The Palestinians have never been as divided and weak as they have been since this summer’s infighting in Gaza. Their internal conflict is undermining international solidarity and distracting them from challenging the Israeli occupation. The Palestinian territories could explode at any moment. HAMAS accuses Fatah of conspiring against its government, sometimes in complicity with Israel. Fatah blames HAMAS for failing to govern efficiently and for its violent coup in June directed at the presidency and the constitution. Independents criticize both movements for putting their factional interests above the nation’s.
Soon after the signing of the Oslo accords of 1993, I was at a roundtable discussion with intifada leaders and activists about the future of Palestine. To my amazement, the camaraderie and unity expressed in the first couple of hours changed to a hostile shouting match the moment our host announced that Israeli soldiers had evacuated their base and lifted the curfew. Fatah leaders issued threats and ultimatums against anyone who stood in the way of their attempts to turn an (imperfect) peace process into state-building. HAMAS members voiced their doubts and their defiance of an unfair diplomatic process, the bleak future of which was clear from its inception. There is some truth in both in those arguments, but HAMAS and Fatah, like all other Palestinians, are the casualties of a process that promised freedom and unity but produced despair and division, and locked them into zero-sum politics in which one faction’s success means the other’s failure. The Oslo accords produced a hegemonic peace that privileges Israelis, discriminates against Palestinians and produces instability. This happened as a result of contradictory developments: The 1987 intifada had convinced most Israelis of the futility of absorbing or annexing the OccupiedTerritories; but the inability of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to achieve its goals through confrontation became clear, with United States and Israeli triumphalism at the end of the cold war and the 1991 Gulf war. Unlike peace based on a balance of power, as between Egypt and Israel, Israeli-Palestinian peace reflects Israel’s strategic superiority, and its limits — its inability to impose its will on defiant Palestinians. Instead of a comprehensive peace agreement, Israel insisted on interim peace accords that allowed it to dictate the pace of progress in a transitional process in which agreements were reached in phases, and implemented in stages, forcing the governing Fatah movement to prove its security-worthiness to Israel by cracking down on “extremist”Islamists and secularists. The Palestinians signed seven transitional agreements, only to see their freedom and territory shrink with each internationally celebrated ceremony. The peace of the brave was slowly exposed as being that of the powerful and the reckless. The peace process produced a precarious equilibrium characterized by instability and recurring violence between occupier and occupied. It also led to intra-national instability for both Israel and the weaker Palestinians.
An eye for an eye
The 1994 Hebron massacre, when a radical Israeli settler, Baruch Goldstein, killed 29 and injured some 129 Palestinian worshippers, triggered a number of retaliatory suicide attacks by HAMAS, which destabilized the authority of both Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin. But Rabin’s reluctance to confront the settlers did not prevent his assassination by Yigal Amir in 1996. Arafat’s legitimacy became more uncertain and his position precarious: His attempts to suppress HAMAS weakened his popularity, and his reluctance to confront it directly weakened his authority.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, most major Palestinian suicide bombings were in retaliation for Israeli assassinations, many of which happened when the Palestinians were considering or implementing self-imposed restraint. On 31 July 2001, Israel’s assassination of the two leading HAMAS militants in Nablus ended a nearly two-month ceasefire and led to the terrible 9 August HAMAS suicide bombing in a Jerusalem pizzeria in which 15 died. On 23 July 2002, an Israeli air attack on a crowded apartment block in Gaza City killed a senior HAMAS leader, Salah Shehada, and 15 civilians, 11 of them children, hours before a unilateral ceasefire declaration. On 4 August, there was a suicide bombing. On 10 June 2003, Israel’s attempted assassination of the senior HAMAS political leader in Gaza, Abdel-Aziz Rantisi, wounded him and killed four Palestinian civilians, and led to a bus bomb in Jerusalem next day that killed 16 Israelis. This cycle of violence fed accusations that Fatah was doing Israel’s dirty work, and contributed to HAMAS’s popularity as the political underdog and spokesman for the marginalized and the forgotten. Continued Israeli oppression, closures and the expansion of Jewish settlements, which doubled in number between 1993 and 1999, made rejection of the peace process more and more popular, and discredited Fatah. At the Camp David summit in July 2000, Washington and Tel Aviv failed to force the PLO to renounce the Palestinians’ rights to their land, to Jerusalem and to the return of the refugees, restoring Arafat’s legitimacy as a leader capable of resisting U.S.-Israel pressures. But the sanctions that they then imposed after the eruption of the second intifada undermined Arafat’s capacity to govern, especially when both HAMAS and Fatah underestimated the effect of the 9/11 attacks on US policy in the Middle East.
