On Tuesday, the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, announced that it has carried out the first stage of its internal elections, choosing Local Shura Councils in a "democratic and fair" process. The movement is now choosing members of the General Shura Council which appoints the members and head of the political bureau.
"The election process took place in a positive, democratic, transparent and fair atmosphere overseen by the Hamas central election commission, as per the movement's internal regulations," said an official statement. "Throughout its history, the movement has been holding internal elections to choose its leadership on a regular basis."
Hamas, which was founded by the late Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in 1987, is designated as a "global terrorist entity" by Israel and many Western countries, including the US, because of its legitimate struggle to liberate occupied Palestine. It was established by Yassin and others who were dissatisfied by the secular PLO, Fatah and other liberation groups.
Israel claims that it facilitated the existence of Hamas in order to provide some opposition to the PLO and its factions, and thus keep them all too busy fighting amongst themselves rather than the occupation state. It was a classic "divide and rule" tactic. This is only partly true, though, as the Israelis often detained those early members of Hamas and suppressed their institutions, such as Al Mujamaa Al-Islami and the Islamic University of Gaza, which was closed down several times.
Despite this, Hamas is now the largest Palestinian faction outside the PLO. It won the last free parliamentary elections in 2006, since when it has been outlawed and boycotted by the foreign governments which pushed the Palestinians to hold democratic elections in the belief that Fatah would win easily. The movement has retained much of its popularity even though Israel has imposed a brutal blockade on the Hamas heartland of the Gaza Strip since its election victory.
Even opponents admit that it is its strong structures and organisational skills that have kept Hamas going strong in the face of the propaganda, wars and enmity of Israel and its allies, including those in the Arab world. The movement maintains a very clear and effective system to appoint its officials and leadership. Every district has a Local Shura (Consultative) Council elected by grassroots members. The Local Councils nominate members for the General Shura Council which names the head of the political bureau who chooses at least half of the members of bureau from the members of the General Council. The others come from outside the council if the leader wants certain expertise and specialisms, but they must be loyal Hamas members.
Members of the political bureau must represent the different electoral areas, including prisons. The bureau is the highest executive body which takes decisions and follows up the movement's activities everywhere. It cannot take major decisions without referring to the General Shura Council. The Elections Committee oversees the whole electoral process and the nomination of the executive district offices to the political bureau.
Hamas has a strict and clear system for investigations into possible corruption by any Hamas member or leader. It covers suspected collaborators and all kinds of internal disputes. Every Hamas member has equal status before the movement's tribunals. Even Hamas officials have been found to have done wrong and face penalties which are relatively complex. The tribunals do their best to issue rulings that do not contradict the public right of the state.
The system has a specialist electoral court for disputes related to the polls, including petitions against nominees, electoral results and similar issues. The court has the power to have the elections rerun in one or more districts, and even to hear petitions against decisions by one of the movement's tribunals which, for example, might have stripped someone of their right to vote.
Although it is an Islamic group and its charter and subsequent documents reflect that, Hamas does not object to the involvement of non-Muslim Palestinians in its institutions when necessary. In the 2006 parliamentary elections, there was a Christian candidate on the Hamas list and when the movement formed the government, it had a Christian amongst the ministers.
If Hamas continues to maintain its organisational system while upholding its principles related to Palestinian rights and the struggle against the Israeli occupation, it will retain its popularity. The movement believes that the Palestinian people are its greatest asset, and it works hard to take their aspirations into account, despite all of the hardships inflicted upon them and their institutions.
After more than three decades, Hamas remains a democratic movement intent on fulfilling its legitimate right to resist the Israeli occupation and liberate Palestine. If the world hopes to see a just and lasting solution for the Palestinian issue, it should not isolate Hamas, but recognise its status and popularity, and work with it, not against it.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.