Friday, December 22, 2006

Holiday Special: The Pagan Roots of Christmas

The Holiday the World Celebrates On the 25th of December Is Centuries -- Even Millennia -- Older Than Christianity Itself

The following article is a re-post of my holiday blog that was first published last year. However, because it was almost immediately overshadowed by breaking news -- and the fact that this blog was at that time in only its second week of existence -- most of you likely missed it. With Christmas Day falling on Monday this year, I decided to re-post it today (Friday), with a few revisions to bring it up-to-date. Enjoy -- and Happy Holidays.

* * *

By Skeeter Sanders

(Originally posted December 18, 2005)

Ah, December. 'Tis the season when most of us are thinking about opening gifts under brightly-lit trees. Of kissing someone special under the mistletoe. Of eating, drinking and making merry. And, above all, of hoping for peace on Earth and goodwill to all.

But in 2005, on what ought to be the most festive time of the year, "goodwill to all" appear to be in short supply in America. Instead, the political, social and religious divides that have been roiling Americans for the past several years appear to be refusing to take their usual vacation this holiday season.

Indeed, the bitter bickering has turned its attention toward the holiday season itself, as a long-simmering debate in this country over the Christian symbolism of this time of the year -- or the lack thereof -- has reached a fever pitch.

What's In a Name?

Republican members of the House of Representatives, including Speaker Dennis Hastert, were in a tizzy over the congressional tree that was lighted on the Capitol grounds the night after Thanksgiving being called the "Capitol Holiday Tree" -- as it has been for the past couple of years -- instead of the "Capitol Christmas Tree."

After a hue and cry from conservatives, the House Republican leadership pushed through a resolution to henceforth officially call it the "Capitol Christmas Tree."

This tempest in a teapot under the Capitol dome would have been dismissed as just another typical venting of partisan Washington hot air, were it not for a certain conservative Christian TV evangelist -- and a certain conservative-leaning 24-hour cable TV news network.

The debate over what to call this season became no laughing matter last month when a group of lawyers backed by the Rev. Jerry Falwell launched a legal assault against what Falwell and other evangelical and fundamentalist Christians say is "the de-Christianization of Christmas." And the Fox News Channel has been inveighing against an alleged "War on Christmas" by secularists.

Falwell's Liberty Counsel has launched what it calls its "Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign," the purpose of which, according to its Web site, is to "first educate [the public] that Christmas is constitutional, but to litigate when governments censor Christmas and blatantly violate the Constitution."

Falwell's legal eagles already have filed suit in a Florida court against two suburbs of Jacksonville, demanding that a Nativity Creche be included in a holiday display located in a park jointly owned and operated by the two municipalities. They also threatened to take the City of Boston to a Massachusetts court over calling its municipal trees located on the grounds of City Hall and on the city-owned Boston Common "Holiday" trees instead of "Christmas" trees.

Falwell and other Christian conservatives are also hopping mad about the use of the greeting "Happy Holidays" -- and even the long-traditional "Season's Greetings" -- instead of "Merry Christmas" on public buildings and are going on the warpath to put a stop to it.

'War on Christmas?' Bah, Humbug!

But the Hunter S. Thompson Memorial Gonzo Award for overreactive fear and loathing belongs, hands down, to the right-wing Fox News and its No. 1 talk-show host, the always-acerbic bully-boy, Bill O'Reilly. The network went bonkers with a series of reports called -- I kid you not -- "Christmas Under Siege," a clearly transparent attempt at whipping up its conservative viewer base with coverage of an alleged "War on Christmas" by what O'Reilly calls "secular progressives."

On the November 18 [2005] edition of "The O'Reilly Factor," O'Reilly told his viewers of a "secular progressive agenda ... to get Christianity and spirituality and Judaism out of the public square." As O'Reilly fulminated, I kept turning my eyes toward my kitchen calendar. It clearly read, "November 2005," but it might as well could have read, "November 1953." I felt as if I had plunged through a time warp back over 50 years and was watching one of Sen. Joe McCarthy's tirades against "a vast Communist infiltration of our government and society."

Watching Fox's coverage of this so-called "War on Christmas" also evoked memories from another November -- 1979 -- of "The Iran Crisis: America Held Hostage," the ABC News series of late-night special reports of the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran (which ultimately evolved into "Nightline.").

