Hamas celebrated its first anniversary of power in the Gaza Strip amidst massive misinterpretations regarding the situation there.
Ironically, Hamas' victory and survival have less to do with Israel than the rotten strategy of the late Yasser Arafat. He ruled the Palestinian movement for 35 years by establishing a weak, anarchic, corrupt and factionalized structure, which he played like a violin. After Arafat's death, Fatah paid the price by collapsing in the Gaza Strip, first electorally, then militarily.
Hamas' power rests on repression, radical ideology, international protection and an incompetent enemy.
A Palestinian store owner told an American reporter: "What can we do? Hamas is even stronger than a year ago. They can take me and put me away whenever they want."
This is the kind of situation which elsewhere makes the West, especially the left, sneer at dictatorships that — as was once said of Italian fascist Benito Mussolini — take away freedom but take credit for making the trains run on time.
President George Bush stated that a Fatah-ruled Palestinian state should be quickly developed, since "it will serve as an alternative vision to what is happening in Gaza."
This is rubbish. No matter how much money the West pumps in, the nationalists are not going to offer an attractive regime. Fatah's lower level of still-considerable repression is counterbalanced by the corruption and anarchy included in the package. Jawad Tibi, a former Fatah cabinet minister, said that "Hamas is Fatah with beards."
That lack of differentiation is the problem. Moreover, Fatah continues its own old tricks. When it does arrest those involved in terrorism, they are quickly released. Incitement to commit violence continues on the Palestinian Authority media, and the P.A. is far more eager to reconcile with Hamas than to make peace with Israel.
The P.A.'s survival is a Western and Israeli interest, but let's not be naive about these weak, corrupt and largely radical allies of necessity.
As for Hamas, it possesses three key weapons.
· The mainstream appeal of extremism and terrorism. "Hamas is strong and brutal, but very good at governing," Eyad Sarraj told The New York Times, which describes him as a British-trained psychiatrist and secular opponent of Hamas. After all, it's distributing gas coupons, getting people to pay electricity bills and keeping the city clean.
Suddenly, people considered "progressive" see the up side of having a police state. Imagine this kind of thinking applied to other dictatorships all over the world: They are brutal, but boy do they keep law and order! Sarraj also forgets that Hamas' war policy resulted in reducing the gas and electricity supply.
· The success of ideological demagoguery. One Hamas supporter told a reporter: "Israel is trying to pressure us to make us forget that the real problem is the occupation." Of course, there is no Israeli occupation in the Gaza Strip, which is one reason why Hamas was able to seize power. "We can take it," she continued. "The Koran teaches that, in the end, we will be victorious."
Whether Hamas brutalizes Palestinians, creates conditions that destroy living standards, drags people into endless war, turns Gaza into a mini-Iran or causes numerous casualties, its refusal to compromise is what counts. That may seem irrational to Western observers, but that's how Palestinian politics work.
· Moderation as a scam. Since Westerners can't understand the culture of ideology and extremism, they're sure that Hamas will talk.
Finally, there's the strange conclusion that since Hamas isn't about to fall from power, this proves that sanctions have failed. One could say it shows economic and military pressures should be raised further. But at least it should be understood that the sanctions' purpose is to make Hamas less able to kill even more people, take over the West Bank, damage Israel or turn Gaza into — to stand Bush's view on its head — an "attractive alternative."
Any policy that prevents those things seems valid. Any Westerner favoring a strategy that strengthens Hamas should be forced to live under its rule.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center.