THE PALESTINIAN STRUGGLE is generally understood to be an effort to end Israeli colonization and assert the dignity, humanity, and rights of the Palestinian people. As such, Palestinians face one of the biggest challenges ever encountered by a colonized nation: an oppressor with the international status of a victim. Despite over 50 years of relentless colonization driven by an ideology of religious and racial exclusivity, Israel continues to hold its position as a haven for the victimized Jews of Europe supported by the strongest nation in the world, the United States.
After decades of peace efforts and resistance, the Palestinians are now confronting a new task of immense difficulty and historical importance: political unity. Since Hamas’ sweeping victory in last year’s elections, Palestinians have organized countless meetings between the leading figures of Fatah and Hamas in order to create a unified platform. From Damascus to Mecca, Palestinian President, Mahmood Abbas, and Hamas leader and Palestinian Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh, have tried to curb the surge in factional violence and find a political solution to the factional disunity plaguing the Palestinian scene. Certainly the quest for a solid fist of Palestinian politics is nothing new. As far back as the catastrophe of 1948 (alNakba), one can say that Palestinians have been wrestling with the problem of national unity. The formation of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1 964, for example, attests to the struggles and success of past efforts to establish a unified Palestinian front. But today, with over 30 Palestinians killed in the last week during battles between Palestinians in what has been called both a proxy and civil war, the fragile fabric of Palestinian political unity stands to be unraveled.
It should be said that the outbreak of violence in Gaza and the West Bank isn’t just about Palestinian unity. While popular press sources offer the misguided narrative of Palestinian factional conflict to explain the violence, the forceful hands of Israeli and US policy remain unseen. Thus, as with most colonial stories, Palestinians have been branded with the mark of ineptitude that implicitly supports the white man’s burden and the “golden years” of occupation when Palestinians “got along” under Israel’s iron fist.
Without a doubt, the current conflict between Palestinian groups has a lot to do with the ongoing Israeli occupation and the crippling sanctions imposed by the so-called international community (aka the Quartet), which consists of Israel’s primary backer, the US, along with the UN, EU, and Russia. It is also a direct consequence of financial and military support for Abbas and Fatah by Israel and the US. Their aim: to set up a proxy war that can keep Hamas on the ropes while Israel furthers its colonization of Palestinian lands and blames the Palestinians for the absence of peace. But in order to appreciate recent efforts to create a consolidated Palestinian political front in the form of a National Unity government, we have to give the internal crisis of Palestinian politics as much importance as the external crisis presented by Israel and the Quartet.
Despite initial limited media attention to Hamas during the Al-Aqsa Intifada,1 the group was thrust into the international spotlight after its sweeping victory in the Palestinian national elections Jan. 25, 2006. Winning 74 of the 132 seats on the Palestinian Legislative Council, Hamas succeeded in asserting its political position in the national history of the Palestinian people.
Infamous in the West for its role in organizing suicide operations against Israel, Hamas’ electoral victory shed light on the organization’s significance in the social and political fabric of Palestinian society. Indeed, its militant stance against the Israeli occupation during the first and second Intifada was only half the story. For many Palestinians, Hamas’ militancy was always inseparable from its character as a religious movement grounded in charitable institutions, such as schools, clinics and youth activity centers.
Politically, Hamas has historically provided an alternative to the secular nationalism offered by the Palestine Liberation Organization, particularly Yasser Arafat’s Fatah. Rejecting the framework of negotiations with Israel, Hamas never joined the PLO. It preferred to keep a distinctly Islamic expression of national liberation encompassing a religious struggle for all of historic Palestine.2 Hamas’ approach, however, never entailed direct confrontation with the PLO or, after the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Authority.
Knowing its limitations in power and popularity, Hamas has traditionally employed a strategy of political pragmatism by testing the waters before diving in. Thus, during the Oslo period, the group chose to limit its participation in the Palestinian elections through a nationwide boycott. Running on individual tickets, Hamas carefully balanced its rejectionist attitude toward the Oslo framework with its basic need to stay in the game.