But unlike Ted Koppel's reports on that crisis, what Fox and O'Reilly were presenting was, as Ebenezer Scrooge might say, a load of pure, unadulterated humbug. Never in my life have I seen or heard such a crescendo of ecclesiastical arrogance by a bunch of right-wing crybabies who have the audacity to call themselves "Christians," for they're acting anything but Christ-like.

It's clear to me that Falwell, O'Reilly, et. al. are engaging in conduct more befitting of the Pharisees -- who hounded and harassed Jesus at almost every turn during the three years of his public ministry -- than of Christians who genuinely live their lives in accordance with the teachings of the Bethlehem-born carpenter from Nazareth.

Falwell, O'Reilly and a host of other latter-day Pharisees think they own this late-December holiday lock, stock and barrel. They don't. They never have and they never will, for Christmas is not for Christians only. It never has been and it never will be. And for a very good reason.

The Historical Truth About Christmas

Falwell, O'Reilly and the other latter-day Pharisees are in stubborn, bullheaded denial of a fact of history that won't go away: The holiday the world celebrates on the 25th of December is centuries -- even millennia -- older than Christianity itself.

The historical truth is that Christmas is the Christian adaptation of the many ancient Pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. With the notable exception of the Nativity Creche, nearly all of the symbols and decorations that we associate today with Christmas -- the tree, the wreath, the holly and the ivy, the lights, the mistletoe, the eggnog, the yule log, the caroling and even Santa Claus -- are of Pagan origin.

Many Americans, in fact, often refer to Christmas as "the Yuletide." And no wonder: Yule is the winter solstice. Most modern Pagans still celebrate Yule. Even most Christians use "Christmas" and "Yule" interchangeably to describe the season without even thinking about its Pagan origins.

[In the interest of full disclosure, this blogger is obliged to state for the record that I, a former Roman Catholic, am a Pagan; more specifically, a Wiccan. Yule -- which this year came and went yesterday (Thursday) -- is also the anniversary of my conversion in 1984 to Wicca, the largest and best-known "denomination" of modern Paganism.]

Yule celebrates the beginning of the sun's light and warmth returning to the northern hemisphere after reaching its southernmost point on the Earth at the Tropic of Capricorn on the winter solstice.

The Origin of the Christmas Tree

If you really want to be historically accurate, then the Christmas tree should rightly be called the Yule tree, for it dates back nearly 5,000 years to the Celtic Druids. They revered evergreens as manifestations of deity because they did not "die" from year to year, but stayed green and alive when other plants appeared dead and bare. The trees represented everlasting life and hope for the return of spring.

Best known today for their celebrations of the summer solstice in June at Stonehenge, the Druids decorated their trees for the winter solstice in December with symbols of prosperity: a fruitful harvest, coins for wealth and various charms such as those for love or fertility. Scandinavian Pagans became the first to bring their decorated trees indoors, as this provided a warm and welcoming environment for the native fairy folk to join in the festivities.

The Saxons, a Pagan tribe from what is now Germany, were the first to place lights on the their trees in the form of candles (an extremely dangerous fire hazard by today's standards, I know). For centuries, the ancient Romans decorated their homes with evergreens at the winter solstice festival of Saturnalia -- which also marked the Roman New Year -- and exchanged evergreen branches with friends as a sign of good luck.

Christians' use of the tree symbol for the December holidays did not begin until the 16th century, when devout Catholics in present-day Italy brought decorated trees into their homes. The German-born Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, is credited with starting the tradition in England in 1841 when he brought the first Christmas tree into Windsor Castle.

The Eight Pagan Holidays

Nature's cycles of winter, spring, summer and fall (and everything else in between) are so much a part of human life and society on Earth that to acknowledge, celebrate and even sanctify those cycles is a primal need we simply cannot ignore. Just ask any ski-resort operator in winter or swimming-pool operator in summer -- or any farmer, for that matter.

Yet those who follow the world's three great monotheistic religions -- Christianity, Judaism and Islam -- have long been reluctant to do so and instead instituted their own rituals, holy days and festivals. The fact that many of the major Christian, Jewish and Muslim holidays -- and even some civic and national holidays -- often occur in tandem with the eight major Pagan holidays during the course of the year is no accident.

