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Can fanatics become pragmatists?

January 29, 2006|David Grossman | David Grossman is an Israeli novelist. This article was translated by Haim Watzman.

Jerusalem — HAMAS' electoral victory is a severe blow to the chances for peace between Palestinians and Israelis. This fact is incontestable and should not be taken lightly. Both sides have much less room to maneuver than they had before the election; the opportunity for a real compromise, one that will hold up in the long term, has almost entirely dissipated.

This does not mean that it's impossible to make an agreement of some sort with Hamas, but there is a huge disparity between that sort of arrangement and what could have been possible (or at least could have been hoped for) before last Wednesday. That disparity is heartbreaking for all those who wished to see Israelis and Palestinians attain a better life.

We've long since accustomed ourselves to the impossible, surrealistic and deadly situations that the Middle East conflict creates time after time. But this new set of circumstances trumps all previous scenarios.

The day-to-day existence of Palestinians depends almost completely on their Israeli occupier -- for commerce, employment, food, medications, even electricity. Now the Palestinian Authority will be governed by a fundamentalist religious regime that advocates the elimination of Israel by means of violence. Of course it rejects all negotiation with or recognition of Israel.

It is, in short, a thorny problem. It's also a moral and practical dilemma that Israel now ponders as it considers what steps to take with regard to the new Palestinian-Islamic Authority that came into being last week.

The thorns are even sharper because Israel, after a process lasting almost 40 years, has finally reached the conclusion that the occupation must end. The incontrovertible proof of this is that the platforms of all three of the large political parties in the current Israeli election campaign declare -- in different formulations -- that they will bring Israeli rule over the West Bank to an end. They all speak of the need for an agreement that will, in Israel's interest, establish a Palestinian state.

Ironically, just at this decisive moment, when a majority of the Israeli public has finally adopted more moderate and realistic views, the Palestinian people entered an abyss of despair that led them to elect an extremist fundamentalist movement whose ideology runs counter to all compromise. Its religious and territorial cravings are total.

It is not hard to explain this contradiction. The Palestinians are still not cognizant of how their Israeli neighbors have changed. They consider the manifestations of that change (the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, for example) to be ruses aimed at shoring up the occupation. In the eyes of most Palestinians, the hope for peace presented by the government of Mahmoud Abbas is a delusion, a self-deception, that has only served to relieve Israel of international pressure and enabled it to strengthen its hold on the occupied territories, expand its settlements and pave more roads for settlers.

But to really understand this dramatic election, it is necessary to look at the broader picture of Hamas' place in Palestinian society. For most Palestinians, Hamas is the force that is capable of bringing them significant gains, and not only in their conflict with Israel. On the Palestinian street, Hamas is the only force that has displayed a real, human interest in the plight of the masses of underprivileged, hungry Palestinians. The Palestinian poor long ago lost patience with their leaders' corruption and ostentatious flaunting of the perquisites of power. These public servants scandalously doubled their own salaries this year and have been suspiciously chummy with Israeli officials.

Many Palestinians believe that Hamas ejected Israel from the Gaza Strip by firing thousands of homemade Kassam rockets and sending out suicide bombers. But beyond that, they see that Hamas has established a large, efficient network of services for the common people of the occupied territories.

Above all, it has given meaning to people whose honor has been trampled, whose lives have been treated as worthless. It gave an entire generation of young people a sense of self-respect in the face of the occupation and the poverty that has debilitated their parents and turned them into mere shadows of humanity. Hamas successfully combined these achievements with faith and with religious fervor -- hamasa in Arabic is religious zeal -- and produced a powerful political movement.

Nevertheless, I have no doubt that many Palestinians awoke, just as Israelis, to a nightmare last week. They realize that an Islamic fundamentalist Palestine whose leaders refuse to have any contact with Israel means that there will be no improvement in the Palestinian condition. It means political, economic and social chaos that may quickly deteriorate into civil war.

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