Hamas at the crossroads

By Najmuddin A. Shaikh

BELYING the predictions of experts and the results of exit polls, the Hamas, formally known as the Islamic Resistance Movement, scored an overwhelming victory, garnering 76 of the 132 seats in the Palestinian legislature and bringing to an end the decade-long domination of the Palestinian political scene by Fatah. (A subsequent revision of the count by the Palestinian election body reduced Hamas’s win to 74 seats and gave Fatah 45 seats — just sufficient to give it one-third of the seats and therefore the power to block efforts to amend the basic Palestinian law which governs the structure of the Palestinian Authority).

Some 75 per cent of the over one million eligible voters cast their vote in what was generally recognized as a peaceful, free and fair election. President Mahmoud Abbas has indicated that he will call upon Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh to form the new government while the latter has said he would hold talks with Abbas sometime during the week to bring his party into the government.

The magnitude of the Hamas victory has come as a shock not only to Fatah, the international community and Israel but also to Hamas itself. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pointed out that the election results surprised just about everyone. “I don’t know anyone who wasn’t caught off guard by Hamas’s strong showing,” she said, “Some say that Hamas itself was caught off guard by its strong showing.”

Rice’s conclusion is supported by what Hamas leaders had said in the run-up to the election, which indicated that they were hoping to win a substantial number of seats but that Fatah would have the plurality and they would then be the junior partner in a coalition government.

Even now there appears to be reluctance to take on the responsibilities of government partly because of the relative lack of experience, but most importantly, because those concerned know that unless Hamas’s stance on the recognition of Israel changes and the organization disbands its armed wing, that has led to its being labelled a terrorist organization, they will face a cut-off of American and European aid on which the Palestinian Authority is almost entirely dependent for its day-to-day expenses.

President George Bush while welcoming the elections has made it clear that “aid packages won’t go forward” for the Palestinian Authority if Hamas does not renounce violence or its commitment to destroy Israel. “That’s their decision to make,” he said, “But we won’t be providing help to a government that wants to destroy our ally and friend.”

Earlier the Palestine Quartet — the United States, Russia, the EU and the UN — had issued a message of felicitations on the successful conduct of the elections but ended with a stern message: “The Quartet reiterates its view that there is a fundamental contradiction between armed group and militia activities and the building of a democratic state. A two-state solution to the conflict requires all participants in the democratic process to renounce violence and terror, accept Israel’s right to exist, and disarm, as outlined in the roadmap.”

Acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, faced with elections of his own in March, told his cabinet that the country “will not hold any contacts” with the Palestinians unless Hamas explicitly renounced terrorism, recognized Israel, accepted all prior peace agreements and annulled parts of its covenant that call for Israel’s destruction. “These principles,” he said, “are accepted by most of the international community and on this matter I do not intend to make any compromises.”

For the Hamas, this is going to be extremely difficult but not entirely impossible. In the run-up to the elections, the Hamas had upheld the ceasefire on attacks against Israel. Its election manifesto had not included as does its charter, calls for the destruction of Israel. Subsequent to the elections, a Hamas leader has been quoted as saying that Hamas would be prepared to consider a long-term truce with Israel if it withdrew to the 1967 borders.

Another leader while refusing to recognize Israel or to change the Hamas charter’s call for the destruction of Israel has asked if in return Israel would concede the Palestinian right of return or Palestine’s right to have a state with Jerusalem as its capital. In another interview, he has been quoted as not ruling out limited contacts with Israel saying that if Israel offers something for the Palestinian people he would be prepared to consider it but would not give up anything for free.

There would, therefore, appear to be a glimmer of hope that the election, which has brought the chosen representatives of the Palestinian people to power, will not end up playing into the hands of those Israelis who want to effect a one-sided settlement by giving up negotiations and withdrawing from only such areas of the West Bank as it deems fit bearing in mind its exaggerated perspective of security needs. Former US president, Jimmy Carter, who headed a team of international election observers, has said that it would be a mistake to abandon optimism totally and suggested that Hamas may change, bearing in mind that it was during his presidency that the PLO forswore terrorism and moved towards the recognition of Israel.

