Hamas should watch its step

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Everyone is hoping for Palestinian unity. The years-long political split between Hamas and Fateh has been devastating at more than one level but mostly at the level of Palestinian cohesiveness and lack of one united voice. This coveted reconciliation is close at hand –” or at least that is what the leaders of these two factions would have us believe after all the fanfare surrounding their meeting last month in Cairo. And the people, perhaps beyond their better judgment, have raised their hopes that the Palestinians are finally coming together.

While there is ample criticism of the performance of both sides, Hamas right now seems to be pushing its luck with its people. Having been isolated for so long in the Gaza Strip, it either has developed a false sense of popularity where it thinks whatever it does will be accepted by its people, or it is riding the wave of the moment, what with the Islamist movements sweeping newly democratic Arab nations.

What Hamas has forgotten, however, is that the Palestinians relish in their democratic and secular political reality. So, when Hamas authorities close down a social media conference in Gaza, on grounds that the organizers did not obtain the proper licenses, this does not sit well with many Palestinians, whether in the West Bank where Hamas does not have a strong foothold, or even in Gaza. If anything, Palestinians everywhere are sick of oppressive authorities that try to control their every move, stifling even the most innocuous acts of personal freedoms, such as women smoking water pipes in public for example.

Besides, according to Mohammed Abu Sharkh, one of the conference’s organizers, the group had sent Gaza authorities a request and had been given approval, only to be raided the day of the conference and told to shut it down.

One stipulation of the reconciliation agreement is to hold presidential and legislative elections by next May. And this is when Hamas’ popularity –” real or imagined –” will show itself. So far, both sides think the elections will be a shoe-in. Fateh veteran Azzam Al Ahmad is already boasting about how Fateh will win the upcoming legislative elections despite the Islamist victories across the Arab world. Contrarily, this may be exactly what Hamas is banking on –” that the rise of Islamic movements in the newly-minted democratic countries of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya –” is a kind of guarantee that the same will happen in Palestine.

If so, Hamas may be betting on the wrong horse. Palestinians, since the inception of the PLO in 1965, have espoused a secular philosophy for their liberation and have prided themselves on their respect for political plurality. It is only in recent Palestinian history that Islamic trends have been able to maintain a hold on the Palestinians in the manner that we have seen over the past few decades. It is hard to say whether the reasons behind this new trend are due to an actual shift in the Palestinians’ ideologies which moved them closer to political Islam or whether it is a reaction to the failure of other political movements.

The only thing that can decide this now are the ballot boxes. But if Hamas continues to oppress the freedoms of Palestinians –” freedoms which they have worked hard to achieve and will not easily relinquish to a dictator regime–” they will find themselves in the minority yet again.

We all want national unity, no doubt. But we also want a Palestine where our individual and collective liberties are not trounced on by a totalitarian regime that wants complete control of its populace. Shutting down a media conference or a conference on women’s labor rights in Gaza will not win Hamas votes –” at least not from a large sector of our society. Embracing national unity and the principles upon which the Palestinian revolution were founded –” including political and religious freedoms –”undoubtedly will.

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