The Islamic movement Hamas last week won 73 of the 132 seats in the Palestinian parliament. The result stunned Western governments. Musheer al-Masri, the Hamas MP for the northern Gaza Strip, spoke to Socialist Worker by telephone
“We are not indebted to the US or the European Union. We represent the Palestinian people. If the world’s powers do not want to talk to us, then this is a problem for them.
“But we are the biggest party in the Palestinian parliament and will be central to forming the next government. Foreign governments must respect the choice of the Palestinian people,” said al-Masri.
Hamas, an acronym in Arabic for the Islamic Resistance Movement, was founded in 1987 during the outbreak of the first intifada, or uprising.
“For decades we were primarily concerned with improving the health and welfare of our people.
“Before the intifada we were part of the Muslim Brotherhood, but with the outbreak of the uprising we joined the general resistance against occupation and launched our resistance movement,” said al-Masri.
The first intifada ended in 1993 on the promise of a comprehensive peace deal. In return for recognising Israel, Palestinians gained limited control over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
But central issues – the status of Arab east Jerusalem and the right of refugees to return to their homes – were deferred to “final status negotiations” that would be held at a future date.
The deal, known as the Oslo Accords, was backed by the US and the EU. Tens of thousands of Palestinians turned out to welcome the return of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the setting up of a Palestinian Authority under the terms of the agreement.
Hamas rejected the agreement and refused to take part in the elections for the Palestinian Authority in 1996. The mainstream Palestinian party, Fatah, won a majority in the new parliament.
But the dream of a lasting agreement quickly turned sour. The Israelis continued to seize Palestinian land and expand their settlements, while Israeli politicians boasted that Oslo represented a “surrender by Palestinians”.
In 1995 the US sealed the fate of the final status negotiations when the senate passed a bill, sponsored by senator Carl Levin, to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The bill effectively declared Jerusalem the “undivided” capital of Israel.
The Palestinian leaders who brokered the deal with Israel were severely compromised, while the Palestinian Authority gained a reputation for corruption and nepotism.
Throughout the late 1990s Hamas became the focus for the growing disillusion among Palestinians with the Oslo Accords.
This anger exploded in September 2000 when Ariel Sharon set foot in the compound of the Golden Dome mosque in Jerusalem. His visit was a signal that no part of Palestine was safe.
In February 2001 Sharon was elected as prime minister of Israel on the promise to crush the Palestinian Authority. He sent Israeli tanks into the West Bank and imprisoned Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in his compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
The Israelis began the construction of a barrier that has become known as the apartheid wall that annexed more Palestinian lands, while the bulldozers began work on demolishing Arab neighbourhoods in Jerusalem.
But Sharon failed to crush the uprising.
Al-Masri says Hamas was central to the resistance during the second intifada.
“Many of our leaders, including our founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, were killed by the Israelis during the intifada. We took up arms to defend our land, and many of our people were martyred.”
In the West Bank and Gaza Strip the Palestinians mounted fierce resistance to the occupation, including using suicide bombers.
Al-Masri said the violence was not targeted against Jews, but “against those who occupied our land and unleashed terror on our people”.
While Hamas joined other Palestinian groups in co-ordinating resistance to the occupation, the movement swept the local elections last year and gained a reputation for its work in health, education and welfare.
Hamas controlled municipalities were held up as models of efficiency, raising its popularity among ordinary people.
In September 2005, Sharon withdrew the Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip. Al-Masri said this withdrawal “confirmed that it was right to mount resistance, but this withdrawal was not enough”.
Al-Masri dismissed accusations that Hamas was a terrorist organisation.
“We have been accused of being terrorists, but these elections have shown that we have the support of the Palestinian people. We have ordered a truce (the hudna in Arabic) in return for an end to Israeli attacks.
“We are prepared to continue this truce, just as we are prepared to talk to the US, Britain and the EU, but we will never abandon the struggle for our land.
“As far as we are concerned we are simply acting on the right of all oppressed and occupied people to resistance and liberation.
“Our only goal is to defend our people and drive the occupation from our lands.”