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Some Palestinians See End of Secular Dream
Election Win by Islamic Group Hamas Clouds Prospects for Arab Nationalism

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.

Many of those involved in Fatah's autopsy trace the decline to the creation of the Palestinian Authority after the 1993 Oslo accords with Israel and Arafat's return from exile with his legions from the Palestine Liberation Organization.

"These were freedom fighters, good boys, but they didn't know how to build a state," said Mohammed Milhem, a former member of the PLO's executive committee. "They deserved medals. But we needed the doctors, engineers and scientists."

Arafat filled the government with allies, many of them unqualified. Large economic concessions were awarded to his inner circle, and resentments grew -- particularly in the Gaza Strip, where the government took shape.

Hamas expanded its local charity networks in Gaza and built its military wing, which claimed credit for Israel's unilateral departure from the strip last year. It is now Hamas's homeland and a breeding ground for Fatah unrest.

Milhem, 76, was an accidental activist. Thirty years ago, he was drafted by his neighbors in the West Bank town of Halhoul to run for mayor. Israel was allowing local elections in the occupied territories, hoping that a new, more acquiescent crop of politicians would emerge as an alternative to the PLO-in-exile. Milhem was a popular teacher, head of the local sports club, chairman of the public library -- just the kind of résumé the Israeli government had in mind.

"I didn't want to run," said Milhem, who, in gray flannel slacks and an argyle sweater, resembles nothing so much as the high school chemistry instructor he once was. "You were either branded a collaborator or you resisted the Israelis and ended up in jail."

He won the mayoral race, and during his term in office built roads, schools, a city hall and a cold-storage warehouse for grapes grown in the hillside vineyards surrounding Halhoul. He said these works, which he can still see from his apartment window, represented the kind of constituent service Hamas has mastered and Fatah ignored.

After he was elected, Milhem and many other elected mayors declared support for the PLO, which Israel and much of the world then considered a terrorist organization. But his relations with the Israeli military governor were cordial -- until one day in May 1980, when Palestinian gunmen killed six Jewish settlers in nearby Hebron. Soldiers arrived at his house at midnight, and within hours he was on a military helicopter to southern Lebanon. He spent the next 16 years in exile, leaving behind a wife and nine children whom he saw occasionally in Jordan.

Milhem had met Arafat only once, but within a few years he was elected to the PLO's executive committee. Milhem served as the group's liaison to many foreign governments, even dancing with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher one evening in Brighton, England. He returned from exile in 1996, the year of the Palestinian Authority's first parliamentary elections.

Never a member of Fatah, Milhem says party affiliations divide people and distract them from the goal of forming a secular Palestinian state. Generational divisions within Fatah were apparent in his district, where Hamas swept the parliamentary seats in Wednesday's election, strengthening what he worries will be the extremes on both sides.

Already Milhem is watching his fears come true. He was shaken the day after the vote to see a Hamas supporter replace the Palestinian flag above the parliament building in Ramallah with a Hamas banner.

"These young Islamists think the movement for statehood started when they were born, started with them," Milhem said. "And that is disastrous."

Hanna Siniora has seen this process before.

A longtime member of the PLO's congress, known as the Palestine National Council, Siniora worked two decades ago to help the group win international recognition. It was an arduous process that eventually required the PLO to renounce violence, something now being demanded of Hamas.

"History repeats itself," said Siniora. "This may be a blessing in disguise."

But as Siniora smoked a water pipe, he expressed certainty that his secular nationalist cause would change, too. Hamas is not a member of the PLO, which manages peace policy with Israel, but talks are underway to bring it into the organization.

In the past, negotiations to determine Hamas's representation in the PLO congress relied on polls that showed the Islamic movement with public support of 25 to 30 percent. The election results have strengthened the group's hand enormously in the negotiations, which will probably also require Hamas to change its commitment to a future Palestinian state across territory that now includes Israel.

In the hall outside Batarseh's office suite in Bethlehem, Arafat waves from a nearly life-size photograph. He is smiling, head draped in the familiar black-and-white kaffiyeh, the Palestinian flag behind him.

But Arafat is in a tomb in Ramallah, and inside the mayor's waiting room sit two smiling council members from Hamas, sipping tea and celebrating the results.

"Hamas has been using its brains here," Batarseh said. "It's very, very simple. For 10 years, the Palestinian Authority did nothing."

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