Daud Abdullah: No Winners in This Factional Conflict

By Dr. Daud Abdullah

All would be losers. That does not mean Palestinians only. It includes Israelis and Americans as well. For the Palestinians, it would be sheer folly to go down this route after more than 60 years of foreign domination. A full blown civil war as some openly predict would set back the national project another 60 years instead of hasten the dawn of freedom and independence. 

If the situation in the Occupied Territories was explosive after the signing of the Oslo Accords, then it is ten times worse today. To many the gunfights on the streets of Gaza represent the ultimate insult and injustice to the thousands of Palestinians who sacrificed their lives for freedom. They must be turning in their graves by the vile images of Palestinian attacking Palestinian.

Without the excessive foreign interference and meddling in their internal affairs Palestinians would not have got to this stage. Unfortunately for them the age-old tactic of ‘divide and rule’ is having its effect here. A mere five months after the Palestinian parliamentary elections Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert confirmed that he approved the transfer of arms and ammunition to Mahmud Abbas’ Presidential Guard in the West Bank in order to strengthen him against Hamas (Ha’aretz, 6/14/06). Additional arms shipments were received from Europe, Egypt, and Jordan, during the past months (Reuters, 10/4/06). Meanwhile, the US, on its part, sent forces to train Abbas’ Presidential Guard. Some reports suggest that Abbas expanded his Presidential Guard by roughly 70% since the elections and established new training camps for them in Gaza and the West Bank. (Reuters, 10/4/06).

Given his staunch opposition to the ‘militarization’ of the Intifada it is strange that Abbas is now the recipient of foreign arms shipments. More absurd is the fact that the generous suppliers of these weapons are the same governments that imposed crippling economic sanctions against the elected government in Palestine because it refuses to dismantle its military infrastructure. How cynical that western democracies should prefer to supply guns to a starving people instead of food. On the streets many deprived Palestinians argue that if the president really wants to bring money into the territories he is capable of doing it. He apparently has his own reasons and calculations for not to do so.

Not surprisingly a growing number of Palestinians are becoming increasingly mistrustful of their president and his Fateh movement. Instead of displaying the impartiality that goes with his office he has become a partisan to the extent of opposing his own government.  Needless to say that it is quite unusual for a president to go against his government. After the events of recent weeks and his poor handling of the crisis with his government many are now viewing Abbas himself as an obstacle and would rather see him resign. 

Until President Abbas’ last visit to the US in September 2006 there was much expectation that the attempts to form a government of national unity would succeed. His efforts were seemingly vetoed in Washington. Since then things have taken a downward spiral with the president making it clear that any Palestinian agreement must be agreeable to the Americans as well.

A Doomed Policy

The multi-national campaign to topple the elected the government in Palestine has so far failed. All indications are that it will backfire. Contrary to Israeli expectations the sanctions have not pressured Hamas to concede to the three demands of recognizing Israel, end of violence or respect for previous agreements. At the same time, they have not driven the Palestinian electorate to stage a popular uprising against their government, as perhaps it was once hoped.

In the absence of any clear political or constitutional means to depose the Hamas-led government the only option left, it seems, is military force. This is dangerous. As a resistance movement Hamas has paid a heavy price for its ideology and practice. A movement that withstood the military wrath of Israel for almost two decades and which sacrificed its most accomplished leaders for its cause would not walk away in the face of agent provocateurs or putschists.

Should Fateh or sections within its rank and file collaborate to subvert the elected government?  No they should not. The long term damage of such an undertaking would be far more disastrous than all the trappings of power and solemn promises of becoming ‘partners in peace.’ The late Yasser Arafat gave everything for these and yet in the end he was blockaded and confined to his compound until he died in November 2004.

Despite strong denials from Fateh of any collusion with the US and Israel many in the OT believe where there is smoke there is fire. Though, as a movement which dominated the Palestinian political scene for decades Fateh is not seriously regarded as an alternative to Hamas. Not only is its record of governance poor but more importantly it is today paralyzed by internal divisions and disputes.

In military terms, it is very unlikely that either faction, Fateh or Hamas, would be able to defeat the other. Even if Fatah does prevail militarily, it is highly unlikely that this would lead to a political breakthrough. Inevitably the Palestinian people would themselves question the legitimacy of such a government because it would be seen as a puppet of the Occupying Power.  This is a charge the movement has always had to fend off since the signing of the Oslo accords. At the same time it would lack the constitutional authority to govern.

Political Scenarios

Any government approved by the current Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) would be under Hamas control, or include Hamas representatives. If new elections are held in the near future, Hamas would likely sustain its power (according to a recent survey, Ha’aretz, 7/4/06). The reason being Palestinians are much more prepared to live with a resistance government than one which serves Israeli and US interest.

In reality if they are united behind their elected government, the Occupying Power would find its task much more difficult and indeed untenable. It is a fact that the Occupation is only strong because the Occupied are weak. As long as the attacks on the Palestinian Authority and destruction of ministries continue Ehud Olmert’s job would become much easier. He can get on with the business of seizing land and building more settlements without tangible opposition.

As it stands, the options available to all the parties are fast diminishing. A resort to early election would involve the dissolution of the parliament, government and presidency. With Hamas having the majority of seats in the PLC it would be difficult for Fateh to form a government without its cooperation and support. The other option which is undoubtedly the most radical is to abandon the whole idea of a national authority. Such an eventuality would plunge the West Bank and Gaza into a fit. Instead of being an unworthy beneficiary Israel would then have to come to terms with consequences of this new reality and its obligations as an Occupying Power toward the Palestinian people.

Meanwhile, as long as Hamas takes part in the political system of the PA, it will maintain significant influence, both in the PLC and in government.  In that light the sooner the parties agree on a national unity government the better. The trilateral approach of the ‘Document of National Accord (known as the Prisoners Document,) stricter control of the security forces and empowerment of the Ministry of Interior may prove to be a viable formula if the parties can muster the political will to implement them.

Crippling the Hamas government is one thing. Toppling it is another. No one can predict the security, political and social consequences if the elected Palestinian government was overthrown by a US backed junta. Wherever such coups occurred they turned out to be costly affairs that resulted in brutal dictatorships.

If the authors of the current embargo against the Palestinian people really wish to bring about a change and genuine democracy in the region, they must first effect a fundamental change of policy. There must be a change of attitude to the peoples of the region, Palestinians especially. Without their recognition of the fact that Palestinians cherish life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness no less than Americans, nothing would succeed.

-The author is senior researcher a the Palestinian Return Centre, London

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