Johann Hari: The earthquake in Palestine

The Hamas victory should be an urgent tick-tock underneath Sharon's sick bed
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The Independent Online

When Ariel Sharon broke the Likud Party and blasted open Israeli politics, a few grizzled Middle East-watchers began to whisper: watch out for a bullet. The last Israeli prime minister apparently to break and remake the political scene - Yitzhak Rabin - ended up with a slug in the chest. Nobody imagined the old General would be felled by his own blood vessels.

But while Sharon recuperates from his stroke and Israel waits to see if he can still thrust his new Khadima Party into the election, an earthquake is happening next door. Palestinian politics is shaking and rattling on a Richter scale just as great as anything Sharon unleashed on the Knesset.

The much-lauded recent shift in Sharon's thinking was big in party political terms but in fact very limited in practical terms. Far from being converted to the cause of the 1967 borders, he wants to annex unilaterally much of the West Bank and allow a balkanised, discontinuous Palestinian statelet to emerge on the remaining scraps.

By contrast, the change in Palestinian politics is more tangible - and it will affect the people of the region long after Ariel Sharon is nothing more than a skeleton and a statue.

Last week, the Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas scored a home run in the Palestinian local elections. It took office in some of the biggest and most important towns in Gaza and the West Bank, and now rules over 1.1 million people. The secular-nationalist Fatah Party - the leading force in Palestinian politics for 40 years - has snapped into two diffuse, squabbling groups that now rule over only 700,000 people at the local level. Fatah strongholds such as Ramallah and Jenin tumbled - the Palestinian equivalent to Stephen Twigg scalping Michael Portillo - and when national elections come in January, Hamas is expected to do even better.

There is a pessimistic reading of this, and an optimistic reading. Let's be downbeat first, and assume this is the historical moment when Palestinian national identity hardens into Islamism. This has to be seen in the context of decades: Palestinian identity has evolved many times since it was first smelted in reaction to Zionism in the 1930s and 40s. At first, the Palestinians saw themselves primarily as Arabs and looked to the rest of the Arab world to destroy the "Zionist entity" and restore them to their homes. After this pan-Arabism died on the battlefields of the 1967 war, it was replaced with a more local, romantic Palestinian nationalism that reveres the peasant and the shepherd and dreams of reaping the land.

Is this Fatah-era romantic nationalism now rotting away, and Hamas-fundamentalism growing in its place? Was this election a tipping point? The peak of classical nationalism was the first intifada of the 1980s, when the Palestinian people rose - almost entirely peacefully - to demand an end to occupation. They tore up their Israel-issued identity cards and disrupted supplies. In response, that great peace-maker Rabin told the army to "break their bones". The people who voted Hamas last week - remember, the Palestinian population is extremely young, with a majority under the age of 30 - are the children of the first intifada.

But what are they turning to? Hamas is an explicitly Islamic fundamentalist party that seeks to turn Palestine into an Islamic state under sharia law. It is not enough to transform Palestinian society: it wants to transform the individual's soul. It demands personal salvation as a prerequisite to political salvation. Hamas councils in Gaza have banned dancing, attacked women who are insufficiently "modest", and intensified persecution of homosexuals. Has ethnic cleansing, topped with four decades of occupation and bone-breaking, driven the Palestinians so crazy that they will turn to this?

A full Palestinian flop into Islamic fundamentalism would obviously be bad for Israel. Nationalists are only bidding - however aggressively - for real estate, a far easier cause to negotiate over than God's Will. But it would be much worse for the Palestinians themselves. Imagine being liberated from occupation into a Hamastan that forbids music and dancing. Imagine what it will be like for Palestinian women: last time I was in the West Bank, I spoke to Kadema Nashashibi, the determined director of the Women's Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling. "The rise of Islamic fundamentalism has been catastrophic for women here," she explained. "Now there are many women who do not leave their homes at all, because their fundamentalist families forbid it. That is new."

Kadema believes this new Islamism is a direct result of the brutality of the occupation: "I do not excuse it [Islamism] for a second, but the longer the occupation goes on, the more conservative and fundamentalist Palestinian society becomes." This is not only the view of liberal Palestinians. Ami Ayalon is the former head of Shin Bet, Israel's equivalent to MI5, and last week he said Hamas' election victory is "mostly due" to Sharon's handling of Gaza, he argued. The handover of the Strip should have been a prime moment for him to strengthen the Palestinian moderates and stem the haemorrhaging of Palestinians to Islamism. If he had negotiated the withdrawal with Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinians would have seen it as a victory for the liberals: this is what you get when you jaw-jaw. Instead, by unilaterally withdrawing and treating the PM with contempt, it was seen as a victory for the suicide-killers: this is what you get when you war-war.

Did I say there was a positive interpretation of this election result? Oh, yes. Some analysts make a persuasive case that the rising support for Hamas does not really indicate rising Islamism. To gain mainstream support, Hamas has had to flirt with a ceasefire and indicate it would accept a two-state solution along the 1967 border. Some believe it: not every member is a fundamentalist. The two most popular themes for Hamas were its opposition to Fatah corruption - the curdled legacy of Arafat - and its provision of free welfare services throughout Palestine. And yet, the reality on the ground for women such as Khadima is of growing Islamism and restrictions on women, and Hamas is using their victories to extend fundamentalist control of Palestinian schools. The Palestinians have remained sane in insane circumstances for a long time - but how long can this last?

The Hamas victory should be an urgent tick-tock underneath Ariel Sharon's sick bed. The longer this occupation goes on, the more enraged and fundamentalist the Palestinian people will become - and the annexation of a great chunk of the West Bank is not a balm they can accept. If Sharon sticks to his lifelong conviction and continues to rule out "any possibility of a return to the 1967 borders", his people will be locked in a bloody tango with Islamic fundamentalism for another century.