The Palestinian Democracy That Might Have Been After the 2006 Election

By James M. Wall

The map above shows the final results of the 2006 Palestinian legislative district elections. It was distributed by the Central Elections Commission of Palestine and published on the BBC website. One half of the legislators in the 2006 election were chosen in districts (66 seats); the other half were chosen in a “countrywide” vote (66 seats).

As this map indicates, Hamas won an overwhelming majority of the legislative seats chosen by districts in both the West Bank and Gaza. The border drawn on this map follows the internationally recognized 1967 border.  Note carefully how many green Hamas legislative seats on this map are in the West Bank. The 2006 legislative election was a major electoral triumph for Hamas throughout the entire country, not just in Gaza, as post-election propaganda would have us believe.

American media did not cover this election as a Palestinian election. They covered its implications for Israel while viewing it entirely through Israeli lens. This was an election I viewed up close, talking with voters and officials. I am certain it was the sort of election US political writers would have loved to cover.

I could imagine David Broder walking the streets of Ramallah for the Washington Post to interview voters. I suspect he would have sniffed out the declining power of Fatah and the surge of Hamas. Unlike the foreign policy reporters who take their leads from their Israeli minders, he would have discovered immediately that the most recent city council election in Bethlehem, an historic Christian city, elected Hamas members. This 2006 election was an upset in the making. Political reporters dearly love upsets. Too bad none of them were there to see it happen.

British media understood the election results. The American media wrote their stories from West Jerusalem, ever mindful of their editors back home who see all things in the region through Israeli lens.

The result: When the demonization of the winning party started, there was no one there to say, “wait a minute, didn’t these guys win a democratically run election?”

The Jerusalem-based American media corp continues to dutifully stipulate, as their editors insist that they do, that there will be no peace until Hamas, Fatah and anyone else in the region “recognizes Israel’s right to exist”.  They dare not touch the obvious question: How can Israel make that rhetorical demand when it refused  to recognize the right of the Palestinians to have Hamas recognized as the political party that won that 2006 election?

And then there is that constant demand from Israeli that Hamas denounce the use of “terror”? Roger Cohen, the courageous New York Times columnist, recently wrote an appreciative piece on Jews living peacefully in Iran. He was excoriated by letter-writers who denounced him for not describing Iran as a terror state.  He responded to that criticism with a column that contained these insights:

. . . .[T]he equating of Iran with terror today is simplistic. Hamas and Hezbollah have evolved into broad political movements widely seen as resisting an Israel over-ready to use crushing force. It is essential to think again about them, just as it is essential to toss out Iran caricatures. I return to this subject because behind the Jewish issue in Iran lies a critical one — the U.S. propensity to fixate on and demonize a country through a one-dimensional lens, with a sometimes disastrous chain of results.

It’s worth recalling that hateful, ultranationalist rhetoric is no Iranian preserve. Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s race-baiting anti-Arab firebrand, may find a place in a government led by Benjamin Netanyahu. . . .

After Hamas won the 2006 election, Israel, which claims to be the only democracy in the Middle East,  promptly put 45 duly elected Hamas legislators into Israeli jails, where they remain until this day.  As a consequence, Fatah and Hamas resumed their internal battles in street skirmishes, a battle promoted on behalf of Fatah under US prodding and training.

But who noticed?  Now, following the recent and excessive destruction in Gaza, the new American president sent his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, to the Egyptian resort of Sharm al-Sheikh to meet with negotiators which included Fatah. Not represented was the duly elected Hamas government. Clinton arrived with an offer of $900 million designed to pick up the debris left by Israel’s 22 day long recent invasion and daily bombardments.

This need not have happened had democracy been permitted to function after the election of January, 2006.

I was at a polling place in Bethlehem on that bright, sunny January election day.  Literature was being handed out, mostly by women, the walls around the election site were covered with candidate posters. It was a day filled with hope and promise.

Some of us walked around the area in front of the building where a long line of voters waited patiently. There were even two young people with clipboards taking an exit poll as voters left the municipal building.

