The victory of Hamas in Palestinian elections two weeks ago sent the diplomatic world into turmoil. The United States and the European Union immediately demanded the victors renounce terrorism and recognize Israel’s right to exist or suffer the loss of economic aid. Later, the remaining two members of the so-called quartet, Russia and the United Nations, took the same position. Ending terrorism and recognizing Israel are the right things to do, and ways should be found for Hamas to do so. The demand for sound bites, however, forces politicians to revert to slogans, to the neglect of serious policymaking.
So after threatening the cutoff of aid to the occcupied territories, Western diplomats began looking for face-saving measures that would allow them to continue funding in order to prevent collapse of the Palestinian Authority and to encourage moderation on the part of Hamas. Even Israel, after initial hesitation, was talking about transferring the taxes and import duties it collects for the authority. It is right for everyone, especially outsiders, to take a deep breath, count to 10 and allow things to sort themselves out. An agreement between the Palestinian Authority under Hamas leadership and Israel, as Rami Khoury of Beirut’s Daily Star has observed, is not out of the question.
Moderate Hamas leaders claim they will do what the international community is demanding if Israel ends its military occupation of the territories and returns to pre-1967 borders. They also demonstrated their ability to control militants last week, when they forbade violent demonstrations and attacks on foreigners in response to the circulation of the blasphemous cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in Western newspapers. (In neighboring Damascus, the Danish and Norwegian embassies were burned.)
On the Israeli side, only a week before the elections, acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the time had come for Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and abandon most of its settlements there; and within days of the election, General Shaul Mofaz, chief of the Israeli military, was talking of “disengagement” from the West Bank, exclusive of major Jewish settlements. The Israeli government, moreover, went ahead with plans to expel Israelis from unauthorized settlements. So with Hamas about to take power, both sides are signaling that something like peace is not out of reach.
Palestinian Christian reaction to the election has been mixed. The patriarchs and heads of churches in Jerusalem issued a joint statement welcoming the results and offering their prayers for the new legislators. Bernard Sabella, a Catholic elected for a Christian seat from East Jerusalem, commented, “I am cautiously optimistic, and I am not alarmed.” The Franciscan Custos (Guardian), Pierbattista Pizzaballa, a signatory of the patriarchs’ statement, noted, however, that while there was no reason to fear, there may be reasons to worry. Palestinian Christians, especially in the Bethlehem region and in West Bank villages like Taybeh, also expressed concern about the risk of Islamization of what has been a secular Palestinian society.
In the short run, a Hamas government or one of technocrats with Hamas involvement may actually improve the situation of Christians. The largely middle-class Christian population has suffered from the breakdown of law and order in recent years. The Palestinian Authority has not been able to provide the protection it once gave them. Criminality has been rampant, but it has affected Muslim population centers, like Jenin and Nablus, as well as Bethlehem. If a new government can establish civil peace, then Christians as well as Muslims will be better off.
The risk of Islamization will come more from social pressures than from political decisions, and it is likely to be greater in impoverished Gaza, where there are few Christians, than on the West Bank. It will certainly be a challenge for any government to restrain unauthorized militant action against “the crusaders.” In Palestine, as elsewhere in the Middle East where Christians are a minority, political instability, economic decline and militarization of life will increase the reasons Christians have to emigrate and offer pretexts for radicals to drive them out. In the long run, however, provided that some sort of peace with the Israelis can be attained, stability in government, economic rehabilitation and traditional Palestinian culture are likely to work against the establishment of an Islamic state.
Still, one must remember that Hamas is a religious party. There is always a risk that after an initial delay, political effectiveness will open the way to religious radicalism as well.