By Peter Biggs
Fatah, the previous ruling party, had been widely accused of corruption and inefficiency. Observers see this victory as the Palestinians' protest against Fatah's record of governance.
"Ordinary Palestinians," wrote David Horovitz, editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post, "will tell you that they voted for Hamas because the Fatah Palestinian Authority (PA) cheated them and stole from them -- whereas the Islamists have proved themselves exemplars of good governance at the local level. Many will stress that their vote for Hamas was not a ballot for a renewed campaign of suicide bombings and shooting attacks on Israeli targets."
The victory sent shockwaves through international news media and political entities. Ironically, Hamas came to power through a democratic election -- a process which independent observers generally pronounced fair. This has thrown exemplars of democracy, such as Israel, the United States and the European Union into a quandary.
"Israel will not conduct any negotiation with a Palestinian government, if it includes any [members of] an armed terror organisation that calls for Israel's destruction," acting Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert bluntly stated.
"I don't see how you can be a partner in peace if you advocate the destruction of a country as part of your platform," said U.S. president George W. Bush. In a message to Hamas, he stated: "Not until you renounce your desire to destroy Israel will we deal with you."
Mahmoud Abbas, who remains in office as the head of the PA, has said that he remains committed to negotiations with Israel even as he has opened consultations with Hamas to form a new government. "I am committed to implementing the program on which you elected me a year ago," he said in a televised speech. "It is a program based on negotiations and peaceful settlement with Israel."
According to the Tel Aviv newspaper Ha'aretz, Abbas also suggested that future negotiations with Israel could be conducted through the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) -- the larger political and paramilitary group that counts Fatah among its members -- as a means to bypass a Hamas-led government, if Hamas remains actively committed to the destruction of the Jewish State.
While Canada is not extensively involved in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Canadians have nevertheless been among the victims in related Middle East violence. In a recent suicide bombing in Afghanistan, diplomat Glyn Berry was killed, and three Edmonton soldiers injured; and two Canadians are among the Christian Peacemaker Teams members still being held hostage in Iraq.
Asked whether Canada would recognize the Hamas victory, prime minister-designate Stephen Harper said he would speak formally on the issue after he takes power. Echoing Israeli and American statements, he said: "As you know, we've always maintained that we support a secure Israel and a democratic Palestine; but for a nation to be truly democratic, it must renounce any use of terrorism."
The Canadian Islamic Conference (CIC) "congratulated" the Palestinians "for holding their recent elections in a free, fair, and democratic manner," noting that more than 77 percent of eligible voters participated. Canada, said CIC, "should adopt a balanced policy in the region in order to work towards, and ultimately achieve, peace with justice.
The statement continued: "Not to deal with the new Palestinian government will be a serious setback to the peace movement and serve only to escalate the violence. The Irish Republican Army's political wing proved itself competent to govern without continuing armed violence; likewise, several former Israeli prime ministers were once labelled terrorists." Hamas, said CIC, "should be given the same chance to establish itself in this new phase of Middle East history. We believe that bringing Hamas into the legitimate political process and opening constructive dialogue will help to moderate its policies."
For almost two decades, Hamas has presented itself as an implacable foe of the state of Israel. According to the BBC, the organization is "the largest Palestinian militant Islamist organization, formed in 1987 at the beginning of the first intifada, or Palestinian uprising against Israel's occupation in the West Bank and Gaza.
"The group's short-term aim has been to drive Israeli forces from the occupied territories, through attacks on Israeli troops and settlers in the Palestinian territories and -- more controversially -- against civilians in Israel . . . It also has a long-term aim of establishing an Islamic state on all of historic Palestine -- most of which has been contained within Israel's borders since its creation in 1948."
While it is well known that many evangelical Christians have great sympathy with the Israeli people, it is also true that other Christians empathize with the Palestinians. Canadian representatives of one such group, Friends of Sabeel, chose not to comment on the Hamas election; instead, they directed CC.com to Dr. Donald E. Wagner, director of Middle East Studies at Northpark University in Chicago.
The Palestinians, Wagner said, "have pride in achieving free, open and clean democratic elections." This result, he said, "needs to be affirmed. [It] is not one that Hamas likely expected; rather, they were hoping to be a strong opposition. They now must be encouraged to represent all of the population -- including the 1.5 percent of Christians."
Wagner, who has close contacts in the Middle East, recently spoke to several Palestinian evangelical Christians who voted for Hamas. He said they were frustrated by years of unscrupulous and ineffective government. Seven Christians were elected as independents to the Palestinian parliament; Wagner described them as "moderate, academic and seasoned."
Asked how he saw the situation unfolding, he expressed hope that there would be a continuance of the shaky cease fire -- during which there have been no suicide bombings against Israelis, and no pre-emptive strikes by Israel. He speculated that there are probably "back-door channels of communication between all parties."
