But my recognition of Hamas’ legitimacy does not mean that I agree with the way in which Hamas has been ruling Gaza. Hamas’ legitimacy to exist, as a movement, must be complemented by its legitimacy to rule, by acting as justly as possible under the circumstances.Hamas is integral to the Palestinian political system. Its presence is both normal and justified, at least by the approval it enjoys from Palestinian society. Therefore, its presence remains in the interests of the Palestinian people, as well as a healthy sign of a diverse political system. From this standpoint, it is imperative to state the truth to everyone, including Hamas.Hamas, the movement and the government, must not be portrayed as an affair that interests only those who belong to Hamas. As citizens subject to its rule in Gaza, Hamas is now of interest to us all. We have the full right to hold Hamas to account and to criticize its discourse as well as its actions.
The resilience that the movement and the people of Gaza have shown under the most severe conditions, and the foiling of past efforts to undermine the party, deserves appreciation. However, Hamas must bear in mind that everyone in Gaza has paid the price, not only the movement.
In the summer of 2012, I had the opportunity to meet twice with the chair of the Hamas politburo, Khalid Mashaal, together with other activists and intellectuals in Cairo. I was impressed to meet the man and know more about his thinking.
I found a person who was not a ‘factionalist’, but an individual with a broad national view, a leader. He listened to us carefully and openly. Some of the concerns I raised with him deserve to also be made public. This is why I am now writing an open letter to Hamas.
Still acting like a movement
Since their 2006 electoral victory in the elections and later composition of a government, Hamas, together with the entire population of Gaza, has been put under sanctions.
Both Hamas and Gazans have been punished for an alleged sin: the election results were not to the liking of those who gave the elections a green light, support, and even facilitated it freely. They were the same actors who imposed an unjust closure and catastrophic sanctions — the occupation forces and the international community.
Since Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007, the weight of the siege increased. However, Hamas and its government have been able to run Gaza under extremely complex and difficult conditions, especially with most civil servants and security personnel refraining from resuming their work in public office. Many of those workers were also expelled from their work by the Hamas government itself.
The main problem of its years of ruling Gaza is that Hamas has been unable, until now, to step out of its role as a movement into its role of a government. The government in Gaza has been run with a movement’s mentality, if not by the movement.
Running a political organization is essentially different from that of a government, a society, in terms of the mentality, the tools, and the structure.
What works for running the institutions of a political organization — working in semi-underground conditions with decision-making mechanisms accepted among the members — is necessarily inadequate for managing public affairs when the organization is in power.
The relationship between a government and the citizens it rules is founded on a social contract.
Citizens are expected to abide by the law, and government has a duty to protect their rights, dignity, and property. A critical consensus on the rules that secure security, stability, and justice, is necessary in exchange for conceding part of citizen’s absolute liberty.
In this sense, society and government are freely bound by a contract that guarantees citizens their rights, while they freely accept the situation of subjecting themselves to the public authority.
Hamas’ management of public affairs in Gaza has been influenced by real-life events. Closures and sanctions were devised to make Hamas raise the white flag to confirm an anticipated failure.
However, Hamas, under these conditions, insisted on assuming the role of a victim. It tried to make use of the fact that the movement and its members were excluded from participating in government and public service during the years of Palestinian Authority rule.
When faced with failure, its discourse focused on listing its many enemies. Therefore, success has been that of Hamas; failure is because of others.
The result of this attitude is a speedy evolution of a ‘party state’, where the government is seriously confused with the political movement.
This condition is exactly how the infrastructure of a totalitarian regime is founded. Such regimes maximize the power of a group, or even a small part of the group, at the expense of citizens.
At this stage of the evolution of such a regime, the dynamics of power push public affairs in a direction that might not match good intentions. The increasing acquisition of power, and the real or alleged legitimacy it seeks, will promote a dangerous path for both society and the political movement.
It is one way to self-destruct, and it requires serious consideration by the Hamas movement now.
The social contract
The core of the social contract is state responsibility towards its citizens as genuine citizens, not as subjects. A party that wins the public vote of the citizens will have a government that is responsible for all, including those who did not vote for it. In fact such responsibility must extend especially to political opponents and citizens who bear different beliefs, religions, or ways of life.
Governments must secure the necessary conditions for all citizens including their liberty, security and dignity under the rule of law. Governments cannot be ‘owned’ by a party and its supporters. They are owned by all women and men, Muslims and Christians, the secular and the religious, as long as they are citizens.
Public affairs cannot be run by good intentions or assurances. While people in power have the right to say what they want, or claim what they want, what they say or claim is not a sufficient basis to rule or have legitimacy.
Public affairs can only be run after submitting to the principle that citizens are equal, be that in terms of the delivery of basic services, securing equal social protection, or effective law enforcement. It requires organized, transparent action, overseen by effective monitoring of all who are entrusted with law enforcement.
Good governance that allows for participation in political life requires this minimum degree of the social contract. The alternative is exclusion and the alienation of citizens in their homeland. Conversely, ensuring this minimum will strengthen the government and the ruling parties.
The government in Gaza is not an actor outside of this historical logic. Again, good intentions alone are insufficient to bring about good governance or good public management.
Under the entrenched political schism between Hamas and Fatah in Palestine, the most important priority is to get monitoring and controls right to ensure the government fulfills its obligations to its people.
Is it possible to keep the control and accountability mechanisms confined to circles within the Hamas movement, who remove one government and form another, nominate ministers and sack others? Does the Palestinian Legislative Council – and I will avoid legality questions at this stage – represent a genuinely accountable institution?
In Ramallah, the PA, which is also acting without legislative oversight, has a government that can be held accountable to its donors, but not to any other body, including its creator, the Fatah movement.
In Gaza, where a Hamas-only legislature is somehow working, the government remains accountable only before the institutions of the Hamas movement, not to society nor other public institutions.
In both cases, there is a serious flaw in the system, which is leading not only to more concentration and abuse of power, but also to leniency with corruption and human rights violations.
We can see in Gaza that civil and security institutions are subject to oversight. The problem is that the government and other agencies overseeing them belong to the same political group.
At the end of the day, government members and those who oversee them meet as brothers in the same movement. How can oversight and control be effective and independent under such a structure?
Control and oversight does not necessarily mean that we have to assume bad intentions on the part of government officials. It is merely a mechanism that guarantees that the law is enforced at all times, and that oversight is conducted in a way to improve performance and guarantee transparency, which can only strengthen the integrity of the government and the party behind it.
The issue here is not about calling into question the intentions or desires of the people in power. It is more about the actual process of governance in such a unique situation like Gaza.
What is needed is for the government to interact openly with society, with all of its social and political structures. Society also has a duty to reciprocate and to be open to interacting with the government.