The previous day I had attended the final pre-election meeting of the Palestine Election Commission in Ramallah. The Commission had invited President Jimmy Carter and members of his team of international monitors for a final briefing. I had been asked to sit in on the meeting by an old friend who chaired the Commission, Dr. Hanna Nasir, retired president of Biet Ziet University.

At the pre-election meeting in Ramallah, one of the monitors, from Sweden, as I recall, asked if the Hamas political party had been involved in planning the election. Dr. Nasir had a slight smile on his face when he responded:

“All the political parties have been meeting with this commission to prepare for this election; none of them are here today to greet you because they are out campaigning.  But you asked about Hamas?  As a matter of fact, Jim Wall, over there, is sitting in the Hamas seat”.

The group chuckled. The Hamas question was especially pertinent because Hamas had boycotted the previous election in which the Fatah party took control of the Palestinian legislature. In a separate election, Fatah leader Yasir Arafat had been elected president.

Since those elections, Fatah had lost favor with voters, thanks to the slowness of the peace process and rampart Fatah corruption This time Hamas was participating in this democratic process with considerable enthusiasm, as we discovered the next day at the Bethlehem polling site. The green banners of Hamas were very much in evidence and most of the literature I received came from Hamas.

President Carter and his monitoring group spread out through Gaza and the West Bank to monitor first the voting, and then the vote counting. One friend of mine from the US was assigned to Jenin.  He found the same enthusiasm we had encountered in Bethlehem.  By the end of election day, 74.6% of an estimated 1.3 million Palestinian voters had gone to the polls.

In the districts, Hamas won by a landslide, 45 to 17, a majority Nancy Pelosi could only dream about. Party winners by districts are shown on the map above: Hamas (45 seats) in blue on the map; Fatah (17 seats) in yellow; independents (4 seats) in red.

Another 66 legislators were chosen on a national ballot. Those results were closer: Hamas, 29 seats; Fatah, 28 seats; PFLP, 3 seats; Badeel, 2 seats; Independent Palestine, 2 seats; Third Way, 2 seats. Combining the totals won in district and national balloting, Hamas won 74 seats to 45 for Fatah.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was exercising on her stationary bike when an aide brought her the news.

After a democratic election, she was told, Hamas was now the ruling party in the Palestinian legislature. That she was shocked at the news is what is shocking. Any low level foreign service officer could have told her well in advance that Hamas would win.  Democracy was working and the voters were speaking, only not the way Rice and Israel wanted it to work.

Three years later the Palestinian democracy that might have been is once again reduced to absolute poverty. The small section known as Gaza lives with its borders sealed, its families existing in tents, its children starving and its medical facilities destroyed. And a new US Secretary of State has the audacity to come to the region bearing a gift of $900 million and repeating the same tired diplomat formula that had failed during the Bush presidency.

Hasan Abu Nimah and Ali Abunimah wrote in The Electronic Intifada:

It is ludicrous to demand that the stateless Palestinian people unconditionally recognize the legitimacy of the entity that dispossessed them and occupies them, that itself has no declared borders and that continues to violently expand its territory at their expense. If Palestinians are ever to recognize Israel in any form, that can only be an outcome of negotiations in which Palestinian rights are fully recognized, not a precondition for them.

The gift of $900 million arrives not as an expression of hope, but as further example of heartlessness toward the Gazan people. A London Guardian editorial writer is realistic about this $900 million gift:

Pledging aid for Gaza is the easy bit. Getting it delivered to Gazans living in tents after Israel’s three-week bombardment is another matter. The $3bn that donors promised in Sharm el-Sheikh yesterday [March 2] will have to penetrate a labyrinth of barriers and conditions, the complexity of which King Minos of Crete would have been proud. The money will be given to the Palestinian Authority, not Hamas, even though the PA’s writ does not run in Gaza. The aid will pass through crossings currently closed by Israel. It will be distributed in such a manner as to avoid ending up in the hands of its governors. But how? This is like trying to spoon a thin gruel into a dying man, without letting it touch any part of his throat.

President Obama’s Secretary of State did not bring hope to the Palestinian people.  She brought only a thin gruel of the failed Bush-Rice policies. This is not the change we had hoped for.

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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