Hmm. After hearing about this on the radio today, I figure it’s time for some
First of all, who are they: Hamas is the largest local terrorist group. Their exclusive focus is on Israel: their stated purpose is the destruction of Israel, to “drive the Israelis into the sea,” and to establish an Islamic republic in its place. The group’s official platform is Islamist (including establishment of Shari’a) but in practice, this is far less important to them than it was to the Taliban. (Because the Palestinian population is, as a whole, far less fundamentalist) Over the past decade they have been steadily building themselves up as an alternative to Arafat’s PLO and Fatah; one wing of their organization builds hospitals and schools, and administers local affairs in much the same way that local “big men” used to administer affairs in southern Italy. The other wing of the operation kills people. The two wings aren’t actually very separate: the entire organization is marked by significant unity of purpose and operation, and the people engaging in charitable works see it as an extension of their greater mission.
Why did they win? It wasn’t hard. Fatah is known among the Palestinians mostly for corruption and not getting anything done. This isn’t entirely an accident; Arafat didn’t want competition, so he made his party be essentially a cult of personality around himself. Money (mostly from international donors) went into the pockets of his cronies, and their famously lavish villas. What few jobs there were were controlled principally by nepotism. After his death, there were few leaders left; Mahmoud Abbas was to a great extent crowned by the international community, and internally is seen as an appeaser or a stoolie as well as the elected president. The two remaining big players in Fatah were Mohammed Dahlan, the head of the security apparatus, and Moussa Arafat, Yassir’s cousin; they’ve been engaging in a private little war over power for the past two years or so, in a style that should be familiar to anyone who lived in Chicago in the 1920’s. The Palestinian people, understandably, didn’t think much of any of them, and Hamas has been building up widespread popular support for years. So this political victory was widely (except at the State Department) anticipated.
What’s going on now? There’s a bit of political instability — Dahlan’s people have been starting riots, which there tend to involve AK-47’s — but that’s going to end fairly soon. Hamas will have to get down to the business of ruling, and at least at first they have some interest in creating a veneer of legitimacy. They’re not going to renounce violence (as they’ve already stated) but they won’t engage in anything immediately; that will wait until they have pressure from either the outside world (other terror groups that support them will want a show of faith), internally (if things go badly they can always engage in terrorism to rouse public support), or from Israel. (If nothing else, they will use terror to try to get a negotiating position) On the other hand, they’re not going to establish an Islamic caliphate either; they don’t have popular support to do that, and they’re realistic enough to know it. Expect them to set up a government that’s far less corrupt than the previous regime, but on the other hand an absolute dictatorship publicly and actively committed to promulgating terrorism.
That’s sometimes what you get when you encourage free elections.
In the near future: They’ll need to get their house in order, and Israel has elections coming up in March. Ehud Olmert (the acting PM) is currently looking likely to be elected; he’ll want to continue present policy, including building a separation wall and unilaterally disengaging from the Palestinians. The major alternative possibility is Netanyahu coming back, who will want a harder line, but he isn’t widely liked anymore. Hamas may try to influence the election (as they have in the past) with strategically timed bombings, but they may or may not be able to pull them off. This means that a de facto two-state solution, with the borders drawn to Israel’s liking, is likely over the next two years. At that point we find out if Hamas is going to take the negotiating tack or the tack that they can only get a good position by upping the violence significantly. My money is on the latter; they saw how Fatah failed by doing the former, and their real political platform has been that they aren’t going to.
Elsewhere in the world: You can bet that other groups — especially the Muslim Brotherhood (Egypt), al-Qaeda, and Hezbollah — have been watching this week’s events with extreme interest. They’re going to start pushing for democratic elections in other countries, especially Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and maybe later on Saudi Arabia, knowing that they can mobilize their people and (by ballot and by intimidation) get enormous political victories. If they pull this off, expect some really unsavory groups to be taking power in all sorts of places.