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Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations organized at its headquarters a roundtable discussion on the results of the Palestinian elections on 8/2/2006. The discussion was entitled “Parliamentary Elections: Palestinian Advancement and External Connotations,” with the participation of a selected elite of intellectuals, observers and the concerned with the Palestinian issue.

At the beginning of the session, the centre director, Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh, welcomed everyone present, and stressed that the session is concerned with academic dialogue among those seriously concerned with the Palestinian issue, who advocate for the advancement of the Palestinian cause with determination. There was much participation, the most remarkable coming from Dr. Hussein Abul-Naml, an expert in Palestinian studies, who pointed out the discrepancy between Christian votes and how different lists supported them. He explained that figures can be misleading, as there is for example a social bloc of around 800 thousand people who has the right to vote but who don’t because they abstained from registering themselves. Also there are two other blocs not to be ignored; those who don’t go to the ballots, and those who vote but submit blank papers. He confirmed, however, that there is no numerical gap between the figures of Fatah and Hamas, and that leftist independent candidates took more votes than candidates on lists.

Speaking about the results, Saqr Abu Fakhr, a researcher at the Institute of Palestinian Studies, said that results were unlike the expectations, adding that no one is entitled to tell Hamas what to do, because “being delegated by Palestinian people, only they people can demand a determination of the next stage”.

Hisham Debsy, the director of the Centre of Media and Press Services (Markaz al-Khadamat al-Sahafiya), said that Fatah had a burdening defeat, but the victory is also burdening for Hamas. He considered that the main condition for democracy is to abandon double standards, adding that Hamas cannot draw back now, nor can they keep their previous discourse. According to Debsy, of the resulting consequences was that Hamas stopped the media campaigns against the Palestinian Authority (PA). Another consequence was that after the elections, connections have been restored with all axes, Arab, international and Islamic; a fact that, as put by Debsy, can be employed to the service of the national movement and not vice versa.

The general director of the Baheth Centre for Studies, Waleed Mohamed Ali, called for the necessity to look at the significance of some of the results and their implications, giving the example of the high figures that Dahlan received in Khan Yunis, despite corruption rumours surrounding him; the case of al-Khalil area (Hebron) where there is Israeli control and settlement; and the fact that Hamas won all the representation quota for Jerusalem. Mohammad Ali attributed these results to the corruption spread within the PA that reached an extraordinary degree, while the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) factions and organizational visions aged entirely; repeating his call for a gradual on-ground transition stage, because the Palestinians currently need, and urgently, a stage of national liberation. He added that the Palestinian people voted for Hamas and hence, it is the latter’s right to practice authority on the basis of its own agenda, the one on which basis it was elected by the people.

Josef Samaha, chief editor of As-Safir newspaper, raised an essential question about how can we observe the Palestinian elections and the accompanying developments in the Palestinian issue, in the wider regional and global context? According to him, it is not possible to detach the elections from this context, and that the Palestinian issue was once a regional and national Arab issue, but ended up now an individual Palestinian cause. In each stage of that change, many constituents of the Palestinian scene were inimical to Arab regimes. Today, the Palestinian issue has re-established its national and Islamic connections, thanks to the elections. Samaha however considered that even if all the Palestinian potentials were unified in one direction, there will not be a solution to the conflict, because the Palestinian conflict with Israel has no solution, and any claimed such solution couldn’t be but a temporary one; conditional to the national, Islamic, and international consensus in order to force Israel to accept such a settlement. Samaha finally called for further emphasis on the restored connections between the Palestinian issue and its regional and Islamic context.

Qasem Qaseer, editor at Al-Mustqbal newspaper, considered the Palestinian electoral law is an advanced one, and that the victory of Hamas is a strategic one and the figures were surprising. Should Fatah participate in government, he said, they would have to agree to Hamas’ program. Hamas, on the other hand, is faced with the challenge of projecting their slogans to ground reality, given the fact that previous Islamic experiences confirmed that absolute slogans rarely work. He referred to the example of Khomeini who had a project to fail the Sikes-Pico agreement, but reached a dead end, even after he entered Iraq, he was obliged to accept the UN resolutions.

The Palestinian researcher and expert on refugee issues, Suhail al-Natour noted the need for a genuine leadership for the Palestinian people. Democratic elections are only one part of the democratic process with a long way yet to go. The electoral law, in his opinion, was the most influential factor in the results, which he described as the biggest mistake for Fatah or whoever was in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), who thought they had the majority and can throw others off. Al-Natour called for a political program that all majors political poweres would agree on, and to a resolution for common grounds of sharing authority. He expected that many changes would occur, and the Palestinians are now faced with only two available options. It is either a state of deadlock and lack of a solution between the two powers whose conflict may increase to a Palestinian paralysis; or coexistence based on an agreed-on program.

Ziyad Ibhais, a Palestinian researcher, said that the opinion polls carried out before the elections were based on lists and not on electoral districts, and this is what caused the shock. Yet Fatah has brought harm on themselves by their political program, the degree of polarity, the performance of previous services, regional favouritism, tribalism, media, etc… all of these had a role. Dahlan did offer the people benefits, so he got this high number of electoral return. The results were similar at the level of lists, and the difference between Hamas and Fatah was on the level of districts. The districts show an advantage for Hamas in being more accessible on the popular level, more religious, and providing more services, thus more popular.

Qasem al-`Ayna, one of the most prominent Palestinian activists in social care for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, considered that Hamas was successful in their choice of candidates like the women candidates for example, who were the widows of martyrs. The social strata also had an impact, and although the audiences of Fatah and Hamas do overlap, when it comes to the people, their interests are more important to them. Al-‘Ayna added that the key challenge for Hamas currently is to succeed in reforming the PLO, wondering on what basis it can be reformed when “the youngest member in it is over seventy years of age!” and when “some members represent factions that they no longer belong to”.

