Two Palestines, Complete

By Elliot Jager
Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Some saw history in the making. With jubilation and fanfare Fatah and Hamas agreed last spring in Cairo to form an interim technocratic administration, hold parliamentary and presidential elections by May 2012 and, ultimately, to establish a national unity government. What's more, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal announced that his movement intended to adopt the strategy of "popular resistance." The announcement was received as "historic" by Haaretz: "Palestine" would soon have a unified government pushing for peace while, in the view of the newspaper, Israel's "belligerent" army and government would continue to bury itself in a "foxhole." Now, after squandering the better part of four years refusing to come to the negotiating table, Fatah officials have consented to hold exploratory talks and exchange position papers with Israeli officials at the Jordanian Foreign Ministry in Amman.

How are we to understand this seemingly promising triad: Palestinian unity, Hamas flexibility, and a renewed Fatah commitment to genuine peacemaking?  

A good place to begin is by examining what distinguishes the two Palestinian camps. Fatah, which means "conquest" or "victory," was founded in the 1950s well before Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza. While vaguely nationalist in orientation, Fatah never placed ideology at its forefront, focusing instead on "armed struggle." Since 1993, it professes to have abandoned annihilating Israel as its raison d'être, though its "militants" did engage in terrorism during the second intifada (2000–2005).

Hamas came into existence in 1987 (during the first intifada) as a wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. It considers "Palestine" an Islamic trust and is inalterably opposed to the existence of Israel. For tactical purposes Hamas too has flirted with its own form of moderation, sometimes advocating a temporary truce or hudna with Israel and lately claiming to have embraced "popular struggle"—meaning violent protests without the use of firearms in conjunction with ongoing political efforts in the pursuit of Israel's destruction. In any case, Hamas steadfastly adheres to its "right" to utilize terror as circumstances dictate.

Under pressure from the Bush administration, the Palestinian Authority held elections in 2006 which were won by Hamas. The Islamists had quite credibly accused Fatah of corruption in its administration of the PA and tarred them as kowtowing to Israel. In victory the Islamists refused to meet international demands to recognize Israel, honor agreements signed between the PLO and Israel, and to end terrorism.  In March 2007, suspecting that Fatah was about to make a U.S.-supported putsch for Gaza, Hamas struck first, defeating Fatah and ousting its gunmen from the Strip. Fatah was left in control of the PA in the West Bank; Hamas solidified its hold on Gaza.

Since then, when Arab countries are not playing the Palestinian camps against one other, they have sought to reconcile them. Most recently the post-Mubarak military rulers of Egypt brought Fatah's Mahmoud Abbas and Mashaal together in Cairo.

But for all the talk of unity, Hamas banned Fatah supporters in Gaza from celebrating its 47th anniversary in December and Fatah did not bother to tell Hamas it had plans to meet with Israel in Amman earlier this month. Hamas interpreted this affront as a blow to "national reconciliation." At the same time, the PLO expressed exasperation that Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh did not coordinate his recent tour of the Mideast with local PLO legations.

After senior PLO figure Nabil Shaath visited Gaza earlier this month, he returned to Ramallah to announce that the two "Palestines" were poised to set up a joint technocratic administration within weeks. Yet immediately afterwards Hamas barred other Fatah representatives from entering the Strip for reconciliation talks, presumably as an expression of Islamist displeasure over the Amman meetings. The banned officials complained of being humiliated at the Hamas checkpoint connecting Egypt and the Palestinian statelet. Hamas countered by accusing Fatah envoy Sakher Bseisso of blasphemy. Abbas himself remains persona non grata in Gaza; even public screening of his September 2011 announcement of the Palestinians' UN membership bid is forbidden.

Palestinian unity is not the only chimera.  Plainly, from an Israeli viewpoint, a shift in Hamas' creed away from doctrinaire bellicosity would be desirable.  For even if Fatah (which dominates the PLO) were sincere about wanting peace with Israel it could not legitimately act independent of Hamas.  As a supposed concession to Abbas, Mashaal publicly embraced (with provisos) the PLO's ceasefire with Israel along with its political onslaught at the UN. However, Hamas is itself divided between the "inside" leadership based in Gaza and "outsiders" such as Mashaal who until recently were headquartered in Damascus; it's also split inside Gaza between the "military" branch led by Ahmed al-Jabari and political leaders such as Haniyeh. All this explains why Mashaal's excruciatingly-hedged comparative moderation was received by the party's senior theoretician in Gaza, Mahmoud al-Zahar, with disdain. Hamas, he hissed, would continue its "armed resistance."

Since Palestinian unity is as much a fantasy as Hamas moderation, it is too bad that, on top of it all, even Fatah isn't wholly committed to peace. It is pushing the UN to create a Palestinian state without recognizing Israel as a Jewish state—using "continued settlement building" as its pretense. (Of course, the settlement issue would become moot were Abbas willing to negotiate permanent boundaries.) 

Moreover, Abbas has taken no steps to psychologically prepare his people for the painful compromises entailed in any peace agreement. Instead, his mantra is that "peace" will provide the Palestinian refugees and their descendants—by the millions—with the right to "return" to a truncated Israel, one that will have withdrawn to the indefensible 1949 armistice lines. Rather than preach reconciliation, Abbas tells his people that Israel is a "colonial" power, that it has besieged Jerusalem (as if the city had ever been the capital of any people but the Jews), and that it capriciously murders Palestinian innocents. His recent UN address did not contain one good word for Israelis and had nothing to say about coexistence.

The truth is that Fatah's own fidelity to the Oslo Accords is wobbly, characterized further by its willingness to pave the way for Hamas and Islamic Jihad to join the PLO without their committing to keeping its international obligations. While Abbas is personally scrupulous in opposing "armed struggle," he has enabled the glorification of terrorism within the polity he directs.

The Fatah-Hamas schism has only intensified the intransigence, fanaticism, and obduracy that have long characterized the Palestinian polity. Two "Palestines" do not equal one partner for Israel in building a viable two-state solution.

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