DOHA, Qatar, Feb. 2 (UPI) -- Hamas' victory in the Palestinian elections has surprised the leadership of the Islamist movement more than anyone else. Hamas never expected to win the majority and inherit the very heavy mantle of having to govern the Palestinian territories -- a Herculean task by any means.
The Palestinian Authority, now Hamas' to govern, is riddled with rampant corruption left behind by the overloaded bureaucracy of the Yasser Arafat years. It includes a civil service force composed of some 131,000 people -- an incredible amount of personnel for such a small area with a population of 3.7 million.
Unemployment, already at a frightful high, is most likely to rise even further if Hamas begins to lay off some of Fatah's people in order to replace them with its own. Simply the task of reorganizing the PA's multiple security forces, which often overlap, will likely put more people out of work. This is the last thing Hamas needs at this juncture -- more unemployed, unhappy people roaming the streets.
Hamas can draw on its excellent organizational skills and its clean track record on corruption to try and put some order in the house of Palestine. One of the strengths of the Islamic movement is precisely its ability to run a tight ship, avoid corruption and provide services to its constituents. Yet there is a huge difference between providing free health clinics and schools to a few thousand, and doing the same for the 2.3 million residents of the West Bank and the 1.4 million who live in the overcrowded Gaza Strip.
Israel, who Hamas has vowed to destroy, cannot possibly see it in its interest to facilitate Hamas' task in governing the PA. A successful Hamas will serve as a model and encourage other Islamic groups in the Arab and Islamic world, none of which can be beneficial for Israel in the long run.
Already, Mark Regev, the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, has said Israel will be holding back $45 million collected from customs receipts and which is due to the Palestinian Authority. That money helps pay the salaries of the 131,000 state employees in the PA.
The United States and the European Union have also said they will be withholding financial aid until Hamas renounces terrorism and recognizes Israel's right to exist. Funds from the United States and the EU are of vital importance in keeping the Palestinian Authority afloat.
A pertinent question to ask if one were to play devil's advocate is whether a successful Hamas is really in the interest of anyone other than Hamas?
First, from the Israeli perspective, it is highly illogical for the Jewish state to look at a successful Hamas administration positively. Even if the Islamic movement were to alter its charter, renounce the use of terror and accept Israel's right to exist, can Israel truly trust Hamas in the long run? Hamas has repeatedly said it would accept a truce, but not peace, with Israel.
Second, from Fatah's perspective, a successful Hamas would hurt the mainstream Palestinian movement even more than it has already suffered at the polls. If Hamas were to establish a working government and bring some sort of law and order to the chaos that is rampant in the Palestinian-controlled areas, it would have accomplished something Fatah was never able to do.
The victory by Hamas over Fatah is the biggest single setback the group founded by Arafat has suffered since it was forced out of Beirut in 1982 when Ariel Sharon, then minister of defense, launched Operation Peace for Galilee. The best Fatah can hope for at this point is for Hamas to stumble and fail, while it tries to reorganize and regroup.
Third, from the Arab perspective, a smoothly run Hamas operation in the PA is likely to frighten a number of Arab governments where Islamist groups have recently been making steady headway. These include Egypt, where the banned Muslim Brotherhood made considerable gains in the recent elections, and that despite the fact President Hosni Mubarak's government tried to prevent the Islamists from running.
The same holds true for Syria. Notwithstanding Damascus' unfaltering support for the Palestinian Islamist movement -- Hamas' military wing is based in the Syrian capital -- the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad is indeed quite wary of any progress made by the Islamists. Assad faces his own problems with Syria's Muslim Brotherhood, which is gaining popularity faster than any other political group in the country.
Jordan, too, is unlikely to be over thrilled with Hamas' success. The Hashemite Kingdom has been struggling with its own brand of Islamists over the years where the Brotherhood has been banned but re-emerged under a different banner.
In short, few tears would be shed if the Hamas experience were to fail. And pushing them toward failure should not be difficult. Israel can, and most likely will play hardball, demanding recognition by Hamas and a statement that the group is moving away from terrorism.
This is where Hamas cannot afford a single slip-up. At the first sign of violence emanating from Hamas, the Israeli response will be devastating for the group.
Of course this being the Middle East, miracles do happen. Hamas could well surprise all those who wish to see it fail. It could also surprise itself more than anyone else by overcoming these insurmountable obstacles. But first it needs to reassure the international community that it can transition from using terrorism to using dialogue.
(Comments may be sent to Claude@upi.com.)