In addition to the winter solstice celebration of Yule on December 20-22 (depending on the actual date of the solstice itself from one year to the next), the other seven Pagan holidays are:

# Imbolg or Candlemas (Groundhog Day, February 2) -- also known among Catholics as St. Brigid's Day;

# Eostre or Ostara (Spring Equinox, March 20-22);

# Beltaine (May Day, May 1);

# Litha (Summer Solstice, June 20-22);

# Lammas or Lughnasadh (Midsummer's Day, August 1);

# Mabon (Autumn Equinox, September 20-22);

# Samhain (pronouned SOW-en), the Wiccan New Year (Halloween, October 31).

This is why Easter (whose name in English is a derivative of Eostre) always falls on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox. And why Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, almost always falls near the autumn equinox.

Jews transformed the three ancient harvest festivals of the Canaanites into the three festivals of Creation (Tabernacles), Revelation (Pentecost), and Redemption (Passover). Likewise, Christians and Muslims transformed their ancient, Nature-based festivals into celebrations of the singular events in, respectively, the life of Jesus and the career of the Prophet Mohammed.

How an Ancient Roman Holiday Became Christmas

After Christianity was proclaimed the state religion of the Roman Empire by Emperor Constantine in 312 C.E., the early Christian church -- now the Vatican -- used the transformation of the ancient holidays and festivals as a tool to convert Pagans to Christianity throughout the empire and beyond.

Yet the church barred Christians from holding any kind of celebration to honor the birth of Jesus, primarily because the actual date of his birth was unknown -- and remains unknown to this day, although there is some astronomical and archaeological evidence suggesting that Jesus was actually born in the spring.

The church's ban was lifted in 350 C.E., when Pope Julius I proclaimed a feast day to celebrate Jesus' birth -- and deliberately chose December 25 as the date to hold "Christ's Mass" to absorb and Christianize not only Yule, but also Saturnalia, which honored Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture.

Saturnalia was celebrated with feasting, gift-giving and role-reversal between men and women and between slaves and their masters. It was also marked by the unabashed enjoyment of sensual and erotic pleasures, which many conservative Christians today strongly condemn as wanton debauchery, but still survives in our time (primarily around New Year's Eve).

And because Saturnalia also marked the Roman New Year under the Julian calendar, the changeover to the present-day Gregorian calendar in 1582 resulted in the one-week interval between Christmas Day and New Year's Day.

Upper-class Romans also celebrated the birthday of Mithra, the sun god, on December 25. It was believed that Mithra, an infant god, was born of a rock. For them, Mithra's birthday was the most sacred day of the year -- especially since the daylight from the sun began to lengthen on the 25th, following the winter solstice.

Christianity vs. Paganism

The current debate in the United States over "Christmas" versus "Holiday" trees, decorations and greetings is part of a much deeper clash of cultures that has gone on for centuries: Christianity vs. Paganism. Christianity is monotheistic and linear; Paganism is pantheistic and circular.

Pagans celebrate the eternal natural cycle of being. Christians venerate the linear concept of progress, from creation to ultimate redemption.

Pagans live in the realm of the eternal recurrence. Pagan rites maintain harmonious relationships among the gods; thus, these rituals guarantee the continuity of Nature's cycles, which Nature-based human societies depend on for their sustenance.

Christians (as well as Jews and Muslims) worship the God who created all natural things and stands above them. To them, when God intervenes in the world, it is not to create a disruption of natural events, but rather to generate some wonderful new direction in human affairs.

It is at the winter solstice -- more so than at any other time of the year -- that people of Judeo/Christian/Muslim faith feel most acutely the tension between the origins of their religion in Pagan Nature worship on the one hand and the evolution of their faith into belief in a single God and a linear remembrance of historical events and teachings on the other.

America's Growing Religious Diversity

And for many conservative Christians in particular, that tension could only have grown sharper in recent years as the number of Americans who do not identify themselves as Christian has been growing exponentially since 1990, according to data compiled by the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), commissioned by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Out of a total U.S. adult population of 207.9 million people who professed a religious or spiritual belief system in 2001 -- the latest ARIS data available -- 159.5 million, or roughly 75 percent, identified themselves as Christian (inclusive of all of its denominations). By comparison, out of a total U.S. adult population of 175.4 million believers in 1990, 151.4 million, or roughly 85 percent, identified themselves as Christian.

The number of Americans who do not identify themselves as Christian grew from 20.1 million (15 percent) in 1990 to 37.1 million (25 percent) in 2001, according to the ARIS data, with particularly sharp increases recorded in the number of adherents to Islam and Buddhism.

