NEW YORK--Abandon the tactic of terrorism and work within the system, the United States and its Western allies have long urged armed resistance groups. Lay down your weapons and pick up a megaphone. Campaign for public office and, if the people you claim to represent agree with your ideas, you'll win power peacefully. Then, whether or not they share your values, the world will recognize your movement as legitimate and will treat you accordingly.
In the Muslim world, the focus of American-led democratization efforts since 9/11, Republican neoconservatives have repeatedly used a Sunni boycott of Iraqi elections as a cautionary tale: you'll be shut out if you don't participate.
Hamas, formally known as the Islamic Resistance Movement, got the message. After two decades of suicide bombings and guerilla warfare against Israel, the Palestinian group, founded in 1987 as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, was exhausted. In 2004 Israel assassinated four of Hamas' top officials, including 67-year-old founder Sheikh Ahmed Ishmail Yassin--whose paralysis had confined him to a wheelchair. Hamas boycotted the January 2005 Palestinian presidential election held to replace Yassir Arafat only to see its political enemy Mahmoud Abbas take power.
Frustrated that they were no closer to their goal of an independent Palestinian state than they had been in 1987, Hamas' leaders changed course. They declared a unilateral ceasefire, or tahdiyah (Arabic for "period of calm") in March 2005. They ran candidates in municipal elections. Some won. Encouraged by their success in working within a democratic process developed at the behest of the Clinton and Bush administrations, Hamas ran a full slate of candidates for the Palestinian Authority Legislative Council. Palestinians liked what they saw and heard from Hamas. In January 2006, Hamas won 76 out of 132 seats in the Council, becoming the majority party in a race with a turnout of over 80 percent.
Celebrating their sweeping victory, Hamas officials promised not to cave in to American and Israeli demands that the group disarm and recognize Israel's right to exist. Despite their clear mandate, however, Hamas indicated that they were willing to make concessions. The tahdiyah remained in effect, and the party's leaders said they were ready to start peace talks with Israel. "Negotiation is not a taboo," said Mahmoud Zahar, a major Hamas figure.
The Bushies might have lost Afghanistan and Iraq, but they got exactly what they wanted in Palestine: democratic elections, a peaceful transfer of power, a radical Islamist group ready to disavow terrorism and transform itself into a parliamentary political party, a majority party willing to work with Israel and her allies. It was a staggering victory for the neoconservative agenda, a golden opportunity to co-opt one of the most prominent organizations of militant Muslims in the world, and proof positive that democracy prevails over terrorism.
And the neocons hated it.
U.S. state-controlled media reacted to Hamas' victory with dismay. "[It] can hardly be considered good news," editorialized the Wall Street Journal. "If your platform is the destruction of Israel, it means you're not a partner in peace, and we're interested in peace," said George W. Bush (shortly after going to war against two countries and sponsoring coups in several others). He ordered a stop to American aid and froze Palestinian bank accounts. Elections, it seems, are only good when you like who wins.
"It's not possible," asserted Hamas spokesman Farhat Asaad, "for the U.S. and the world to turn its back on an elected democracy." He underestimated our capacity for hypocrisy.
On February 13, the New York Times reported that "The United States and Israel are discussing ways to destabilize the Palestinian government so that newly elected Hamas officials will fail and elections will be called again, according to Israeli officials and Western diplomats. The intention is to starve the Palestinian Authority of money and international connections to the point where, some months from now, its president, Mahmoud Abbas, is compelled to call a new election ... [They] say Hamas will be given a choice: recognize Israel's right to exist, forswear violence and accept previous Palestinian-Israeli agreements--as called for by the United Nations and the West--or face isolation and collapse."
In the end, they were never offered that choice.
Israel, which collects $50 million per month in customs taxes on behalf of the Palestinian Authority on $1 billion in Palestinian goods sold to Israel and $2 billion in Israeli products sold to Palestine, reacted to Hamas' win by pocketing the Palestinians' money. "I have no intention of approving the transfer of money which will be used for terrorism," barked Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. But customs taxes aren't aid. The money belongs to the Palestinians. Israel isn't cutting off a "transfer of money" to the new Hamas-led government, a line repeated throughout mainstream media accounts. They're stealing it.
Three months later, reports USA Today, the Palestinian Authority is broke. "The loss of revenue has paralyzed Palestinian government institutions, left salaries unpaid and deepened poverty ... unemployment could jump to 40 percent this year from about 30 percent now, and that two-thirds of Palestinians will live under the poverty line, compared with a little over 40 percent in 2005." If this keeps up, the Occupied Territories will collapse into an anarchy that will make Israel long for the intifada.
On his latest taped statement, Osama bin Laden capitalizes on the diplomatic and economic isolation of the Palestinian Authority. "[The West's] opposition to Hamas has confirmed that it is a Crusader-Zionist war against Muslims," he said. "They are determined to continue with their Crusader campaigns against our nation, to occupy our countries, to plunder our resources, and to enslave us." It's hard to argue with his assessment. If Israel's American-backed theft of Palestinian customs revenues isn't plunder, what is?
Once again, the geniuses who run United States foreign policy have transformed a glorious opportunity to gain an ally into total disaster. Rejected by the West whose democratic game it played and won, the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority has been shoved into the arms of America's enemies. Iran, Qatar and Saudi Arabia--financiers of right-wing madrassas and the 9/11 attacks--have agreed to help the Authority make payroll for its 140,000 government employees.
Ted Rall is the editor of "Attitude 3: The New Subversive Online Cartoonists," a new anthology of Web cartoons.