For Hamas, the radical Islamic group, winning an election may prove to be the easiest part of the political process. Having claimed an outright majority in last month’s Palestinian parliamentary elections, the party is now trying to assemble a Cabinet. That task, difficult at the best of times, has been complicated by the refusal of other key parties to join the government and a financial squeeze by Israel. Hamas must be convinced that there is no alternative to making peace with Israel. To do that, the rest of the world must speak with one voice and the incentives for cooperation — and the costs for resistance — made plain.
Hamas’ overwhelming victory in the January parliamentary election stunned many observers. Yet the party’s popularity is quite understandable: The Palestinian Authority has been dominated by the Palestine Liberation Organization, and its Fatah faction, for decades. The PLO and Fatah have been more interested in staying in power and enriching themselves than serving the mass of ordinary Palestinians. Hamas stepped up to help them, providing the daily services that a government is supposed to make available. That is what makes Hamas popular — not its opposition to Israel’s right to exist.
Having won an outright majority on the ballot, Hamas has won the right to form a government. That process began in earnest this week, after new legislators were sworn in to the Parliament and Hamas’ leaders met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Mr. Ismail Haniya is the group’s nominee for prime minister. Mr. Haniya has been arrested several times by Israel and was among the 400 Palestinians expelled to Lebanon by Israel in 1992. He was injured in an Israeli airstrike targeted against Sheik Ahmed Yassin, Hamas’ leader until he was killed in an Israeli attack later.
Mr. Haniya has five weeks to put together a Cabinet. Cognizant of his party’s limits, he has said he seeks a broad-based coalition government. Those hopes are being stymied, though, by Fatah’s resistance to serving in a government that it does not control. If that position holds, it will sow the seeds of conflict among Palestinians. Fatah has traditionally controlled Palestinian security forces.
At the same time, other extremist groups, such as Islamic Jihad, have also refused to join the government. Reportedly, talks with other small factions, such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, have had more success, but their leaders say their support for the government is contingent on being left alone: Militants will not be arrested and those in jail will be released.
If that’s the deal, then it is unacceptable. The Palestinian Authority cannot turn a blind eye to terrorism — no government can and call itself legitimate. The failure to recognize Israel’s right to exist is a declaration of war against Israel. Mr. Abbas understands this simple fact, and has insisted that Hamas recognize previous agreements with Israel and accept the goal of negotiations with it. Hamas has said a long-term truce is possible, but this is window dressing. Nothing less than an unequivocal statement supporting Israel’s right to exist, disavowing violence and backing previous agreements will do.
To drive that point home, Israel’s Cabinet on Sunday voted to withhold the $50 million in tax and customs revenues it collects each month on behalf of the Palestinian government. Those funds are essential to the Palestinian people. The Palestinian Authority needs more than $100 million each month to pay its 135,000 workers. Israel is also planning to close its borders to anyone affiliated with Hamas and to restrict work for Palestinians in Israel. It has asked the United States and the European Union to withhold support for the Palestinian Authority. Washington has already requested the return of $50 million in aid. Humanitarian aid projects, which go directly to the Palestinian people, can and should be continued.
Hamas’ leaders have said they will go to the Arab world to make up for the loss of funds. One top leader has already visited Iran to raise money. The government there is likely to lend a hand, since Tehran agrees with Hamas that Israel has no right to exist and favors armed struggle to liberate Palestinian territory.
Withholding funds will squeeze the Palestinian government and, by extension, Hamas. It is imperative, however, that the lives of the Palestinian people not deteriorate further. They already have a precarious existence; they voted for Hamas in the hope that their future would be brighter.
The choice must be made clear to the Palestinian people and their government — and others, such as Tehran, who would support them. Being part of the international community requires adherence to certain basic principles: Renunciation of terror in all its forms is one of them.
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