America's Muslim population has more than doubled, from 527,000 in 1990 to 1.1 million in 2001. The nation's Buddhist community grew even faster, according to ARIS, from 401,000 in 1990 to 1.08 million in 2001.

(Buddhists have their own major holiday in December: Bodhi Day, which celebrates the story of how the philosopher Siddartha Gautama of India became the Buddha by sitting under a bodhi tree and vowing to remain there until he achieved total enlightenment.)

While there was no census of American Pagans in 1990, the ARIS survey did report at least 307,000 Americans identifying themselves as such in 2001, with 134,000 professing to be Wiccans, 33,000 as Druids and 140,000 as eclectic "neo-Pagans" of a wide spectrum of traditions.

Interestingly, the ARIS survey counted only 53,000 Americans in 2001 as identifying themselves as "secular" and even fewer -- 43,000 -- calling themselves "humanists." There was no accounting of either group in 1990.

The truth is, America in the closing days of 2005 is more religiously and spiritually diverse now than it's ever been before in its more-than-230-year history. That diversity is certain to grow in the future, further reducing American Christians' majority -- and Falwell, O'Reilly and other Christian conservatives are going to have to deal with it, whether they like it or not.

Is It a Pagan Christmas -- or a Christian Yule?

If they wanted to, today's Pagans could reclaim the Christmas tree -- indeed, all the decorative trappings of Christmas, save for the Nativity Creche -- as being rightfully theirs, since Pagans created them in the first place. But modern Pagans are a practical lot, with most viewing Christmas simply as the Christian world celebrating Yule in their own way -- albeit, three to five days after the actual winter solstice -- and thus see no conflict in celebrating the secular aspects of Christmas themselves.

December isn't called the holiday season for nothing. There's also Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Boxing Day (in Canada) and scores of other holidays and festivals around the world this month -- all of which culminate in the ringing in of the new year at midnight on December 31.

Thanks to the adoption of the Gregorian calendar as the universal calendar used worldwide and the global system of 24 time zones, New Year's Day is our only truly global holiday -- which we all got to watch unfold on our TV screens in all its joyful glory as we greeted the new millennium (albeit, a year too soon).

So whichever way you celebrate the holidays, may yours be filled with joy, peace and love.

Blessed Be! And Happy Holidays.


FOOTNOTE TO READERS: The initials "C.E." used in this article refers to "Common Era," which I am using here in place of "A.D." ("Anno Domini, the Year of Our Lord") to reflect dates under the now-universally-used Gregorian calendar.

NEXT WEEK: Because the New Year's Day holiday also falls on a Monday, next week's "'Skeeter Bites Report" will instead be posted next Friday, December 29. Regular Monday postings will resume on January 8.


Volume II, Number 3
Copyright 2006, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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Monday, December 18, 2006

Rival Palestinian Factions Agree to 2nd Truce in Effort to Avert Full-Scale Civil War

New Deal Ends a Day of Fierce Gunbattles -- Al-Qaida's No. 2 Leader Insists 'Only Jihad Will Liberate Palestine'

(Updated 5:30 a.m. EST Wednesday, December 20, 2006)

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Rival Palestinian security forces began withdrawing from parts of Gaza City and freeing hostages Wednesday morning under a new ceasefire deal reached late Tuesday night, ending a daylong siege of gunbattles and abductions in which six fighters were killed.

Meanwhile, Al-Qaida's second-in-command denounced Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' plans to hold new elections, insisting that "only jihad -- holy war -- will liberate Palestine."

A previous ceasefire between the ruling Hamas faction and once-dominant Fatah reached Monday broke down within 24 hours. It was unclear whether the new one, brokered by Egyptian mediators, would hold.

Minutes after that deal took effect late Monday night, Gaza residents reported gunfire between rival fighters. At least one Hamas gunman was wounded during the shootouts, which erupted throughout the night and all day Tuesday.

Abbas, the leader of the Fatah Party, plans to issue a decree next week calling for elections, a move which Hamas has branded a "coup," a senior Abbas aide said.

Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh reiterated his Hamas movement's rejection of Abbas's election call and accused the United States of spearheading efforts to topple his government. Hamas has said it would boycott any polls.

But both Abbas and Haniyeh urged Palestinian forces to abide by the latest ceasefire deal.