Pragmatism aside, Hamas has nevertheless remained an essential component of the fragmented arena of Palestinian politics. Propagating an “Islamic” solution to the ongoing problem of statelessness, Hamas has used militancy and charity work to secure its place in the struggle, although often at the expense of national unity. During the Oslo Accords, for example, the organization led multiple attacks on Israelis in an attempt to derail negotiations and boost its image as a resistance movement. Although the group succeeded in advancing both goals, it also led to a stiffening of power politics within Fatah, which rightfully perceived the group to be an increasing threat to its ever-expanding powers. Hamas also furthered the polarization of Palestinian factions that resulted in a growing divide between the Islamic and secular approach to their plight. Supporters of both movements began to treat each other as impediments to their own agendas at the expense of the collective need for a united front against Israel’s colonization.
In Oslo’s wake, Hamas capitalized on Fatah ‘s largely discredited efforts to deliver a solution to Palestinian suffering. Increasing its militant stance against the Israeli occupation, most notably in the form of suicide operations, Hamas managed to elaborate its role in the Palestinian resistance at a heavy price. On the one hand, Hamas sent a message to Palestinians that, unlike Fatah, it could sucker punch the mighty Israeli Goliath. With Arafat trapped in his Ramallah compound, Hamas led the Palestinian resistance while garnering popular support. In this context, even Israel’s attempts to destroy Hamas’ leadership boosted the group’s image as a grassroots resistance movement. On the other hand, Hamas’ attacks gave meaning to Israel’s identity as the victim, which legitimized unprecedented assaults on Palestinian civilians, such as the Jenin massacre in 2002. Employing the discourse of the “war on terror,” Israel used Hamas’ suicide operations as a pretext for a full-scale reoccupation of the West Bank and massive military campaigns against mostly civilian populations, many of whom paid with their lives. Thus, like a double-edged sword, Hamas’ militancy cut both ways.
Today, Hamas’ electoral victory says as much about Fatah’s failures as it does about the shifting tides of Palestinian national politics. Since Oslo, Fatah’s record as a Palestinian movement has been tarnished by corruption and an insatiable thirst for power. Built on the pillars of nepotism and empty promises, the group failed to advance Palestinian goals and sacrificed its image on the altar of power in the form of the Palestinian Authority. But Hamas’ success can’t be explained by Fatah’s failures alone. Since its establishment in the late 1980s, the movement has worked hard to develop an ideological platform that challenges secular nationalism with a homegrown idea: Islam. Within this approach, Palestinians found a long-term vision built on the principles of moral reform and a stiff resistance. Thus, on election day, Hamas not only presented a competing narrative for the Palestinian struggle, but also reclaimed a position of strength grounded in its refusal to compromise.
It is within the context of this political history, then, that we can meaningfully speak of the internal Palestinian crisis. To this day, Palestinians have been struggling for a common goal, and have been frustrated by internal divisions and the absence of an integrated framework for confronting Israeli colonization and leading the national movement. Hamas’ electoral success has yet to solve this problem. Even though it has only been in the government for a short time, the period has been marked by factional tensions and occasional hints of what some fear could be a looming civil war or another “Algerian scenario.” In addition, its refusal to accept the Quartet’s terms for negotiations has led to international sanctions that amount to nothing short of collective punishment of the entire Palestinian people. Thus, although its promise to take a stiff position vis-à-vis the Israeli occupation was once an empowering electoral step, it has only furthered Palestinian suffering and isolation in the international realm.
Political turmoil aside, the Hamas government can be credited with (at least) facilitating two unprecedented steps toward creating a solid base for Palestinian unity. The first is the Palestinian National Accord. Faced with the simple fact that neither Fatah nor Hamas seemed able to resolve their rivalry and that Palestinian life was deteriorating rapidly as a result, members of leading Palestinian factions decided to draft a political blueprint for national unity. Named after its authors, who remain in Israeli jails, the prisoners’ document consisted of 1 8 points representing an agreement reached by members of Fatah, Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Islamic Jihad.
