TOPICS: Hope for peace could grow with Hamas

The victory of the Hamas movement in the recent Palestinian legislative election caught many people in and beyond Palestine by surprise, and has been greeted with some dismay in the Western world. I don’t underestimate the alarming nature of Hamas’s founding covenant, which calls for the dismantling of Israel. But it would be counterproductive to overreact to the Hamas victory. Policymakers worldwide should remain calm, support an orderly transition of power inside Palestine, and take this opportunity to push for a rapid, final, and sustainable end to the decades-old conflict between Palestinians and Israelis.

Paradoxically, such a peace agreement might be made easier, not harder, by the Hamas victory. This is primarily because Hamas, unlike the Fatah movement that it defeated at the polls, is a single, disciplined, national organisation. It has shown this discipline in many ways. For example, over the past 10 months it has stuck by an agreement it reached with the other Palestinian parties to refrain from attacking Israel. It did that even though Israel never joined the ceasefire. The 10-month ceasefire allowed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to carry out last summer’s withdrawal from Gaza without Israeli troops receiving fire from Palestinians. It also allowed Palestinians to organise and campaign for all the recent rounds of elections.

During the ceasefire, Hamas operatives attacked Israel only once, after an explosion killed 19 people on a Hamas training ground in September. Meanwhile, throughout the whole ceasefire period, splinter groups of Fatah like the Al-Aqsa Brigades and Islamic Jihad breached the ceasefire repeatedly. The strong internal discipline within Hamas, as opposed to the indiscipline and factionalism within Fatah, indicates that a strong Hamas leadership can be a more effective participant in peace diplomacy than the Fatah leadership has ever been.

The big challenge for the Palestinians, as in any emerging democracy, is not just to hold an election, but to ensure an orderly transfer of responsibility from one party to another. Hamas leaders say they want to form a national unity government. This decision is realistic, especially since Hamas only won 44 per cent of the popular vote.

Washington, whether it likes it or not, is more deeply entangled in the affairs of the Middle East now than ever before. It has nearly 140,000 US troops in Iraq, and many of the supply lines on which they rely run through Jordan, where Hamas has thousands of supporters. Some in US might be tempted to support Israeli hardliners but that, however, would be to court certain disaster.

Western governments should be urging calm from all sides, while waiting for a stable unity government to emerge in Palestine. Meanwhile, it’s in the interests of all parties, including US, to prepare for the rapid launch of a bold diplomatic campaign to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict once and for all. Hamas and its supporters may well be ready for it. — The Christian Science Monitor