There are other reasons for optimism. While the experts were wrong about the elections and while they may be wrong in other respects also, there is reason to agree that the dismal record of Fatah while it was in power was the principal reason for the Hamas victory. Many relatively recent polls have suggested that the majority of Palestinians are reconciled to Israel’s existence and are now only anxious that the two-state solution is one that provides for a viable Palestinian state.

The mood among the Palestinians has changed. Of this there is no doubt. The question that Hamas will seek to answer is whether this is in response to a worsening economy and a continuing occupation or something more fundamental. Hamas leaders should have the wisdom to recognize that even while Islamic nationalism has been a strong factor, many, perhaps the majority, of Palestinians have not yet abandoned the dream of a secular Palestine. Hamas seems to be aware of this and has indicated that its first priority is going to be reform of the social sector, carrying forward in government what they had done earlier as a social organization — providing day-to-day services that the Fatah government could not.

More importantly, the Hamas leaders are painfully aware that the Palestine Authority is almost wholly dependent on foreign assistance amounting to $1billion to fund its budget. When Secretary Rice meets Quartet officials in London, she and her colleagues are almost bound to call on Hamas to abandon its vow to destroy Israel and to disarm and negotiate a two-state solution in the Middle East, or risk having this aid cut off. To add to their woes, they know that even the customs and tax receipts generated in Palestine and amounting to $50 million a month are collected by Israel.

Earlier reports indicated that receipts would be transferred since Hamas has not yet formally been inducted into the government but other reports now suggest that even this may be in doubt while it is certain that all subsequent collections will be held up until there is some agreement worked out with Hamas. As an Israeli official told journalists after the Israeli cabinet met: “We are not ready in any way to allow a situation in which money transferred by the government of Israel will somehow end up in the control of murderous elements who want to harm Israeli citizens.” This is the reality that Hamas leaders will have to contend with.

On another front, Fatah supporters — the only ones recruited into the Palestinian security services — have staged destructive demonstrations against President Abbas and have indicated that they will not allow a reorganization of the security services in which Fatah loyalists would be replaced by Hamas supporters. Since these are people who are struggling for retaining the privileges they have enjoyed so far it is likely that Hamas will have a tough time getting genuine control of the administration in the Palestinian Authority. Fatah leaders of the security forces have made statements that Hamas has no power to meddle with the security forces.

Hamas has asked Salam Fayyad, the respected former finance minister who ran on his own ticket for parliament, to take over as prime minister. He reportedly said that he would do so only if Hamas disarms and recognizes Israel. Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator and a long-time Fatah leader, has also made it clear that Fatah could enter into a coalition with Hamas only if the latter is prepared to accept the international commitments that the PLO had made on renouncing terrorism and recognizing Israel’s right to exist.

These are other realities with which Hamas will have to contend. While the western press has taken the view that Hamas remains obdurate there is evidence of flexibility in the statement of Khaled Meshaal, the Damascus-based leader of Hamas, who has in the past taken a much harder line than the Gaza-based leaders. He said: “I say to the American administration and to the Europeans and to the international community who are asking us to stop the resistance — or as they call it, terrorism — that if they don’t like the way our armed groups look, we are ready to unify them with the consensus of all Palestinians and make them an army like any other country.” This seems to bear out the view of some American officials, also shared by some Israelis, that Hamas’s behaviour in accepting a period of “calm” in the last year — ceasing its attacks on Israeli civilians — meant that it was willing to break with other groups like Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Even while many in the West are terming the election results a disaster and a setback from which the peace process may never recover one would like to believe like President Carter that there is room for optimism. What the West has to do now is to maintain the flow of funds including those Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority to keep it afloat and to negotiate with Hamas on the mechanics of letting the latter take power and renounce elements of its charter. If this can be done — and one way would be to encourage Arab states to step in to fill the funding gap — then some serious diplomatic effort will be needed to carry forward the peace process.

