Two days before the January 25 Palestinian legislative elections, Birzeit University professor and Hamas campaign adviser Nashat Aqtash found himself in an unusual situation. Bound by US regulations forbidding direct contact with Hamas, the joint National Democratic Institute (NDI)/Carter Center election observer delegation asked Aqtash — who pointedly describes himself as a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but not of Hamas — to brief its members on the Islamic organization’s philosophy and electoral activities. After enthusiastically showing several Hamas TV advertisements, Aqtash provided the large group of observers gathered in Ramallah a list of reasons why Hamas may consider a long-term hudna (state of calm), but never a permanent peace with Israel. For days, delegation co-leader and former President Jimmy Carter had pushed an optimistic line emphasizing the possibly moderating effects of Hamas’ participation in the election. He sharply rebuked Aqtash for his “distressing” presentation, and proceeded to dress down the Hamas consultant. Just hours before, Carter rejoined, he had told an audience at Israel’s influential Herzliya Conference that Hamas would take “a responsible position” if it assumed a major place in government. Later that day, before leaders of the somewhat less constrained European Union and Canadian delegations, Carter added that he did not believe Aqtash’s version of Hamas’ thinking was accurate, noting, for example, the militant organization’s relatively peaceful conduct over the preceding months.
As the confrontation between Carter and Aqtash demonstrates, Hamas’ decision to participate in the Palestinian legislative election produced headaches not just for foreign and Israeli policymakers, but also for international (and particularly American) election monitors. For some observers, especially those linked to the US government, this election held little of the significance for Palestinian democracy attached to the 2005 presidential elections. Their central concern, instead, was that Hamas’ successful participation would jeopardize US aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA), dampen hopes for reviving the defunct peace process and intensify Israel’s security dilemma. Yet, as Carter argued, a Hamas electoral win could also mark the start of an evolution toward acceptance of a negotiated peace settlement. As importantly, perhaps, the Islamists’ participation in the Palestinian Legislative Council promised to reenergize that institutional offshoot of the 1993-1994 Oslo accords that had long since slipped into obscurity. International observers thus appeared to obsess over the pros and cons of Hamas’ participation far more than Palestinians themselves. Indeed, Aqtash confidently cited a pre-election al-Jazeera poll that claimed over 83 percent of Palestinians wanted Hamas to participate.
Hamas’ participation also shaped the efficacy of the international election observation effort. A spate of unusual, pre-election kidnappings, half-serious threats against outside observers and the area’s image as a Hamas stronghold produced a general reluctance to send observer teams to the Gaza Strip, as well as atypical security measures for international observers operating throughout the Palestinian territories. The NDI/Carter Center delegation proved by far the largest in the Gaza Strip, despite deploying only ten international observers (formed into five two-person teams) from its 85-member delegation. The EU delegation to Gaza was even smaller, while the Canadians planned to enter the Strip on the morning of the election and leave by sundown, well before the vote counting process began. Consequently, very few internationals witnessed the Gazan voting, which involved 40 percent of eligible registered voters. Politically volatile towns such as Rafah in the south went completely unmonitored by internationals. The process observed on election day was therefore skewed in both geographic and demographic terms toward the West Bank, which international monitors perceived to be more secure.
Moreover, in a departure from the procedures of the Fatah-dominated presidential election, uniformed Palestinian police in marked cars escorted the international observers between the crowded voting centers. In some cases police accompanied observers into the much more controlled and sensitive voting stations inside the centers. At times, this intrusive security measure threatened to distort the voting process itself. My PA escort in Khan Yunis, for example, insisted on following me into every voting station (typically a small schoolroom), where he remained close by. His conduct prodded one busy station manager to drop all other duties in order to argue, angrily and at some length, the illegality of the policeman’s presence under the electoral law. The station manager’s protest had no effect on the cordial but firm officer, who cited orders of his own.
Foreign observers’ unease also reflected the circumstances in which the election took place. International monitoring organizations have developed considerable expertise handling the issues and setting the norms of post-conflict elections. Yet the participation of Hamas, occurring within an internationally divisive and ongoing armed conflict, served to highlight the doctrinal and professional cleavages among the politicians, researchers, NGO leaders and Capitol Hill staffers who comprise a typical NDI/Carter Center international delegation. Anecdotally, it seemed, individual delegates responded to the election results largely in accordance with their level of remove from the Bush administration and its Middle East policy. By providing observers a new preoccupation at the expense of issues that used to provoke much lengthier deliberations, such as Israeli-imposed restrictions, Hamas’ effects appeared manifold.