We now have a new data point on the question that many (including the United States as a matter of policy) continue to raise over whether or not Hamas should participate in discussions over the question of peace in the Middle East. In the past I have made it a point to draw upon sources such as Al Jazeera English to try to maintain a balanced view of the issues at stake, but now it appears that the Financial Times may be joining the ranks of those seeking out useful data points. Tobias Buck has just filed a report for the Financial Times from Birzeit University, which he describes (fairly, in my opinion) as "the closest thing to a Palestinian Harvard – a place of academic excellence and a training ground for the future Palestinian elite." The occasion was the annual elections to the university's student parliament, which external observers have tried to use as a barometer of current Palestinian political thinking.
Buck's account of the sort of electioneering that preceded the actual voting is worth considering as a prologue:
First came hundreds of supporters of Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian group, lined up military-style in neat rows, and strictly separated into columns of men and women. Holding aloft a sea of bright green banners, the young Islamists chanted “Allahu akbar” (Allah is great) as they entered the University’s main square. Behind them marched an even larger contingent of students supporting the rival Fatah movement, waving yellow flags and chanting praise for Yasser Arafat, the former Palestinian leader.
This tells us something about both numbers and sentiment, particularly when it comes to the contrast of the secular and what, under the Bush Administration, I continued to call the "faith-based." This "prologue" was the gathering for the pre-election debate, a practice that resonates nicely with our own electoral practices. From here we can cut to the results:
Fatah went into the elections with a comfortable five-seat lead in the student parliament. A day after the debate, with the votes of almost 7,000 students counted, the secular movement came out on top once again – but its lead was cut. Of the 51 seats, Fatah now holds 24 and Hamas 22 – confirming the expectation that the Gaza war would boost the Islamists’ support.
At the very least this would appear to undermine those who continue to argue that Hamas cannot claim to be the duly-elected representative of the population of Gaza. If anything these results underscore the hypocrisy of our previous "faith-based" President in rejecting the election of a "faith-based" party, whose faith does not sit particularly well with his own. Worse yet, it seems to indicate that, where faith is involved, our past Administration seemed all too willing to equate disagreement over faith with terrorism by justifying the failure to recognize Hamas on the grounds that they were a "terrorist organization." So, if almost half of the 7000 students who voted in their election at the Palestinians' most prestigious university see Hamas as a political party, rather than a terrorist organization, when will the United States come around to recognizing that they may have a point?