After all, if democracy is to be promoted then the elected representatives must be allowed to get more than just crumbs from the table of those championing the cause of democracy. If Hamas is to be persuaded to accept, as Arafat did, that forswearing violence and accepting Israel’s right to exist is the price for continued international assistance in resolving the Palestine question then Hamas must also be told that such assistance will be more substantive than Arafat received.

A good starting point would be to define the goal of the international community as being a settlement along the lines of what President Clinton had proposed after Camp David in the summer of 2000: a Palestinian state in Gaza plus 95 per cent or so of the West Bank; a shared capital in Jerusalem; Palestinian sovereignty over the Temple Mount; Israeli sovereignty over the western wall; and the right for Palestinian refugees to return to the West Bank and Gaza but not to pre-1967 Israel. Let this be the position that President Bush and the Europeans adopt. Hamas may find it difficult to turn down such a proposal.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.

Religious tolerance

HAVE you noticed how every nation, every society and every individual often claim that tolerance of political, religious and social views of others is a cardinal feature of their culture? Compare this claim with the extent of tolerance actually practised and you come to the conclusion that either all of them are liars and hypocrites, or they don’t know what it means.

We take pride in the fact that Islam is the most tolerant of religions. Nobody can deny this fact. But what about Muslims, and particularly, the Muslims of Pakistan? Are they as tolerant as their faith teaches them to be? I do not accuse Muslims in general of being intolerant, but only those who belong to the land of the pure where even the government has been made intolerant by certain laws promulgated by General Ziaul Haq. As for Muslims of other lands, I am writing this piece specially to highlight an amazing example from the Far East.

Malaysia is a country that is set to become the pride of the Muslim world for a number of reasons which I need not go into. Its constitution has this common feature with that of Pakistan that it is a federal constitution. Just as we have provinces in Pakistan which can elect any government they like, Malaysia has a number of semi-autonomous states. One of them is Kelantan, ruled by the Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PIS), which is politically opposed to the national party of Mahathir Muhammad. It is just like a province in Pakistan being ruled by the Jamaat-i-Islami or one of the jihadi parties. Mahathir, when he was prime minister, did not like the PIS and its chief minister because they were committed to introduce the Shariah order in that state while he was all for a pluralistic society in a country having 40 per cent of Chinese population.

The destruction by Afghanistan’s Taliban of the invaluable ancient standing Buddhas, veritable colossi, carved into a hillside in Bamiyan, is still fresh in public memory. But look at what the PIS government did. It allowed the formal inauguration of Southeast Asia’s biggest sitting Buddha located at a place called Tumpat in Kelantan, even as the debate about religious extremism went on in Malaysia and elsewhere.

Let me quote from my scrap book an AFP report on the subject. “orange-robed monks chanted prayers and lit two giant candles to inaugurate the 99-foot high, 156-foot wide statue of Buddha sitting cross-legged in a meditation pose atop Wat Machimmaram temple. The ceremony kicked off a week-long festival that will culminate when the Buddha with pure gold lips will have his giant tear-drop shaped heart installed.

“Hundreds of ethnic Chinese who make up less than five per cent of Kelantan’s 1.4 million people burned joss sticks and stuck thin gold foil on the Buddha’s heart which was being displayed on a makeshift stage. A hundred thousand worshippers from as far as Thailand, Singapore and Sri Lanka, plus 500 Thai monks, are expected to turn up for the formal installation ceremony. The statue took ten years to build and cost more than a million dollars. It is the second giant Buddha image in this Muslim-dominated state. The first, a reclining version, was opened in the 1980s and is one of the biggest in Asia.

“According to Hu Pang Chaw, state government officer in charge of Chinese affairs, the PIS was tolerant towards other religions but is widely misunderstood. All races live peacefully in Kelantan state and speak Malay fluently. He said there were many misconceptions about the PIS but critics should come and see the truth themselves; the PIS government does not enforce Islam on the people and lays stress on the Islamic concepts about justice, fighting corruption, cleanliness and true freedom.”