Tuesday's death toll was the highest since internal fighting intensified over the weekend. Four of the six were killed in street battles. The bodies of two of Abbas's security men were found dead hours after their abduction, hospital officials said.

# # #

Violence Erupts After Hamas Vows to Boycott New Election Called By Abbas

By Skeeter Sanders

As fighting between Palestine's two warring political factions escalated over the weekend, any hope for a national unity government made up of President Mahmoud Abbas' moderate Fatah and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh's militant Hamas were smashed to bits when Haniyeh vowed that Hamas would boycott early elections called by Abbas.

Haniyeh's call for a boycott came amid a fresh wave of violence Sunday that saw the Hamas foreign minister's motorcade and the Fatah president's offices both come under attack in Gaza City. Five pro-Fatah security men and a 45-year-old woman were wounded, officials said.

Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar escaped unharmed and Abbas was in the West Bank city of Ramallah at the time of the attacks.

Hamas gunmen also opened fire at a demonstration of tens of thousands of Fatah supporters in the northern Gaza town of Jebaliya, wounding at least one person. Within hours after that attack, guerrillas believed to be supporters of Hamas fired at least two mortars at Abbas' office in Gaza City.

The ambush on Zahar's motorcade in the heart of downtown Gaza City set off a ferocious fusillade between Hamas and Fatah gunmen that sent panicked residents scrambling for cover and turned the city's main streets into a Baghdad-like war zone for more than an hour. Officials said a 19-year-old woman was killed in the crossfire.

Assassination Attempt on Haniyeh Triggers Wave of Attacks and Counterattacks

Meanwhile, dozens of Hamas gunmen raided a training camp of Abbas' Presidential Guard near the president's residence, killing a member of the elite force. Elsewhere on Sunday, Fatah supporters fired automatic weapons into the air during the funeral procession for a Hamas security guard killed Thursday during an assassination attempt on Haniyeh at the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt.

The fusillade prompted forces from both factions to immediately pour into the area in anticipation of further violence. Nervous Hamas militiamen briefly opened fire. Medical officials said six people were wounded in the exchanges.

In a separate incident, a 15-year-old Palestinian youth was wounded by Hamas gunmen after he threw rocks at a Hamas vehicle, Palestinian police officials said. But Hamas officials hotly denied shooting at the youth.

Cease-Fire Falls Apart Within Hours; Top Fatah Security Official Found Dead

Only hours after a cease-fire was announced, Hamas and Fatah gunmen waged a fierce street battle outside the president's residence around dawn today (Monday). The cease-fire, announced late Sunday night by a Fatah spokesman, was shaky from the start, as an intense gunbattle broke out just before midnight outside the Gaza City home of another top Fatah leader even as spokesman Tawfik Abu Hussa was making his announcement.

A Hamas official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, had confirmed the two sides had reached an agreement in principle to halt the violence, but had not yet finalized the deal.

As it turned out, the ceasefire appeared stillborn, with Fatah officials boycotting a joint news conference with Hamas called to announce the ceasefire, accusing Hamas of violating the accord.

Elsewhere, the bullet-riddled body of Colonel Adnan Rahmi, a top security officer affiliated with Fatah, was discovered in northern Gaza several hours after he disappeared, Palestinian officials said. No group took responsibility, but Rahmi's family, who believe he was kidnapped, blamed Hamas for the killing.

Behind the Violence: A Bitter Power Struggle Between Hamas and Fatah

The wave of attacks and counterattacks, which first erupted last Thursday, is the latest chapter in a months-long power struggle between Hamas and Fatah that now threatens to plunge the Palestinian Territories into an all-out civil war.

Despite the violence, Abbas appeared determined to push ahead with early elections, meeting with members of the Palestinian Central Election Commission at his Ramallah headquarters. The chairman of the commission said it would take at least until March to prepare for a new presidential and parliamentary vote.

An Abbas spokesman said the president telephoned U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to brief her about the situation. There was no immediate comment by the State Department.

Al-Qaida's No. 2 Man Rips Election, Says "Only Jihad Will Liberate Palestine"

Meanwhile, al-Qaida's No. 2 man denounced Abbas' call for new elections. In a newly-released video broadcast Wednesday on the al-Jazeera television network, Ayman al-Zawahiri said that "only jihad [holy war] will liberate Palestine."