Cutting across ideological lines, the document called for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, and remained committed to the right of return for all refugees. It also set forth the goal of integrating the resistance into one united body designed to coordinate defense and attacks within the 1967 borders. But the document’s greatest success was reflected in the goal of forming a national unity government based on the 2005 Cairo initiative, which would include Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the PLQ
Although the above points hardly exhaust the document’s overall significance, alone they stand as a symbol of great importance for establishing Palestinian political unity. Consider first that Hamas has never fully accepted the idea of two states as a meaningful goal for the Palestinian national cause.’ Until now, the movement has remained steadfast in its position that the land of Palestine is an Islamic trust and therefore incompatible with the presence of the Israeli state. Yet by endorsing the principles of the document, Hamas implicitly recognized the Israeli state, even if only temporarily. It also suggests that the movement is once again employing political pragmatism as a method for confronting an uncertain future. Indeed, the idea that the Palestinian president will carry the burden of negotiations4 with Israel lets Hamas have its ideological cake and eat it too. Not only does the political division of labor leave Hamas safely behind its charter while the president confronts the distasteful job of negotiations, but it also lets democracy smooth out tensions between its ideological positions and the practical need for an end to the occupation.
Pragmatics cannot be limited to words alone. Thus in an effort to resolve their differences and transform the prisoners’ document into a meaningful agreement, Hamas and Fatah agreed that it was time to realize the vision of the sixth point and form a national unity government. The decision to form the new government did not necessarily reflect political goodwill alone. The Palestinian government and people were under enormous pressure from Israel (through brutal military incursions and the refusal to give the Palestinians their share of much-needed taxes), the United States and the European Union. As early as February 2005,5 the United States declared its intention to use economic sanctions and political isolation to force the Palestinians to withdraw their support for Hamas and undermine their democratic choice.
The Hamas-led government was immediately deprived of approximately $60 million per month, which Israel claimed was due primarily to the group’s refusal to recognize Israel. Following suit, the United States decided to withhold its share of Palestinian aid, which amounts to about $420 million per year. The European Union, the largest contributor of aid to the Palestinian Authority, also declared its support for the economic sanctions and cut off most of its $600 million donations. Add this to the fact that even Arab and Muslim states have curbed their meager support for the Palestinian government, and you get a society that is on the verge of collapse.
Economic pressure, while critical, was not the only step taken to annihilate the new Hamas government. On June 10, 2006, two months after Ehud Olmert officially became the prime minister, the Israeli Defense Force shelled a Gaza beach,6 killing seven members of a Palestinian family. Not long after, Israeli rocket attacks killed scores of Palestinian civilians, culminating in the so-called Summer Rains offensive in which more than 1 50 Palestinian civilians were killed in Gaza alone. Politically, neither the United States nor the EU criticized Israel’s actions and remained firmly behind their position on the economic sanctions.
Faced with these challenges, Hamas and Fatah could no longer afford (nor, for that matter, could the Palestinians) the luxury of political divisions. In early September 2006, both groups confirmed their pledge to end their political differences and challenge the unjust sanctions by forming a national unity government. Shortly thereafter, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attended a UN General Assembly meeting where he expected to garner support for the effort to form a new government and kick start peace talks. During his stay, he met with Israeli officials and US President George Bush, who expressed limited support for the plan. Rather than embrace Abbas’ proposal for renewed peace negotiations, Bush simply reaffirmed his support for the “moderate” leader and sent him home empty-handed.
Since December 2006, 100 Palestinians have been killed as a result of internal fighting between Fatah and Hamas loyalists; no less than 33 were killed during the last three days. But as the battle rages on, the signs of a new political horizon are emerging in the east. Symbolically hosted by the Saudi Kingdom in Mecca, the birthplace of Islam, recent Palestinian negotiations have produced the basis for a new Hamas-led government, with Haniyeh as Prime Minister and an as-yet unidentified member of Fatah as acting deputy prime minister. Addressing international concerns, the plan also has the feature of “respecting” past PLO agreements signed with Israel, a position Hamas has, until now, rejected. So far, most of the plan remains undisclosed and perhaps undetermined. Thus it looks more like a sketch than an architectural blueprint for unity.