This was the attitude towards the minorities of a committed Islamic government in a Muslim country. Compare this with what the self-styled Islamic government of General Ziaul Haq did in 1982 or thereabouts. One of his numerous amendments to the constitution involved removal of the word “free” from the Article that inter alia stated, “Religious minorities will be free to propagate their faith...” On the face of it, this appears to be a minor change, but you can imagine how the minorities feel about it.

Our government leaders don’t get tired of proclaiming that there is absolute freedom of faith and belief in Pakistan, whereas, what to say of criticizing any cultural practice of the Muslims, the minorities are not even permitted to pursue their religious practices with impunity. Over the decades successive governments have allowed themselves to suffer this and other amendments till we have now reached the stage where no regime, howsoever powerful, can even dream of abrogating them for fear of being accused of appeasing the minorities.

Fifty-five years after independence when the Quaid-i-Azam made his historic pronouncement to the minorities that they were free to go to their places of worship, we Muslims of Pakistan must ask ourselves one thing. If we are treating the minorities liberally then why do they feel being second-class citizens? Why have they not been assimilated into the mainstream? One reason has been the imposition of separate electorates, which made them realize they were a people apart. To a military ruler (General Pervez Musharraf) goes the credit for undoing that system before the general election in October 2002.

Among Pakistani Muslims every mosque is labelled sect-wise, and only namazis from that sect may say their prayers in it. I love the example of broad-mindedness set by the Holy Prophet (PBUH) when he directed that the Christians from Najran, who had come to have talks with him in Madina, should be housed and fed in what must be the Masjid-e-Nabvi of today. I wonder to which “sect” the Masjid belonged at that time.

Let me ask a question. On Sunday, August 17, 1947, the Quaid- i-Azam and Miss Fatima Jinnah attended a church service in Karachi, a thanksgiving for the creation of Pakistan, conducted with true Christian spirit and ritual. As things have come to a pass in Pakistan, can President Pervez Musharraf or Mr Shujaat Husain, with all their loud claims of popularity and public backing, dare to attend a religious service in a church or a temple today?

Importance of bioethics

By Zubeida Mustafa

ON January 21-22, the Centre for Biomedical Ethics and Culture (Cbec) of SIUT held a joint conference with Unesco in Karachi on “bioethics education” that should provide food for thought for educationists as well as parents. When doctors speak about bioethics, we tend to conjure up images of a moral code that health professionals are supposed to observe in the practice of medicine.

The Hippocratic Oath promptly comes to mind. Hence the workshop on the first day of the conference to design a biomedical ethics curriculum for medical students seemed plausible. But was there anything to sensitize school teachers about as was the idea of the second day’s programme?

After listening to Dr Farhat Moazzam, the chairperson of Cbec, I changed my mind. The time has come to broaden the horizons. Whatever ethical issues come within the purview of the medical community have a direct bearing on society and, therefore, must be conveyed to everyone. What better time can there be to educate the people about these issues than in their childhood when they are imbibing social and moral values and learning to differentiate right from wrong? The underlying principle that science and medicine affect society and, therefore, there should be an on-going dialogue on medical/scientific issues within society itself has been recognized by Unesco. It has been incorporated in the universal declaration on bioethics which was adopted in October 2005 by Unesco’s General Conference.

Bioethics education, as Dr Darryl Macer, Unesco’s regional adviser for social and human sciences, informed the audience in his lucid presentation, basically attempts to inculcate respect for life in everyone, teach them the skill to balance the benefits and risks of technology and develop an understanding of diversity. This has a direct bearing on our lives — unless of course we have become so used to someone in authority taking decisions on our behalf that we don’t care — for thus we can make informed choices.

With the emergence of the concept of bioethics, the social equation between the layperson and the professional is changing. Giving the example of the doctor-patient interaction, Dr Macer said that initially it was one of paternalism with the doctor telling the patient what he should do. It then moved on to one of informed consent which involved a measure of equality between the two sides. Finally came the stage of informed choices made by the patient who now takes the initiative.