“No partner for peace”
Prime Minister Ehud Barak dismissed the Palestinian Authority (PA) as “no partner for peace.” His successor, Ariel Sharon, took advantage of 9/11 to besiege Arafat’s headquarters and carry out what Israeli scholar Baruch Kimmerling called politicide, the destruction of the political and security infrastructure of the PA. As matters got out of hand, the United States was forced to approve a U.S.-led international commission headed by ex-senator George Mitchell. It concluded that Jewish settlement was the engine of instability and recommended freezing all settlement activities, including the “natural growth” claimed by Israeli within existing settlements. The absence of any Israeli initiative, and the launch in spring 2002 of a pan-Arab peace initiative that offered Israel full peace for full withdrawal from Arab occupied territories, put international pressure on the United States to act. The result was the formation of an international Quartet — the European Union, the United Nations, the United States, and Russia. Its role and influence was limited to promoting a U.S.-charted roadmap to peace in the Middle East. But very quickly it turned into a roadblock: President George Bush outsourced its implementation to his friend Sharon, who demanded a Palestinian crackdown on “terrorists” without giving anything in return. As the U.N. envoy Alvaro de Soto admitted, the Quartet became subservient to U.S. leadership as the U.N. was “pummeled into submission.”
After Arafat’s death in November 2004, and despite bankruptcy and charges of corruption, Fatah and the majority of the Palestinians backed the U.S. favorite Mahmoud Abbas as their new leader. But his humiliation by Israel — and the indifference shown to his reforms and overtures — made it clear that Israel, not Arafat, had been the obstacle to peace. Sharon’s arrogance led the Palestinians to give HAMAS a majority in the Legislative Council elections in January 2006. Immediately Israel and the United States made it clear they were not going to accept the democratic choice of the Palestinian people or recognize the newly-formed HAMAS government. The Israeli siege and Western sanctions crippled the economy and deepened political tensions between an Islamist party eager to rule and a secular movement addicted to power and eager to return to government. An answer to the impasse came from the least expected place: Israeli jails. Leading prisoners — Fatah’s Marwan Barghouti and HAMAS’s Abdul Khaleq al-Natshe among others — agreed on what came to be known as the Prisoners Document, which laid the ground for future coalition and cooperation between HAMAS and Fatah. After much hesitation, the two factions signed the Mecca agreement of May 2007, which had two objectives: to pave the way for a coalition government and to reform the PLO in such a way that HAMAS could become part of it. But because of continuing Western sanctions, the unity government did not last long, and its breakdown led to renewed violence and street clashes culminating in HAMAS seizing control of the Gaza Strip. Fatah exploited HAMAS’s excessive measures and mistakes in Gaza to solidify its control of the West Bank and the PA, with the help of Israel and the West. The absurdity and desperation of their infighting became clear as rival militants fought over their besieged territories and Israel looked on with satisfaction.
A dual discourse HAMAS had been confident and ambitious after its electoral victory and had formed its own government without freeing itself from the constraints of a process it had long opposed. As it stepped into Fatah’s shoes, it began to lose credibility, becoming hostage to the same dual discourse: good governance to please international donors, even under occupation; and the slogans of liberation and Islamism to please the masses. In this polarized muddle, the dynamics of the peace process had turned HAMAS’ successes into curses and Fatah’s defeats into blessings. After HAMAS had helped force Israeli settlers and soldiers to leave Gaza, Israel turned the impoverished strip into a big prison. A year later the HAMAS electoral victory on 25 January 2006 brought about the worst international sanctions against the Palestinians. HAMAS’ military wing captured an Israeli soldier at a Gaza crossing, to exchange him for women and children who were prisoners in Israeli jails; instead, this led to the arrest of a third of HAMAS’ deputies in the Legislative Council, and government ministers. Nearly two years later they remain in Israeli prisons with little if any international protest. As for Fatah, its defeat in the polls and on the streets brought it praise and support, at
Marwan Bishara, a Palestinian with Israeli nationality, is a writer, journalist and researcher at the École des hautes etudes en sciences socials, Paris, and author of Palestine/Israel: Peace or Apartheid: Occupation, Terrorism and the Future (Zed Press, London, 2006). ©2007 Le Monde diplomatique
least in the West, as a moderate party whose funds and prisoners should be released. A weakened Abbas, who had been snubbed and ignored, has now become a credible and courageous statesman in Washington and Tel Aviv. Today, he is being prepared as a partner for peace ready to make the necessary sacrifices, beyond those he made in Oslo. If, as expected, the Annapolis peace conference hosted by the United States in November produces another general declaration of principle under the guise of the war on terror and in the spirit of the failed roadmap, the rift between Fatah and HAMAS will deepen with severe consequences to the Palestinians, who may be the biggest losers.