Hamas’s representative in Lebanon, Usama Hamdan, said that the electoral return for Hamas was a reflection of the actual preferences of the society and the balance on ground. He revealed that early on the dawn of the day when the results were announced, some Fatah figures suggested that the results be annulled, but Abu Mazen rejected considering that it would bring about civil war. Hamdan added that this implies that Abu Mazen is aware of the people’s determinacy to stand up to their electoral choice; The electoral return is not a fact of punishment and reward, but rather the harvest of cumulative experiences of interactions with voters, who eventually are free and independent to make their decision. Hamdan added that Hamas was expected to earn no more than 30% of the electoral return, but in reality they earned around 45%; an evidence of an accumulated effort among the Palestinian people that returned. Yet this doesn’t negate the possibility of change in their popularity – decreasing or increasing – in the coming stages.

Hamdan added that there is a new language developing in the Palestinian political setting, as Hamas is making use of the mistakes of Fatah. He called for a correction of these mistakes, to achieve more national interests. According to him, Hamas’s priorities are in favour of rebuilding the PLO to become at the forefront, and to give a partnership for all Palestinians in the election and a chance to participate in the national Palestinian project.

Tayseer El-Khateeb, director of al-Israa’a Center for Studies, viewed the surprising results as a crisis for everyone and not only a crisis for Hamas. With a complicated situation like this, creative solutions are needed. He called on Hamas not to show renunciation from rule, or feel that they have to make compromises; he further emphasized that they should offer no initial compromise. The best solution, as he saw it, is to form a government that is not affiliated with Hamas, but that Hamas would supervise.

On another level, Dr. Kamal Nagy, who is specialized in the field of international relations, wondered how did the Palestinians accept to run elections in a society under the Israeli occupation. Legally speaking, these elections are null and void because of the occupation, but on the other hand, the Palestinians considered them a national duty and a way of telling the world that they want an independent state. Economic and social programs are not the only points that voters took into account. They went to the election with their minds focused on the fact that they are going through a stage of national liberation. They are strugglers who take the responsibility to adopt the national project. The measures, then, were unique from any other society. Nagy called on Hamas to develop a new strategy based on responding to three questions: how will Hamas deal with contradictions arising between them and Fatah due to previous Fatah agreements with Israel that recognize Israel’s existence? how will Hamas deal with the international situation? and whether Hamas will adopt a strategy of conflict management or not?

The director of al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations, Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh, said that Hamas is not obliged to recognize Israel since inside the Israeli entity there are official religious parties that do not recognize Israel yet and at the same time they participate in the Israeli government and elections. Besides, Israel insists on the recognition of its legal right in existence, i.e. the de jure recognition, whereas all recognitions between countries are de facto recognitions. Hence, according to Saleh, it isn’t necessary to place the settlement process among the national priorities. Priorities could be re-arranged. The Israelis said that there is no Palestinian partner and started imposing unilateral options. If this is the case then whether Hamas wins or Fatah, there is no Israeli partner in reality and there should be no talk about a Palestinian partner. For these reasons, priorities must be rearranged to start with the internal Palestinian order and the PLO, in addition to reviving the Arab, Islamic and human dimensions of the Palestinian cause.

Dr. Anwar Abu Taha, an official of the Islamic Jihad movement, considered the crisis as no more than a transitional crisis, not a permanent one. He saw that strategically Hamas is in context of inheriting the Palestinian project, and by others trying to escape to the umbrella of the PLO, this will not solve the problem. He added that even if Fatah rearranges its shape, it will not be able to return to leadership if Hamas succeeds in managing the Palestinian project. In general he saw that the Islamic project will be the one to lead.

Researcher and television presenter, Nafed Abu Hasnah, thought that Hamas would have preferred the position of an opposition bloc, where they would have been effective in serious opposition movements. If the coalition between Hamas and Fatah fails, Hamas would have to form a technocrat government that should devote itself seriously to the internal Palestinian situation, while the Political blocs of Hamas and Fatah should be devoted to the efforts of rebuilding the PLO on the basis of a new authority that produces a new vision. Abu Hasnah considered that when Khaled Mish`al talked about building an army, Mish’al was referring to the PLO, in an attempt to merge all the PLO factions; this later turned into a project of booty distribution. Abu Hasnah added that if there was a true intention to carry out this project, it would require national consensus to determine the duties of this army.

In turn, researcher Maged Azzam, director of the East Mediterranean Centre for Media Services (Markaz Sharq al-Mutawassit lil-khadamat al-I’lamiyya), said that rebuilding the PLO will not be a problem but a national solution out of the crisis. Azzam considered the reconstruction a real advantage and expressed optimism about doing that on right basis. The more Fatah succeeds in getting back in shape, the earlier elections and even presidential elections can be held, and this all would affect the internal Palestinian order. He added that the most prominent issue that preoccupies the Israelis currently is the fate of the Oslo accords. His conclusion was that the Palestinians passed this field test, and their pass would reflect hugely on the Greater Middle East project.

Mu`een Manna`, researcher at al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations, saw that there will be challenges awaiting Hamas. Hamas should respond to these challenges wisely, on all local, Arab and international levels. He called on the movement to regain the dignity of the Palestinian cause which retracted to a Palestinian party-based interest.

At the end of the session, Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh thanked all the attendees and reiterated the call for the arrangement of the internal Palestinian order, and the national priorities, whereby the reconstruction of the PLO figures as the most necessary; and “if the world rejects the changes that we the Palestinians present, then let us revive and emphasize the Arab, Islamic and human dimensions of our cause”.