The Hamas-Fatah Two-Step
Disturbed by the diplomatic deadlock over negotiations with the Palestinians, many Westerners, and some Israelis themselves, have focused on the need to accommodate the demands of Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA). For, they suggest, the alternative would be much worse: namely, being forced to deal with the chronic and openly violent rejectionism of Hamas, the terrorist movement that controls the Gaza Strip. Whatever the merits of this analysis—one might argue that it actually removes any onus on Fatah to meet Israel half-way—this may be a good time to remind ourselves what divides the two rival Palestinian movements, and what difference that division makes.
Fatah was founded in the 1950s with the straightforward, nonsectarian goal of destroying Israel via "armed struggle"—this, at a time when Arabs themselves fully controlled the West Bank, Gaza, and east Jerusalem. Under the mercurial Yasir Arafat, Fatah came to dominate Palestinian politics. In 1993, abandoning the immediate armed liberation of Palestine for a nebulous alternative strategy, Arafat signed the Oslo Accords, which collapsed in bloodshed seven years later. The strategy of today's Fatah, led by Abbas, is if anything more opaque than Arafat's.
No such opacity afflicts Hamas, however. An offshoot of the virulently rejectionist and anti-Semitic Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas came into its own in 1987. Considering Palestine a Muslim trust, it saw and still sees Islam as engaged in a zero-sum religious war with the Jews. Hamas viewed with contempt Arafat's duplicities, his rumored personal decadence, and the Palestinian Authority's endemic corruption. It is crystal-clear on its intention to eliminate the state of Israel.
In January 2006, a year after Arafat's death, Hamas overwhelmingly defeated Fatah in the Palestinian Authority elections. As a stopgap measure, the Saudis engineered a unity government, an experiment that crashed and burned when Hamas expelled Fatah from Gaza in June 2007 and set up its own regime there. Since then, it has persecuted Fatah followers in Gaza, while Fatah has continued to arrest Hamas men in the West Bank.
If the divisions between the two groups are unmistakable, down to their opposing patrons—Fatah relies on the ostensible moderate Arab states, while Hamas gets its main backing from Shi'ite Iran—there are also areas of seeming similarity, and some of the differences themselves are matters of degree rather than of essence.
Thus, both camps suffer from fairly severe internal schisms. Fearing a putsch, Mahmoud Abbas expelled his former Gaza strongman Mohamed Dahlan from the West Bank. For its part, Hamas inside Gaza is at odds with the movement's Damascus-based leadership; and even within Gaza itself, "Prime Minister" Ismail Haniyeh holds little sway over the Izzad-Din al-Qassam gunmen, a group even more unalterably intransigent than he.
As in Gaza under Hamas, moreover, Fatah-dominated media in the West Bank and the Fatah-directed curriculum of PA schools ceaselessly teach the illegitimacy of Israel and celebrate "resistance" through "martyrdom." As for Abbas's own mulish refusal to negotiate with Israel or to recognize it as a Jewish state, it sometimes resembles only a paler and dodgier version of Hamas's sweeping rejectionism.
In the end, though, and nuances aside, there is no denying the reality or the crippling effect of the divisions in the Palestinian polity, just as there is no denying the spoiler role played by Hamas—or Abbas's genuine fear of overthrow by that organization should talks with Israel lead to a genuine peace. Rank-and-file Palestinians, who hold both factions jointly responsible for the split, know there can be no "Palestine" without reconciliation. And there have indeed been episodic if superficial and unconvincing signs of rapprochement, with intermediaries continuing to work toward a meeting between senior figures in the opposing camps.
What would such a rapprochement produce, however? As things stand now, the price of burying the hatchet would likely be an even more obdurate policy on Israel, if now a unified one. But the greater likelihood is that the hatchet will remain unburied, and that the Hamas-Fatah divide will last for a very long time. And for good reason: the real question, both for Palestinian society and for the future of the conflict with Israel, remains who is going to lead the Palestinian people, and to where. Until that question is resolved, within and between the feuding parties, little else can be accomplished.
This is a singularly inconvenient but intractable truth. By ignoring it, by industriously campaigning instead for will-o'-the-wisp ideas like unilateral Palestinian statehood or an imposed solution to the Arab-Israel conflict, by skewering practically any internal Israeli measure, from the mundane to the imprudent, as heralding the death knell of the two-state solution, "peace-loving" Westerners and Israelis alike serve only to encourage the most extreme among the real enemies of peace.
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