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The Oneonta Daily Star January 27, 2006

Peace still possible after Hamas victory, locals say

By Jake Palmateer

ONEONTA — Declining confidence in the Palestinian old guard helped fuel Hamas’ landslide victory in parliamentary elections, several Oneonta political observers said Thursday.

They also said the election could actually pave the way for peace in that corner of the Middle East.

"When outside groups come into power, they are playing a very different game," said Mary Vanderlaan, chairwoman of Hartwick College’s political science department. "They have to take off their army gear and put their suits on."

Support for Hamas was not as much an endorsement of terrorism by the Palestinian people as it was a signal of dissatisfaction with Yasser Arafat’s Fatah party, which has controlled Palestinian politics for four decades, she said.

"Not all who voted for Hamas are Hamas supporters through and through," Vanderlaan said. "If you wanted to vote in opposition of Fatah, you really didn’t have another choice."

But for the group known for green flags, black ski masks and bus bombings to run an effective government, it will need to renounce violence, said the observers.

"Hamas as I know it, Hamas today, is a terrorist group," Rabbi Donald Neal Roberts of Temble Beth El on Chestnut Street said.

Since the beginning of the second Intifada in 2000, Hamas, whose name is an Arabic acronym for Islamic Resistance Movement, has conducted 52 suicide attacks that killed 288 Israelis and injured 1,649 others, according to Globalsecurity.org, a defense policy think tank.

But Vanderlaan said Hamas has also been effective at providing basic services to the mostly impoverished Palestinian people.

Since last February, Hamas has been in a truce with Israel.

"What’s fascinating is, I’m not necessarily certain this is a bad thing," Roberts said of the election results. "It could turn out to be a positive thing."

If Hamas, which is enormously popular among the Gaza Strip’s population of 1.38 million, rejects violence and sees the health and welfare of the people as their primary goal, the election could be a step forward for peace in the Middle East, he said.

"If Hamas doesn’t renounce violence, the Palestinians will continue living like an enslaved people," Roberts said.

Robert Compton, an assistant political science professor at the State University College at Oneonta, said that given Hamas’ violent past, U.S. foreign policy-makers, who have a stated goal of encouraging democracy in the Middle East, are in a tight spot.

"This is democracy. Sometimes you get people in office you don’t want. You can’t nullify the election," Compton said. "If that’s the case, we would be hypocrites."

Compton said guerrilla or terrorists groups gaining legitimate political power through elections is not unprecedented.

The ascension of the African National Congress to the forefront of South Africa’s government is a classic example, he said.

The militant wing of the ANC was involved in sabotage and terror attacks, Compton said.

"It’s now the ruling party," Compton said.

Paul Conway, also a political science professor at SUCO, said Israel itself offers a precedent for terrorists-turned-politicians and peacemakers.

"Israel is the best example in that people like Menachim Begin were terrorists before 1948," Conway said.

He noted Begin went on to serve as an Israeli prime minister and, along with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, won the Nobel Peace Price in 1978.

Retired Hartwick College political science Professor Sugwon Kang was upbeat about the election results.

"This is the first time that I have seen substantive change that offers real promise," Kang said.

Kang said the Islamist organization will likely abandon its stated mission to destroy Israel.

"Hamas is not that stupid," he said.

Kang said he will be closely watching Washington’s response to the election.

"America has had a less than admirable history in picking and choosing when it comes to democracy," Kang said. "I think this is a real challenge to our government’s statesmanship."

The election success of Hamas may not be an anomaly in the Arab world, Vanderlaan said.

"All the old parties and also the monarchy in Saudi Arabia face huge challenges right now," Vanderlaan said.

Vanderlaan also said new literature coming from scholars in the Middle East seems to suggest Islam and democracy can coincide.

But she said Hamas is going to have to deliver to keep the support of the people and gain support from the international community.

"Their younger top leaders are pretty realistic. They know that they need international support," Vanderlaan said

Vanderlaan said the big question now is how this election will affect an Israeli parliamentary vote in March.

Copyright 2006, The Daily Star is a division of Ottaway Newspapers, Inc. , The Dow Jones Community Newspaper Group.