Some Palestinians See End of Secular Dream

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 29, 2006

BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- The worshipers overflowed the mosque on Manger Square, covering the rain-slick stones with rows of prayer rugs and parked cars. At the center, surrounded by kneeling men, stood a showy symbol of their triumphant week: a van bristling with the green banners of Hamas.

Here in the cradle of Christianity, the radical Palestinian movement that favors creation of an Islamic state won every parliamentary seat on Wednesday's ballot except those reserved for Christian candidates -- a lopsided victory duplicated in such secular strongholds as Jerusalem and Ramallah on the organization's way to a majority in the next legislature. From his second-story office above the square, Victor Batarseh, Bethlehem's septuagenarian mayor, saw in the prayerful celebration the end of something.

"I have always believed in a secular Palestinian state, so I would have preferred another result," Batarseh, a member of the Marxist-oriented Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, said Friday. "We have to accept this, whether we like it or not, because it is the will of the people."

The electoral triumph by Hamas, an organization that is committed to establishing an Islamic state across territory that includes Israel and whose armed wing has carried out bombings and other attacks on Israeli targets, has had repercussions around the world. It upended the Palestinian political order, complicated peace efforts with Israel and threatened the continuation of financial aid from the United States and other Western countries.

At the same time, closer to home, it has also clouded the aspirations of a generation of Palestinian nationalists who have served time in jail, in exile and underground for the cause of creating their own secular state.

To people such as Batarseh, a Christian physician who became politically active during the first Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s, Hamas's rise undermines the Arab nationalist dream that is also withering in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere as the influence of religious movements grows.

Whether Palestinians chose Hamas for its clean management of municipal councils, its long history of attacks on Israel, its religious aspect or simply out of disgust with the status quo, the Islamic nationalism Hamas represents has, at least for now, pushed aside the secular movement that shaped the Palestinian cause from its inception.

That movement was led by the now-disorganized and defeated Fatah party, whose late founder, Yasser Arafat, adopted the symbols of Islam in his last years to counter the rise of Hamas. In roughly the same period, piety has become increasingly apparent among the population, with head scarves and bushy beards becoming common in the streets, perhaps in response to a worsening economy and a continuing occupation.

Hamas's platform makes a priority of implementing Islamic law in the Palestinian territories, which are considered among the more secular Arab societies. But no one expects Hamas to take on that task immediately. The party, known formally as the Islamic Resistance Movement, won on a slogan of "change and reform" and will probably focus first on issues relating to corruption, unemployment and education after forming a government. Hamas officials have indicated that separating boys and girls in the classroom could be part of the effort to rethink education.

Fatah officials, meanwhile, have begun searching for ways to revive the secular nationalism that flagged in the face of deep-seated official corruption and an inability to convince an angry electorate that negotiations would do more to bring peace than Hamas's guns and rejection of Israel.

"We have internal divisions, corruption and made many mistakes," said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator and a longtime Fatah leader, who won a parliamentary seat from Jericho. "But the most powerful thing Hamas said was, 'What has Fatah brought us in the last 10 years?' The Israelis haven't even talked to me in the past six months. How can I tell people there's a peace process?"

For many in the secular nationalist movement, though, the problems began long before this campaign.

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