Most of what I've read and those I've spoken to strongly confirms that the Palestinian vote was first and foremost a rejection of the corruption and incompetence of Fatah. Money has poured in from various sources; millions of dollars have disappeared into the pockets of various bureaucrats and party good old boys. Jobs, international aid and scolarships have been doled out by Fatah members to their own families and friends. Conservative estimates put unemployment at around 40%. So they threw the bums out.
The big questions are whether Hamas will prove competent at governing, and, more significantly, whether the realities of governing will cool Hamas out. As to the first, I think probably. Hamas has proven well-organized and capable of picking up much of the social services-slack left by Fatah, so I'd be surprised if their move into governance wasn't more or less smooth. As to the second, I really don't know. We don't have to look very far in the region to see examples of terrorists who were rehabilitated as politicians, and I think Hamas is probably a more ideologically diverse organization than is recognized, but the fact remains that their charter calls for the destruction of Israel, and this is a major problem, not least in that it provides Israeli hardliners the perfect excuse to continue to refuse talks as they consolidate the large settlement blocs in the West Bank. There's no downplaying this element of Hamas's program. History has clearly shown that eliminationist rhetoric must be taken seriously.
Many have argued that a good way to deal with Islamist parties is to allow them into the democratic process, that the practice of conventional politicking will moderate them, or at least produce moderate factions within them. Palestine will be a test of this idea, though once again we can't ignore that it's taking place within the context of a military occupation. It's my strong feeling that true peace and security will never be achieved while the Israeli occupation persists, and that the constant delay of final status negotiations on borders, refugees and Jerusalem, has only benefited hardliners on both sides.
Despite the protestations from the usual suspects, I don't think the vote for Hamas represents a vote for war. All reliable poll information that I know of shows that a majority of Palestinians still believe in a two-state solution, they just don't believe anymore that Fatah is capable of delivering it. They watched throughout the 90s, saw the handshakes on the White House lawn, saw partial sovereignty granted, saw Arafat's celebratory return to Gaza, even as they saw the settlements grow, the checkpoints proliferate, and the occupation intensify. Here in the U.S. Israel's apologists can pretend the occupation doesn’t exist, but for Palestinians this is not an option. To live under occupation is to live in a kind of purgatory; its various inhumanities attend their daily lives in countless ways. Frankly, I think it's a miracle that the Palestinians should have any faith whatsoever in democracy at this point, but they do. It's clear, though, that one element of the Hamas victory is that they are seen as being willing to fight back against Israel in a war that is being waged against the Palestinians every day. A final question is whether they'll be willing or able to transform this credibility into tangible steps toward ending the occupation, achieving Palestinian sovereignty, and creating a stable state without revanchist ambitions.