributed to Al-Fatah’s defeat, as did perceived corruption in the Palestinian Authority, which has been dominated by Al-Fatah. "Collective punishment for the Palestinians does not help the Palestinian Authority to build the Palestinian state," Kukali said. "Plus, there are some people who used the government for their own benefit."

Years Of Built-Up Anger

Other analysts see a similar mix of forces at work. Many say the anger over conditions in the Palestinian territories has been building for many years toward a culmination in today’s Hamas victory.

The current parliamentary elections are the first in a decade, and during that time Hamas has created a formidable base as the leading opposition party -- both to Israel and to Al-Fatah.

"I think most Palestinians will have come to the conclusion that there were not going to be substantive political negotiations with the next Palestinian government, whether Hamas was in or outside it." -- Rabbani

Hamas has cast itself as the principle armed group resisting Israeli occupation by carrying out nearly 60 suicide bombings since 2000. The group does not recognize the right of Israel to resist and rejects the peace process.

At the same time, the militant Islamist group has created an extensive social-services network to help the needy independently of the Palestinian government. That network appeals directly to Palestinians disillusioned with the poor economic and security situation inside the Palestinian territories.

Moin Rabbani, an Amman-based analyst with the International Crisis Group who specializes in Palestinian issues, said the Palestinians perceive peace talks with Israel as so deadlocked today that even some voters who support negotations could support Hamas.

"Most Palestinians had come to the conclusion that Israel was not going to deal with any Palestinian leadership," Rabbani said. "In the recent past, Israel first rejected negotiations with [late Palestinian President] Yasser Arafat then it rejected negotiations with [current Palestinian President] Abu Mazen and I think most Palestinians will have come to the conclusion that there were not going to be substantive political negotiations with the next Palestinian government, whether Hamas was in or outside it."

Israel says the peace process broke down because of what it calls the lack of good-faith efforts by the Palestinian Authority to curb suicide and other attacks against Israeli targets.

Bringing Hamas In From The Cold?

The big question now is how Hamas might use its election victory to pursue its confrontation with Israel -- something that could dramatically heighten tensions in the Middle East. But at the same time, there is the question of whether the victory -- by turning Hamas into part of the establishment -- will force Hamas itself to change.

Kukali notes that Hamas -- coming to power for the first time -- could find it difficult to run a government. And he said the group itself seems to be wary of that pitfall. Hamas has already expressed interest in a coalition government because "they know they really have problems, it will not be easy for them," he said.

Walter Posch at the EU Institute for Security Studies in Paris also sees Hamas’s victory as applying pressure on the group to moderate. "This is the sign of hope I see in it," he said. "First they are running for government, this will automatically challenge much of their radical behavior, at least in the mid-term, and perhaps in the long term if they are engaged cleverly by outside actors."

It remains to be seen how those outside actors, including the United States and the EU, would react to a Hamas-led government. In the run-up to the election, many Western states said they would not deal with Hamas in power unless the group gives up its stated goal of the destruction of Israel.

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner repeated today that if Hamas is part of a new Palestinian government, it must be "ready to work for peace."

How Hamas responds to that demand could be the first round in a long process of testing and engagement that now looks set to begin.