By Ira Glunt
The Israeli and US policy of supporting the newly formed Palestinian government of the weak Mahmoud Abbas and his divided Fatah party while attempting to isolate and paralyze the democratically elected Hamas government, could prove to be as great a blunder as the debathification of Iraq. It may be recalled that after the US invasion, Paul Bremer empowered Shiite and Kurdish groups the Americans thought would be cooperative, while they dismantled the Sunni administrative and military infrastructures that were in place and capable of maintaining security and a functioning government. What resulted has been brutal civil strife that shows no signs of abating.
Fatah, the secular party which has headed the Palestinian Authority from its creation in accord with the 1993 Oslo Agreement, were voted out of office in a parliamentary election in January 2006. Although they signed a peace treaty with Israel, militias loyal to Fatah have been responsible for violent attacks against Israelis, which have included suicide bombings. Israel and the US have often accused Fatah of condoning these violent attacks. Mahmoud Abbas has repeatedly condemned all violence but is not able to control all the militant organizations within his camp.
Hamas is an Islamic party who won the 2006 election on the basis of a pledge of clean government and Palestinian disappointment in Fatah’s lack of progress toward a negotiated settlement with Israel. Hamas opposes the Oslo peace process, and instead advocates armed struggle. They have been responsible for a violent campaign against both Israeli military and civilian targets both in Israel and within the territories. Since Hamas’ election, they have significantly reduced the number of attacks against Israel and have often adopted a much more conciliatory tone. From its inception in 1989, Hamas has been a growing force in Palestine. They have developed a vast network of hospitals, schools, mosques and welfare organizations which are a major source of their popular support.
The history of the relationship between Fatah and Hamas has been characterized by both conflict and attempts at unity. The conflict, which has been driven by both ideology and a struggle for power, has at times turned extremely violent. Trying to end the violence, last February, Fatah joined a unity government led by Hamas. That government was dissolved by Mahmoud Abbas in reaction to Hamas’ recent expulsion of Fatah security forces from Gaza last month. Hamas does not recognize Abbas’ new government and continues to maintain its own legitimacy. Presently, Fatah controls the West Bank and Hamas rules in Gaza.
Just as the Americans underestimated the capabilities of the Iraqi Sunnis to resist the Shiite and Kurdish-dominated government, as well as the US occupation, both the Israelis and the Americans are underestimating the power of Hamas vis-à-vis an opposition US/Israeli sponsored Fatah party. As Aaron Miller wrote in the Los Angeles Times web site on July 15, Abbas barely controls Fatah, and his hold on the West Bank is even more tenuous. In Miller’s opinion, Abbas lacks the power to successfully negotiate with Israel. Israeli officials have often concurred, even ridiculing Abbas publicly.
This week, 178 battle-hardened Palestinians who were on the Israeli “kill or capture” list, agreed to a clemency deal. None of them are affiliated with Hamas. The agreement was presented as simply a good faith gesture which indicated Israel’s desire to show a new willingness to cooperate with Abbas and his newly appointed (with the US seal of approval) Prime Minister Salam Fayad. In exchange for the clemency, the Palestinians purportedly agreed to relinquish their weapons and renounce the armed struggle against Israel. However, Israeli news sources later disclosed that the fighters who signed the agreement will join with Abbas’ security forces in an attempt to disarm the West Bank military apparatus of Hamas, which is significant.
Most of those who were included in the clemency deal are members of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades or other militias who are under the Fatah umbrella. Although these fighters are associated with Fatah they have never foresworn the armed struggle against Israel. Among those who have signed the pledge is Zakaria Zubeidi, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades commander in Jenin. Last April, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) shot him in the shoulder in a failed “targeted assassination” operation. Only weeks ago, the IDF killed Zubeidi’s deputy, Mahmoud Abu el-Hija, who the Israelis claim was involved in weapons manufacturing.
It is difficult to believe that the fighters who are included on the clemency list will give up their arms or renounce violence against Israel. When Abbas recently demanded that all West Bank militias turn in their weapons, Zubeidi was quoted in an Israeli newspaper as saying, “[The decree] has nothing to do with the Brigades. It’s meant for Hamas. Abbas recognizes the Brigades as a legitimate source of resistance.”
The sudden willingness of Israel to ally themselves with fighters like Zubeidi not only seems cynical, but has the odor of desperation. It may be an indication of the IDF’s fear that Fatah security forces will need additional fighters to confront Hamas militarily. A direct confrontation between Fatah and Hamas could be ongoing and very bloody, which would only worsen the already harsh conditions in the territories. The Israeli demand that the Hamas government renounce violence as a precondition for recognition appears to contradict its deal with the Fatah militants who also will not give up what they consider their right of armed resistance against an occupying power. Apparently, Israel feels that a temporary alliance with the militants will help defeat Hamas and they that they will deal with the Fatah militants at a later date.
The clemency agreement between the Fatah militants and the Israelis will surely be short term. It is driven by the joint US/Israeli strategy of destroying Hamas, who they have labeled a terrorist organization. This strategy began immediately after Hamas’ surprising electoral victory. It has included an economic boycott, withdrawal of financial aid, withholding of tax and customs revenues, diplomatic isolation, arrests of Hamas legislators and direct military actions. The campaign against Hamas has also included US financed training of military forces loyal to Abbas, who were specifically tasked to undermine the Hamas government. None of these tactics weakened Hamas, as is indicated by their recent military victory in Gaza.
Ironically, the policy of isolating Hamas makes Abbas and Fatah less popular since they are increasingly perceived by the Palestinian public as allied with the US and Israeli enemy. Additionally, since the Israelis have shown no indication that they will ease the conditions of the occupation or begin to negotiate an equitable settlement leading to the promised two-state solution, any Abbas commitment to negotiation seems futile. Although Israel has previously written him off as too weak to be a peace partner, the sudden ascent of Hamas, despite all efforts to suppress them, has suddenly made supporting Abbas appear to Israel and the US as the best of some bad choices.
They have temporarily gone underground so the actual strength or intentions of the Hamas security forces in the West Bank are unknown. Many members of Fatah are convinced that Hamas is a strong military presence there and will attempt to repeat their Gaza success in the West Bank in the near future. Any military confrontation between these two factions would surely be bloody, ruinous for the Palestinians and deleterious to any future prospects for an Israel/Palestinian peace agreement.
The US and Israel should listen to Saudi Arabia and Egypt who are supporting a return to the Hamas/Fatah unity government. Hamas has an almost two decade history of political and social activism in Palestinian territories. They have significant support among the population as their election victory showed. They have demonstrated diplomatic flexibility and a willingness to compromise in the past. Additionally, they have already stated that they are willing to restore the broken partnership with Abbas. It is time to recognize that Hamas is a political reality that should not be dismissed.
If the US and Israel continue to exclude Hamas; if they support a policy which will lead to military confrontation among Palestinians; it will be taking a giant step toward creating anarchy in the territories. If the Israel and the US want to work toward peace, they should not arm Fatah fighters in order to destroy Hamas, but rather talk to Hamas and help work to reconstitute the unity government that they have misguidedly helped destroy.
-Ira Glunts first visited the Middle East in 1972, where he taught English and physical education in a small rural community in Israel. He was a volunteer in the Israeli Defense Forces in 1992. Mr. Glunts lives in Madison, New York where he operates a used and rare book business, writes and is a part-time reference librarian. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org