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Will Hamas Renounce Violence?

Last week's unexpected, though convincing, Hamas victory in the Palestinian election has prompted all parties interested in Middle East peace to ask, “what is next?” VOA's Peter Fedynsky examines some possibilities.

The Palestinian election has highlighted conflicting international and domestic perceptions of Hamas. The United States and European Union have long considered Hamas to be a terrorist organization committed to the destruction of Israel. Most Palestinians, however, voted for the party based on its record of good municipal governance.

Rafi Dajani, Executive Director of the Washington-based American Task Force on Palestine, says Hamas understands that resuming the violence, which shaped its international image, will lead to the loss of domestic support.

"Everyone realizes in the final analysis that something has to be done. It's just a matter of how it's done. They realize that support for Hamas is for social services and so if their actions cause further hardship for the Palestinian people, then you'll find that the support for them will erode very quickly."

This is the dilemma for the Palestinians: they are extremely dependent on international financial assistance to meet their social and economic needs and many countries, including the United States, do not fund terrorist organizations or any group that advocates the destruction of Israel, such as Hamas. Mindful of those needs, the so-called Quartet -- the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia -- met to discuss Palestinian needs in view of the Hamas victory.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said, "The quartet concluded that it was inevitable that future assistance to any new government would be reviewed by donors against that government's commitment to the principles of nonviolence, recognition of Israel and the acceptance of previous agreements and obligations, including the roadmap."

Russian President Vladimir Putin says international assistance to the Palestinians should not be halted because of the Hamas victory. However, the U.S. and Europe are not the only possible sources of funds for a Hamas-led government. Arab financing might mean Hamas would not need to reach an accommodation with Israel.

Suicide bombings sponsored by Hamas have made Israel deeply distrustful of the organization, despite the fact that its last such attack was in August 2004.

Paul Scham, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, says Hamas has highly sophisticated leaders who understand the need for compromise with Israel. "However, there is a collective leadership, there is a Shura Council -- a council of sages of leaders -- whose political sophistication in that sense varies. And of course, there has to be a collective, and if possible, consensus decision.

Mr. Scham says a critical element of the Mid-East peace process will be how Palestinians and Israelis deal with their own extremists, who have blocked reconciliation.

Rafi Dajani of the American Task Force for Palestine agrees. "We have Israeli fanatics, we have Palestinian fanatics and we have other Mid-East fanatics. The important thing is that we don't freeze the process every time a fanatic does something violent. Because in essence, we're giving them the veto power over the process."

Public opinion polls indicate that majorities among the Israeli and Palestinian peoples favor a two-state solution for the sake of peace. So do the United States and many members of the international community. The world is now waiting to see if Hamas follows the will of the majority.