These equations are in the process of change in every society as the citizens acquire bioethical maturity. According to Dr Macer, the key factors which determine the pace of change are the existence of a civil rights movement in a society, the level of education among the people, their access to information, the willingness and motivation of individual members to assert themselves and the presence of institutions to support bioethics traditions.

It is a positive move that Cbec has taken the initiative to spread this awareness among the public and that too at the school level which is the ideal stage to start the process of change in attitudes in any society. Our traditions — socially and culturally — are geared towards paternalism with children being advised not to question their elders, juniors being asked to respect their seniors by accepting their views in silence and so on. But this has got to change because it is now accepted that for any decision to be implemented effectively it must have been through a participatory process with the stakeholders involved in the decision-making.

The teaching of bioethics should not be dismissed as something for which our society is still not ready. First of all, respect for life is a badly missing element in our midst and the sooner we begin to work towards inculcating it in our people the better. We accept the loss of life and human dignity with equanimity probably because that is how it has always been. But isn’t it time to change? Let us now develop the sensitivity in ourselves and in our children that life — be it human, animal or plant — is a gift that must be cherished, valued and preserved. Without this sensitivity, the rights to life, human dignity and liberty recognized by all human rights instruments become meaningless.

It is also imperative that scientific knowledge be made an integral part of life. Not only must every student be taught a basic course in science even if his area of specialization is humanities. Science must also be popularized among the lay public by imparting scientific knowledge in an interesting and easily comprehensible manner. Once upon a time PTV was doing this through a programme conducted by Mr Laeeq Ahmad who was not a scientist and probably that is why succeeded in making science so non-technical and attractive for the layperson. This paper had Azim Kidwai writing a weekly science


Why can’t we have more of such programmes? Some of the television channels do a superb job in this respect and science journalism has caught on. But more needs to be done to create an understanding of scientific phenomena without which people cannot make informed choices in respect of their health and medicine related matters. In the context of the application of the principles of bioethics, two key issues of great importance in our society come to mind. One is the social evil of the sale of human organs for transplantation and the other is manufacture and use of nuclear weapons. These issues have to be analysed in terms of their impact on human life and dignity. It is also important to weigh the benefits and risks of the technology used and then make a choice in respect of what should be acceptable to us.

Take the example of the transplantation of organs. Since the medical technology of transplantation has developed to such an extent, it has become possible to take a healthy organ from one person and transplant it in another to save his life. When the donor is a close relative, one can presume that only consideration of love and fellow feeling would have prompted him to gift his organ to another person who needs it. Since the risk to the donor is so minimal and the advantage to the recipient so great, organ transplantation is now widely accepted as an ethical procedure.

But should the misuse of transplantation technology to promote commercialization and fuel an organ trade be acceptable? We find that with the cooperation of medical professionals, affluent patients suffering from kidney failure are paying a lucrative price to middlemen to procure organs from impoverished donors who receive only a fraction of the financial transaction. Since the whole procedure is unethical and done in haste, many cases are spoilt and people’s health suffers while the donors remain as poor as ever. The loss of human dignity involved is another sad aspect of the matter.

One can imagine the dilemma of a patient suffering from endstage organ failure. He has no related donor with a tissue match. There is no cadaveric organ donation law to provide for the farming of organs from cadaver. He can, however, pay a poor person and get his organ. But then that is considered to be unethical. What does he do? The answer should be found in the light of bioethics.

Similar bioethical principles can be applied to decide the pros and cons of nuclear weapons. There is no denying that weapons of mass destruction, as their name indicates, destroy human life or mutilate people. Can they under any circumstances, howsoever distressing, be accepted as a weapon for defence? The devastation unleashed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki has left such an imprint on human memory and one that is difficult to erase. It would be impossible to find a plausible justification for it, however convincing may be the claims for security and national defence.

These are just two examples. There are many other vital decisions which we face in our day to day life to which bioethical principles should be applied to enable people to understand the implications of various phenomena and make informed choices where they are required to.


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