Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Is It Really Happening?

For a long time, one of the more sensible arguments for Palestinian statehood has been that if Palestine was to be a democratic state, then perhaps some of the radical elements of Palestinian society would moderate themselves once they were brought into the process. Of course, the two easy counterarguments against that were that a Palestinian state would provide 1) an excellent staging ground for terrorist activities against Israel with which Israel could not interfere without 2) a civil war between the two states: Israel and Palestine. I'd always hoped that the argument about the merits of democracy and statehood was right, but feared the arguments about terrorism and civil war were a far more likely scenario (though probably no less dangerous and maybe even more tenable than the current situation). The better idea was what Hannah Arendt wanted Israel to be back when she was part of the Zionist movement: a State, but a universal modern state without a particular ethnic identity or religion.

But to the point: in the infancy of Palestinian democracy and statehood, has any moderation of its more radical elements occurred? Surprisingly the answer is yes, a little.

Mr. Shalabi, an electrical engineer who works at East Jerusalem's Al Quads University, is Hamas' top politician in this middle-class suburb of Ramallah, the West Bank's Palestinian power center. And, even though his party won less than half of the available seats here in last week's municipal polls, he appears set to become mayor, aided by a coalition with independents who also won seats in the election.

"Hamas did very well," says Mr. Shalabi, in a meeting at the local Hamas campaign office. According to official results announced Sunday, Hamas won five of the 13 available seats here. "It's good that the people will see that the Islamic parties can participate in democracy and can work to develop their societies."

No real surprise there. Hamas has a lot of support. But what sort of character is Shalabi? And what of his local Hamas branch? Are they the "destruction of Israel" types? Maybe not:

Shalabi says he has no contact with the military wing of Hamas. Asked about its activities, such as the possibility of future suicide bombings, he says "God willing," there won't be.

"We're not eager to have bloodshed," he says. "And if the political atmosphere goes in the right direction, I think there won't be. But don't think that a nation under occupation will always go in the right direction."

He says that frustration with corruption has been wearing down support for Fatah, while Hamas is seen as a party full of people who, because they are religious, are less given to graft. That said, the local wing of the party doesn't have a fundamentalist agenda, but expects to stick to issues that affect the everyday lives of people here such as building a sewage system. His other priority, he says, is improving education.

Arafat was a corrupt thug, we all know that. And that has scarred his Fatah party's image to many Palestinians as an engine of progress. Hamas has taken the mantle of the clean party, which was viewed by many as a bad development because of their extremist ambitions. Shalabi, though, may represent a group of new people who have political ambitions and want nothing to do with Fatah and want to participate in Hamas' other identity, that of a service delivery organization and de facto source of governance, but don't share Hamas' jihadist mission. Shalabi is only one man, and his local branch is only one branch, but it's encouraging that people like him are joining Hamas and changing their focus. If more Shalabi's come to the party, there may be hope yet.