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Last Updated: Saturday, 28 January 2006, 13:23 GMT
Hamas win sparks soul-searching
By Jim Muir
BBC News

This week's stunning victory in the Palestinian elections by the militant Islamic movement Hamas has caught the world by surprise. Jim Muir covered the election in Hamas's birthplace, the Gaza Strip, from where he looks now at some of the background to the movement's success.

A more desolate scene would be hard to imagine.

It was deep in the harsh winter of 1992.

Hamas's exiled political chief Khaled Meshaal speaks to journalists in Syria.
Israel has realised that Hamas leaders are deadly enemies

On a remote and barren hillside in southern Lebanon, scores of Palestinian Islamists from the West Bank and Gaza huddled against the freezing wind.

They had been taken from their homes by the Israelis during the night without warning, simply bundled across the border into Lebanon.

It is something Israel had done before without consequence.

But this time, the Lebanese army decided not to let them in.

There they were trapped in no man's land, in the middle of nowhere, though the bleak hillside had a name that swiftly became famous around the world and passed into Palestinian history: Marj az-Zuhour, the prairie of flowers.

But in that cold December, there were no flowers. It was a strange sight, these men of undoubted and bearded piety, standing in rows, bowing and prostrating themselves, as they went through their Islamic devotions among those empty hills.

They were given tents, and eventually heaters, and as spring came and they were still stuck there, conditions slowly improved.

It was here that I got to know Hamas leaders like Abdulaziz Rantissi, Ismail Haniya, and Dr Mahmoud Zahhar, who was the personal physician to the movement's quadriplegic spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin.

They survived their expulsion, and ended up back in Gaza, where Dr Zahhar and Ismail Haniya are back in the limelight now after leading Hamas to its shock victory.

Had the peace process really paid dividends, things might have been different

Abdulaziz Rantissi was not there, though, and nor was Sheikh Ahmad Yassin.

The sheikh was killed in his wheelchair by an Israeli missile strike nearly two years ago.

He was succeeded by Mr Rantissi, but just four weeks later, he too died in a very similar attack.

The pictures of both men were prominent in the Hamas propaganda posters for the elections, so I suppose in a way, they were there.

Spy thriller

The man who is now the overall Hamas leader, albeit in exile, Khaled Meshaal, survived an assassination attempt worthy of a cheap spy thriller.

Hamas supporter.
By now, Israel had realised that this was a very deadly enemy indeed

He was walking down a street in the Jordanian capital Amman in 1997 when two men bumped into him and jabbed him with something.

He collapsed and was taken to hospital.

It emerged that he had been poisoned by the Israeli secret service Mossad.

King Hussein threatened to break off the peace process unless the Israelis sent over the antidote, which they did.

By now, Israel had realised that this was a very deadly enemy indeed.

Israel 'encouragement'

Inspired by the relatively benign Muslim Brotherhood in neighbouring Egypt, Hamas began emerging in Gaza during the first Palestinian uprising at the end of 1987.

It is widely believed that at first, Israel quietly encouraged it, as a counterweight to Yasser Arafat's powerful Fatah.

But as the situation worsened, Hamas became more militant - vowing Israel's destruction.

Unlike Fatah, which depended so heavily on the charisma and power of Yasser Arafat, Hamas has an ideology which holds it together, and makes individual leaders less vital
It began sending suicide bombers into Israel, killing hundreds of people, mainly civilians, often with devastating results for a peace process which Hamas regarded as capitulation.

Those actions have made Hamas a terrorist organisation in the eyes of much of the world, and certainly of Israelis.

The movement's success at the polls does not mean that more than half the Palestinians necessarily approve of suicide bombings against civilians - but they do not seem to have done Hamas any harm.

Hamas supporters celebrating victory.
Hamas capitalised on the ruling Fatah's poor legacy

That is not perhaps surprising, given that more than three Palestinians have died - many of them civilians too - for every one Israeli, and life in general for the Palestinians is probably now as grim as it has ever been.

But the fact is that Hamas at least doubled its natural volume of support because it could exploit Fatah's failures - above all, the cronyism, corruption and gangsterism that prevailed under Fatah rule.

Had the peace process really paid dividends, things might have been different.

But 10 years of Fatah gave most people nothing.

That is why even some of its own card-carrying members voted for Hamas.

Lesson on democracy

The astonishing election results suggest that Israel's attempts to stifle Hamas by decapitating its leadership have been in vain.

If anything, they may have reinforced the cult of "martyrdom" and "sacrifice" that is part of the movement's appeal to the embattled Palestinians.

And many Arab regimes, on which Yasser Arafat modelled his Palestinian set-up, must also be shuddering at the thought of what might happen if real democracy is let loose on them

Unlike Fatah, which depended so heavily on the charisma and power of Yasser Arafat, Hamas has an ideology which holds it together, and makes individual leaders less vital.

The Israelis - and Fatah - are not the only ones now wondering what went wrong and what to do about it.

The Americans, whose drive for democracy in the Middle East has brought Iranian-influenced Islamists to power in Iraq, must be wondering if it was such a good idea after all.

And many Arab regimes, on which Yasser Arafat modelled his Palestinian set-up, must also be shuddering at the thought of what might happen if real democracy is let loose on them.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 28 January, 2006 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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