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"Hamas won by promising change"

A Palestinian man celebrates Hamas's expected victory Keystone

Palestinian voters were won over by Hamas's promises to change their lives for the better, a Swiss expert on Middle East politics tells swissinfo.

This content was published on January 26, 2006 - 17:03

But Victor Kocher said he did not think the Islamist militant group's ballot-box victory would do much to change the lives of those caught up in the Middle East conflict.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is expected to ask Hamas to form the next government after conceding that his Fatah Party had been defeated in the polls.

Acknowledging the Hamas victory, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei and his cabinet ministers resigned on Thursday.

Kocher, Middle East correspondent for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper, predicted that Hamas would not lay down its arms – but could be willing to enter into a "political partnership" with its opponents.

swissinfo: None of the polls predicted what appears to be a significant victory for Hamas. Are you surprised by the outcome?

Victor Kocher: In a way I am, because I expected the Palestinian voters to be a bit more conservative and to vote for the existing government. But it's understandable that they are absolutely fed up with the appalling situation they have been in for the past few years, and Fatah has to take responsibility for this. People simply voted for the group promising them change, and that was Hamas.

swissinfo: But can Hamas really offer that change and work as part of a Palestinian government?

V.K.: Hamas has stressed that it wants to create a new partnership in politics. This partnership has to satisfy all groups in Palestinian society and has to be based on a consensus-led national strategy. So the message from them seems to be that this is not just about a Hamas takeover but about opening the door to political pluralism.

swissinfo: How can there be any political partnership if Fatah refuses to join Hamas in government?

V.K.: Fatah has made it clear that it won't join the next government, but we'll have to wait and see. The call for a political partnership is a way of keeping your cards close to your chest and not throwing them on the table in the first few hours, in particular in light of the fact that the Israelis, Americans and Europeans have been adamant that they will not cooperate with a Palestinian government containing representatives from Hamas.

swissinfo: Have the Americans and Europeans shot themselves in the foot by coming out against Hamas before the election?

V.K.: Yes, I think these international statements have been counterproductive and have underlined the credibility of the Hamas movement... to challenge the whole world on a programme which is based on values of liberation... and Islam.

swissinfo: How do you assess the prospect of Hamas abandoning violence?

V.K.: I don't think Hamas will throw down arms, but it has in the past shown a certain amount of pragmatism. They might forego attacks against unarmed civilians - in Hamas's case this means suicide bombings in supermarkets, buses and restaurants within Israel. In the past Hamas has stopped these sorts of attacks and restricted itself to Israeli military targets.

If Hamas comes up with a clear-cut statement along those lines it would enhance its credibility... and I would see problems for the Europeans and Americans if they continue to ask more of them.

Hamas has in the past shown a certain amount of pragmatism.

swissinfo: What about the chances of Israel engaging in dialogue with a government led by Hamas?

V.K.: I'm afraid that as far as Israel is concerned, we are at a dead end. Don't forget that under Abbas there have not been any significant negotiations about a peace settlement.

So if Israel does not come around to talking to a Hamas government this would not be a major change to how things are now.

swissinfo: How do you see things proceeding from here?

V.K.: I think we will see Israel moving ahead with unilateral moves to claim borders for itself, annexing major parts of the West Bank.

The only sure thing is that Hamas will not sign any sort of agreement on arrangements of this kind, since they claim that this was precisely the strategic trap which Fatah fell into.

In future we have to expect a lot of rhetoric, not much change to what is going on on the ground, and more loss of time as that same rhetoric starts to adapt to the reality of what life is really like.

swissinfo-interview: Ramsey Zarifeh

Key facts

The Swiss foreign ministry is in favour of all Palestinian political parties being included in the peace process, provided they adhere to international law and the Oslo peace accords.
The ministry describes Hamas as "active in society and which as a result of its activities has gained strong political support [but] which claims the right to armed opposition".
No organisations or groups are banned in Switzerland, except for [Osama bin Laden's] al-Qaeda network, which was outlawed in November 2001.

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