Mahmud, 24, and I, met at a Moroccan falafel place near Dupont Circle on a surprisingly sunny December afternoon. I'd guarantee that even if you looked carefully around the D.C. area, you would find very few "couples" like us -- a Palestinian from Nablus, and an Israeli from Herzliya, talking with such sincerity for more than two hours, catching up on life. A week prior to our meeting, Mahmud had returned from a visit to Nablus, his hometown, after four years away living rather comfortably in the United States. The story I heard that sunny afternoon accounts for why Hamas won the Palestinian elections in such a landslide.
"My best friends in Nablus are either masters of card games and snooker, or militia leaders," Mahmud said. "Most of them, even those who graduated from university, are unemployed. All they do is sit around and play cards. Others who are bored with cards join the city gangs and take arms."
"Against the Israelis?" I asked, assuming that the answer was yes.
"No," Mahmud said. "These militias run the city by instilling terror in Nabulsis themselves. They smuggle arms, kidnap people and threaten their lives. They have nothing to do with the Israelis ... well, not directly, if you know what I mean."
The picture of Nablus became clearer as dusk devoured Dupont Circle. Nabulsis were locked in Nablus, unable to commute to other cities for jobs and leisure. Most of the youth were unemployed, and thus occupied themselves in illegal, worthless activities. Disillusionment with Fatah and its leaders Abu Mazen was ubiquitous. Abu Mazen has been promising reforms, but nothing on the ground has changed. The roads were broken, electricity often was shut down and jobs were scarce. Amidst the despair rose Hamas.
"You know, Shira," said Mahmud to me, our eyes fixated on each other with unusual sincerity, "Hamas is nothing like Fatah. When you go to a Fatah gathering in the city, the chairs are disorganized and people shoot with their guns at the air to demonstrate power and control. At a Hamas rally, which usually takes place in elementary schoolyards, the chairs for the guests are in perfect lines -- as orderly as disciplined soldiers -- and there is not a single shot heard in the air. It is weird," he paused, "I think the more conservative you are, the more orderly you become. This is how Hamas operates in Palestine. And people respect that, Shira. Because people know, if Hamas promises something, Hamas makes true. Unlike Fatah, whose words are null and void."
I listened in silence, holding my head between my hands.
Let the moral of this story be very clear. The outcome of the Palestinian elections reflects not the heroic victory of Hamas, but the crushing defeat of the Fatah. Corruption, empty promises and a deteriorating economy have given way to loyalty to the people and potentially a brighter economic future for the average Palestinian. Sound obnoxious to be attested by an Israeli? It is about time that we begin to talk with our Palestinian neighbors and learn what is happening in the Palestinian streets, before we speculate and are caught unprepared.
My hunch is that Hamas, now controlling most of the Palestinian parliament, will remain passively loyal to its 22nd clause calling for the destruction of Israel. Nonetheless, it will not embrace terrorism as its foreign policy and will remain generally calm and in a state of hudnah (truce) with the Fatah opposition and with Israel. It is in Israel's hands -- it is Israel's responsibility -- not to panic now, as it is standing in a crucial crossroads prior to the Israeli March elections.
If we panic now, and let public opinion shift to the right, Benjamin Netanyahu will rise to power. Being the only real hawk that promises to be harsh on terrorism, he will behave like a bull in a china shop. Wandering between the shelves with good intentions and no real desire to harm, he will shatter the little china figures into pieces and lead us to disaster. Israel will have to pay the price of its own panicking. Again, like in Netanyahu's previous term in office, buses will be blowing up in the center of Tel Aviv. Four years of sleepless nights are guaranteed.
No, Israel must remain calm. We already know that violence begets violence begets violence. Has anyone tried anything else recently? Let us remain calm and allow Hamas to politicize itself, perhaps re-examine its agenda, now that it is a majority in the Palestinian parliament and responsible for the entire Palestinian population. Let us not panic before we are provided with the reason to do so. Let us not crush with our hands the opportunity for a change before it even surfaces. Let us be unlike ourselves, and just give it a shot. At the end of the day, it's either we give it a shot, or we shoot at it.
The author is an Israeli sophomore from Herzliya studying government at Harvard.
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