But despite its limitations, the agreement nevertheless signals a new step towards the realization of the elusive goal of unity. Until now, most efforts have faltered under Abbas’s leadership, whose commitment to serving the twin masters of Israel and the US has placed him within an untenable political position vis-à-vis Hamas. Abandoning the Prisoners’ Document, Abbas has often distanced himself from the most realistic framework for securing a unity government and further alienated himself from the Palestinian people. Perhaps more importantly, the Mecca agreement also suggests that Fatah’s position as an Israeli/US proxy is still incomplete and, potentially, preventable. Recently, the US offered $86 million of support for Abbas claiming its commitment to “boosting” the “moderate” leader. In addition, a recent shipment of arms to Abbas’ executive guard suggests the possibility of an intense struggle under the Jewish state’s authorization and direct support. But if the agreement holds, then perhaps Fatah can refrain from playing the colonial role of proxy and work towards uniting the people under its own conditions.
For Hamas, the agreement also presents an opportunity to avoid prolonging the illegal and deplorable policy of international sanctions. Thus far, international economic sanctions have forced Hamas to seek support from the only willing source, Iran. By accepting financial support from the Islamic Republic, Hamas has raised international “fears” of a Hezbollah-like situation in Gaza and stiffened the Quartet’s position on the Palestinian government. One can hardly blame the group considering that the international sanctions are the very reason Hamas turned to Iran for much-needed funds. In this sense, the Quartet has taken the hypocritical stance of punishing Hamas for following the only course available, given international conditions. But the Mecca agreement also comes with the Saudi promise of $i billion dollars in aid to the starved Palestinian government. If delivered, the assistance will not only undermine Western accusations that Hamas is aligned with the “axis of evil,” but also encourage other Arab leaders to play a greater role in supporting Palestinians and repair the fractured arena of Arab political unity.
But the effects of the Mecca agreements will have to be felt fast. Indeed, while Palestinian leaders hammer out their political differences, violence continues on the streets of Gaza. In addition, Israel and the Quartet (excluding Russia) are doing all they can to derail the Saudi initiative by downplaying Palestinian efforts and reaffirming their hypocritical conditions for negotiations. Their responses thus far have been nothing short of a flat-out rejection, stating that the new Palestinian government must recognize Israel’s “right to exist,” a condition with as little legal weight as a feather on a windy day: states don’t have rights. Furthermore, Israel is exploiting every minute of Palestinian disunity to further its colonial goals. While international attention remains fixed on negotiations in Mecca, Israel is expanding illegal settlements throughout the West Bank, fortifying its Apartheid wall in east Jerusalem, and conducting controversial excavations at the al-Aqsa mosque,7 Islam’s third holiest site, thus enraging Muslims across the world.
Suffice it to say that neither the US nor Israel seems willing to accept any form of Palestinian unity that doesn’t conform to the unrealistic conditions set forth by the Quartet: recognize Israel’s “right” to exist while denouncing its own right to resist Israeli colonization. By rejecting the Prisoners’ Document as the basis for a new Palestinian government, it seems that the international community is once again prepared to hold out for greater political concessions and more Palestinian bloodshed. Indeed, while the EU and UN ignore Palestinian efforts for unity, the US and Israel have pursued a military option by using Abbas and Fatah to fight a proxy war against Hamas.
The most basic of historical experience teaches us that Palestinian disunity only benefits Israel. Hoping to impose its own recipe for solving the conflict, one based on a unilateral withdrawal from minor settlements and the annexation of large chunks of Palestinian territory including east Jerusalem, the Israeli government is content to see factional conflict lead to widespread desperation and greater concessions. From afar, it seems that Palestinians have few options available to them except to resolve internal divisions and return to the principles of the prisoners’ document in order to form a new government and avert a civil war. Whether or not the Mecca Accords and new government will end the sanctions remains to be seen but, from a Palestinian standpoint, the effort can at least provide the basis for a much-needed unity that can effectively confront the world community and continue its struggle for freedom and justice.