Al-Zawahiri, declaring Palestine "the land of Islam," accused both Hamas and Fatah of engaging in a secular strategy that "will hand over Palestine to the Jews" and "not liberate a grain of sand of Palestine."

Any road other than jihad "will only lead to loss," he said.

Al-Jazeera aired a short excerpt of the video on both its Arabic and English channels early Wednesday morning. It was the first time that the Qatar-based network aired an al-Qaida video on its new English-language international channel.

For his part, Haniyeh -- who escaped unharmed from last Thursday's assassination attempt against him, but whose bodyguard was killed and whose son was wounded in the attack -- accused Abbas of trying to topple the Hamas government illegally and vowed to boycott the elections, should they take place.

"We confirm that the Palestinian government refuses the invitation to early elections because it is unconstitutional and could cause tension among Palestinians," Haniyeh told supporters Sunday at a Gaza refugee camp. He called Abbas' speech the previous day calling for early elections "inflammatory" and "insulting to the sacrifices and the pain of Palestinians everywhere."

A Government Paralyzed

Haniyeh says that Abbas does not have the legal authority to call early elections. Independent experts are divided. But Palestine's Basic Law, its de facto interim constitution which established the government, contains elements common to most parliamentary democracies, including terms of office of up to a maximum of five years.

Neither Abbas nor the Hamas-led Parliament, who were elected last January, are legally compelled to face the voters again until January 2011. Under most parliamentary systems, it's usually the prime minister, as head of the government, who can dissolve Parliament and call an early election at almost any time within that five-year mandate.

Under extraordinary circumstances, such as when the government loses a vote of confidence in Parliament or some other crisis arises that renders the government paralyzed, the titular head of state -- in this case, President Abbas -- would have the authority to do so.

Under an amendment to the Basic Law, adopted in 2003 under Abbas' late predecessor, Yasser Arafat, the president appoints the prime minister, who serves as chief of the Palestinian police, appoints cabinet ministers and runs the government.

As the leader of the largest party in Parliament, Haniyeh's appointment as prime minister by Abbas was in keeping with long-established protocols followed by most parliamentary governments.

Since the prime minister is appointed by the president in the first place, it is difficult, therefore, for this blogger to see how Abbas, as the titular head of state -- and, more importantly, the commander-in-chief of the Palestinian Army -- could lack the authority to dissolve the Palestinian Parliament and call new elections when it's abundantly clear that the government is hopelessly paralyzed.

As Haniyeh Denounces Early Election, a Poll Suggests Hamas Fears Losing Power to Fatah

Lest we forget, the Palestinian Authority -- established in 1994 under the Oslo peace accords between Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel -- is internationally recognized as the sole legitimate government of the Palestinian people pending the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state.

Thus, it's difficult for this blogger to understand why Hamas would be so reluctant to submit to the judgment of the Palestinian people at the ballot box without coming to the conclusion that Hamas is afraid of losing power to Fatah.

And apparently, I'm not alone in drawing that conclusion.

A poll released Sunday placed Abbas and Haniyeh in a dead heat in a presidential race. Abbas would win 46 percent, compared with 45 percent for Haniyeh. In the parliamentary contests, Fatah candidates would defeat Hamas candidates by a 42 percent to 36 percent margin.

The survey was conducted by the independent Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research among 1,270 Palestinians and had an error margin of plus or minus three percentage points.

Abbas Taking a Risky Gamble on a Hamas Defeat Just a Year After Its Smashing Upset Victory

Abbas is clearly gambling that Hamas will suffer a humiliating defeat at the polls. But it's a gamble that has a very high risk of backfiring -- throwing Abbas out of office and handing Hamas absolute control of the Palestinian government.

After all, it's been just over 11 months since Hamas scored a shocking upset victory over Fatah in the last Palestinian election -- a victory that no one, not even Hamas leaders themselves, had expected.

Hamas went into last January's election on an anti-corruption platform fully expecting to become a formidable opposition to what even Hamas expected to be a Fatah-led parliament, capturing 40 percent of the vote at best -- and were thus caught completely off-guard and unprepared to govern when the voters handed Hamas an outright parliamentary victory, even as they elected Abbas president by a nearly two-to-one margin over his nearest rival, Mustafa Bhargouti.

Despite Abbas' landslide win in the presidential race, Hamas underestimated the depth of pent-up ill feeling among the Palestinian people toward a decade of Fatah corruption under Arafat -- corruption so severe that even Abbas resigned in frustration as prime minister in 2003, just four months after Arafat appointed him to the post.