Some advocates of Christian Zionism, however, have offered a jaundiced response to the Hamas win. One of the more vocal supporters of Israel, International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, recently issued a forceful statement by executive director Malcolm Hedding, who declared:
"An organization that has sent wave after wave of suicide bombers against innocent Israeli citizens cannot expect to do business with the civilized world. However, I doubt whether the West will have the backbone to resist this civilization of death. Very shortly, the appeasing left will call for a 'pragmatic' approach to this issue -- which in effect will mean, 'We can do business with terrorists!' I sincerely hope that I am wrong; but somehow, if the past is anything to go by, this will be the call.
"Coupled with it will be the false argument that Hamas is reforming -- and now that it has entered the democratic process, it will mutate into a civilized peace partner. The fact that they came to power through a democratic process will be used to strengthen this flawed perception."
Pressures on Hamas
However, a number of mitigating factors could pressure Hamas into a more moderate stance. To function as the new Palestinian Authority, Hamas leaders -- with little or no experience of governing -- will need the cooperation of the Palestinian public service, which is dominated by Fatah.
According to a National Post article by Louis Charbonneau, the PA is "essentially bankrupt, with a deficit of more than $60 million US in its $1.3 billion annual budget." The governing body receives massive aid from the US and the EU. This is money which the Hamas PA will desperately need, to have any hope of governing.
On January 30, the EU, the US, Russia and the UN called on Hamas to renounce violence and recognize Israel -- or face the prospect of cuts in global aid.
The group dismissed the ultimatum. "Hamas is immune to bribery, intimidation and blackmail," responded Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in the Guardian. However, some observers note that Hamas may be under mounting pressure to change.
Meanwhile, Donald Wagner remains hopeful. He said he and renowned evangelist Brother Andrew met Hamas leaders some years ago, in order to advocate for Palestinian Christians' rights. They disagreed profoundly with Hamas' ideology; however, he commented, "we discovered that Hamas is not monolithic. Some within Hamas are more pragmatic and secular than others."
"Everyone needs to exercise patience and give Hamas some time," said Wagner. "As Christians, we can pray. God may surprise us. I pray for the Christian leaders elected, indeed for all those elected officials, that they will honour the dignity of each other."
-- additional reporting by David F. Dawes
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Comment: A Canadian view from Jerusalem
ONCE AGAIN, the attention of many Christians is riveted on Israel, in the wake of the Hamas electoral victory. Geoff Tunnicliffe, the Canadian head of the World Evangelical Alliance, was in Jerusalem as events have unfolded. CC.com conducted the following interview with him by e-mail:
CC.com: What are the implications of the Hamas win for the Palestinians?
Geoff Tunnicliffe: The implications for the Palestinians are very significant. If the international donor community cuts off aid, people at the grass roots level are going to suffer. Hundreds of thousands of people are dependent on the help of other countries for their daily existence. I am deeply concerned for the thousands of Palestinian Christians. In my meetings with the Palestinian leaders of the evangelical churches (representing 5,000-plus Christians), they indicated their sense of isolation from the global church. This sense of abandonment will only increase because of the impact of the elections. It is critical that we pray for our Palestinian sisters and brothers, and find practical ways of standing with them as they find themselves caught in this very serious situation.
CC.com: What are the implications for Israel?
GT: Obviously, Israel believes there is an increased threat to their security with the election of Hamas. The danger for Hamas and Israel is to assume that Palestinians gave Hamas a landslide victory because of their anti-Israeli policy rather than [as] a rejection of the corruption of the previous regime. It is a very dangerous moment -- with the potential of extreme radicalism of both sides.
CC.com: Given the recent death of Canadian diplomat Glyn Berry in the Middle East, how might this new situation affect Canada?
GT: It is an increasingly dangerous world. While Canadians usually have a very positive reputation internationally, we are not immune from threat and violent attacks. In spite of the potential impact, Canada must continue stand for justice for all peoples.
CC.com: Do you have any comments about Christian candidates who ran for election with Hamas?
GT: I applaud those Christians who sought to take a stand in the recent elections. It takes great courage to seek to live out your faith in the public square when you are a small minority in what is often a hostile environment.
CC.com: How do you think Christians should respond to this new development?
GT: Our first impulse should be to pray. We also must find ways of encouraging our brothers and sisters in Christ. I heard a very consistent message from the Palestinian, Arab and Messianic church leaders. For the most part, these groups of believers feel invisible to the million-plus Christian tourists who visit the land where Jesus walked. Very few tourists ever take time to meet with those who are actually followers of Jesus. God is doing some amazing work in this land. People are being transformed by the gospel of Christ. Palestinian and Messianic believers are finding meaningful ways of reconciliation. The problem is that most of the Christians outside of the region simply just don't take the time to understand the current reality for the church. Complicated? Yes. Confusing at times? Absolutely. However, these challenges should not deter us from supporting our sisters and brothers who are living out their faith in the midst of very trying and often tense circumstances.
CC.com: What do you think will happen next as a result of the Hamas victory?
GT: It really depends on how Hamas responds. If they pursue a path to destroy Israel and [do] not back away from their acts of violence, the potential for an escalation is a very real [possibility]. This will only result in the loss of more lives, and hundreds of thousands of innocent people being impacted on a daily basis. We pray otherwise.
-- reported by David F. Dawes