Palestinians Resent Donor Nations' Pressure on Hamas

Even those who didn't vote for the militant group see outsiders as trying to rig democracy.

By Laura King

Los Angeles Times

February 1, 2006

ABU QASH, West Bank — Wasfi Ramadan didn't even vote for Hamas. But in the aftermath of last week's elections, the Palestinian businessman and his neighbors in this West Bank village are increasingly indignant — at the Islamic group's overseas critics.

"Why do the Americans and the Europeans want to control our lives, and tell us who we should have voted for?" Ramadan burst out Tuesday, while neighbors shopping for onions and tomatoes at a tiny roadside stand nodded their agreement.

"They all said to us, 'Have your democracy.' So we did," Ramadan said. "And now they don't like it, and want to punish us."

With the reality of the election outcome sinking in, Palestinian voters are displaying little in the way of buyer's remorse over having brought to power a group whose stated aim is Israel's destruction — and which is at loggerheads with the outside world as a result.

Instead, resentment appears to be swiftly hardening against Western donor nations and their demands that Hamas renounce violence and recognize Israel's right to exist in order to keep about $1 billion in annual aid flowing to the financially teetering Palestinian Authority.

Abu Qash, set among fragrant patches of wild rosemary and ragged stone walls outside the West Bank town of Ramallah, was not known before the elections as a stronghold of either Hamas or Fatah, the ruling party that was resoundingly defeated in the vote.

Many in Abu Qash said they had split their vote on election day, casting a ballot for the national ticket of one party while backing the local district candidate of the other.

"We can see good things about both of them, so many of us voted for both," explained Rafa Ramadan, a homemaker. As in many West Bank communities, almost everyone in this olive-growing village of 2,000 is a member of the same extended clan.

"We are a big family, but we can disagree," said a rheumy-eyed local patriarch, 67-year-old Hodeh Ramadan. One of his nephews immediately disagreed. "We all have a common interest here, and should be united," he said.

To a greater degree than in many West Bank villages, the population of Abu Qash represents a cross-section of poverty and relative material comfort. Subsistence farmers live alongside lecturers from nearby Birzeit University, the West Bank's leading educational institution.

Many of the fears and frustrations expressed by villagers, though, appeared to cut across socioeconomic lines.

"What I wanted was change," said Ziad Bitar, a 54-year-old laborer who supports Hamas. "Tell me, how can things go on as they are?"

But Abud Ramadan, who at 16 was too young to vote, said that if he could have cast a ballot, it would have been for Fatah.

"Yes, things have to change, but you have to rely on the party that has the ability to bring this about," said the teenager, whose family is solidly middle-class. "Can Hamas do that? I don't think so."

Like virtually every town, village and refugee camp across the Palestinian territories, Abu Qash has been marked by five years of conflict with Israel. For most of that period, the village was closed off by Israeli military checkpoints to the east and west. Villagers can, and readily do, recite the names of locals who were killed, wounded or imprisoned during the course of the intifada, or uprising.

At the same time, nearly to a person, those interviewed said a negotiated accord with Israel, one meant to culminate in Palestinian statehood, was the only possible means of advancing.

Abud Ramadan displayed the jagged scar on his lower leg from a bullet wound he suffered 18 months ago during a flare-up between village youngsters and the Israeli army outside his middle school.

"We were throwing stones, so they shot us," he said matter-of-factly. But asked whether he thought the conflict could be settled through force, he replied: "Of course not. Not by suicide bombings carried out by Hamas or anyone else, and not by the Israeli army, with all its power."

In Hamas strongholds such as the more isolated Gaza Strip, the Islamist group's fiery anti-Israel rhetoric has always been a drawing card. But in places like Abu Qash, where many people have not only visited Israel but have traveled abroad, dreams of destroying the Jewish state hold less appeal.

"I don't think people here would really be upset if Hamas relaxed its position on Israel," said Bitar, the laborer. "But they are afraid that everyone will turn against them. I don't think even they really understand why people supported them."

In the village grocery, questions about what Fatah did wrong draw an angry chorus of voices. Their big villas! Their big cars! And look at the potholes in the road!

"Everything was dirty, everything was full of corruption," said Rafa Ramadan, the homemaker.

There was near-universal fear in Abu Qash that Hamas' victory would inflame military tensions with Israel, and that villagers like themselves would suffer as a result. On Tuesday, Israeli forces in the northern West Bank shot to death two suspected members of the militant group Islamic Jihad, which carried out half a dozen suicide bombings in Israel last year.

"When these things happen, we find ourselves completely unable to move," said Mohammed Ayyash, a vegetable vendor. "If there is war between the Israelis and Hamas, our village will once again become a prison."

Villagers were divided as to whether Palestinian statehood, already a distant-seeming dream, has receded even more with the Hamas win.

"Tell me, what did we get in 10 years of negotiations?" asked Hodeh Ramadan, the village elder. "Will Hamas do any worse?"

Wasfi Ramadan interrupted him. "We will have our state," he said flatly. "Maybe sooner rather than later, because we have expressed our right to self-determination.

"And maybe later, for the same reason."