It was an ill feeling against Fatah -- Arafat's party -- that most Palestinians kept "under the radar," apparently out of fear of a severe crackdown by the PLO strongman, until Arafat's death in 2004.

Fatah did not anticipate the growing influence of Hamas and other militant Islamist groups -- especially among young Palestinian men under 40 years of age who were the vanguard of the two intifada uprisings against the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories.

Under Hamas, Life For the Palestinians, Already Bad, Has Gotten Much Worse

Even before Hamas came to power, life for the Palestinian people was getting harder. Many Palestinians are dependent on access to the Israeli job market. During the 1990s, Israel began to replace Palestinians with foreign guest workers. They were found to be both economical and useful as a means of limiting dependence on Palestinians as a source of cheap labor due to what it called security concerns.

This hurt the Palestinian economy, especially in the Gaza Strip, where 60 percent of the population lives under the poverty line. Since last January's election, however, life for the Palestinians under Hamas has gone from bad to worse.

Because Hamas adamantly refuses to renounce its avowed aim to destroy Israel or to recognize the Jewish state, the international community has cut off all but the most vital humanitarian aid to the Hamas-dominated Palestinian government, in the tightest economic boycott since the anti-apartheid sanctions against South Africa's former white minority regime.

Hamas, which has claimed responsibility for dozens of deadly suicide bombings in Israel in recent years, is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States and the European Union.

Palestinian Economy Collapses After Hamas Victory

For its part, Israel refuses to do any business with the Hamas government. Almost immediately after Hamas' victory, the Israelis cut off $55 million in daily tax-receipt transfers to the Palestinian government -- transfers made necessary by the fact that the Palestinians have no seaports or airports in which to send and receive goods.

The funds generated by the transfers accounted for a third of the Palestinian government's budget. Without them, the government could not pay its 160,000 civil servants -- including its 60,000 security and police officers.

The Israelis also tightened controls over the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, the Palestinians' only major land port of entry. Combined with U.S. and EU sanctions -- including a U.S. blockade of Palestinian banks -- the Palestinian economy quickly plunged into a severe recession that the World Bank compared to the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Unemployment skyrocketed to nearly 40 percent while the poverty rate soared to nearly 70 percent, according to the United Nations. Against this backdrop, tensions between Hamas and Fatah escalated rapidly, erupting into violence last Thursday with the assassination attempt on on Haniyeh.

The West blames Hamas' refusal to recognize Israel for triggering the international economic boycott that has brought the Palestinian economy to its knees. Yet despite nearly a year of unrelenting international pressure, Hamas has tenaciously refused to back down.

Are Palestinian Territories the Next Battleground in Global War Between Extremist Theocrats and Secularists?

As the crisis deepens, fears are mounting that a Palestinian civil war is imminent, if not inevitable. Because Hamas is an organization of Islamic militants whose first and only loyalty is to their particular brand of Islam, the chances of Hamas backing down are almost nil.

Indeed, the Palestinian Territories are increasingly likely to become the next battleground in a bloody struggle throughout the Muslim world pitting theocratic extremists against more secular Muslims.

And it's a struggle that isn't limited to the Muslim world.

There is a also an escalating "culture war" in the mostly-Christian West -- especially here in the United States -- between Christian fundamentalists and their secular counterparts. Focused primarily over social issues, such as abortion and same-sex marriage, the clashes here are a far cry from the bloody battles raging in the Muslim world. But the rhetoric employed by Christian fundamentalists has become more and more extreme and apocalyptic in recent years.

Even Israel is not immune, as witnessed by the bitter culture clashes between ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews -- clashes that boiled over last September into a week of riots by ultra-Orthodox Jews determined to stop a gay-pride parade in Jerusalem.

When the Berlin Wall was brought down in 1989 -- marking the symbolic end of the Cold War -- I had hoped that, at long last, the world would become a better place to live. Now, I'm not so sure. And I'm wondering if the fall of communism may have opened up a Pandora's box.

(Late-breaking information provided by The Associated Press and Agence France-Presse.)

# # #

Because Christmas Day and New Year's Day both fall on Mondays this year, my two holiday blog articles will be posted on consecutive Fridays: December 22 and 29.

# # #

Volume II, Number 2
Copyright 2006, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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