The Western response to the election of Hamas as the new Palestinian
administration has been characterized by two interesting criteria. The
first has been the functional hypocrisy of demanding democratic
elections but then decrying their outcome. The second has been the
moral panic initiated at Hamas’ victory.

The Western response to Hamas’ victory is unsurprising, mostly because
international relations ‘realism’ rules. That is, democracy can be
promoted as desirable for one because of its inherent advantages, but
is only desirable for others if it produces outcomes that are also to
one’s advantage. Political virtue does not extend beyond one’s borders.

The moral panic that has been generated by Hamas’ victory could call up
criticism of the media, and while it may be entertaining to shoot the
messenger, the media has largely reflected a wider ill-informed
rhetoric.

Based on discussion with a senior Fatah figure just before the
elections, Hamas was expected to do well because it is a coherent
organization; it provides education and health facilities, it is
generally not corrupt, and it has a clear policy towards Israel –
ending the occupation of Palestinian territory. Fatah had none of these.

The main criticism of Hamas has been that it is a terrorist
organization and is committed to the destruction of the Israeli state.

Yet according to the Israeli government, there has been no Hamas attack
against Israel since April 2005, and Hamas claims it has not attacked
Israel for over 12 months, following its unilateral ceasefire. In this, it is worth
remembering that Fatah was once a terrorist organization, but came to
be the preferred dialogue partner in Middle East peace talks.

Once in government, ‘terrorist’ organizations tend to take on an
internationally legitimate character, considering the claims once made
against organizations that became the governments of Algeria, South
Africa, Mozambique and Angola. Even the United States’ ‘founding fathers’ were accused of crimes later
characterized as ‘terrorism’. In this, ‘terrorism’ is a method, not a
motive.

Hamas’ formal policy may lag behind a changing political reality, but
as a government its practical position towards Israel will necessarily
change. A non-state organization that attacks a state draws reprisals
upon itself and its supporters; a government that attacks another state
commits an act of war, and reprisals are against the territory as a
whole.

Hamas is therefore less, rather than more, likely to act against
Israel. In the interim, the moral panic over Hamas’ election is
unhelpful in understanding the changes that are taking place in the
Middle East. If anything, they are more likely to produce a negative
rather than positive response from this new actor in the international
community.

Peter Fray

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