Rami Bathish: Beyond Factional Antagonism

By Rami Bathish

Following some of the bloodiest clashes in a year between Hamas and Fateh loyalists in the Gaza Strip, in which at least 25 people were killed and 250 injured last week, the prospects of sustainable truce within the Palestinian territories seem more distant than ever. The looming threat of civil war is no longer a perceived nightmare, but rather a daily reality in which all Palestinians find themselves. Despite repeated appeals for calm by political leaders from both factions, violence continues on the streets of the Gaza Strip, and the chain of command is often lost at the outbreak of the slightest incident.

Once again, top leaders of Hamas and Fateh have agreed to renew the truce, and President Mahmoud Abbas is due to meet with Hamas politburo Chief Khaled Mash’al in Saudi Arabia tomorrow in order to reach agreement over the formation of a Palestinian national unity government. However, on the streets of Gaza back home, volatility prevails and the threat of continued clashes is almost inevitable.

Undoubtedly, there are underlying causes to this shameful internal strife, not least the paradoxical paradigm shift in Palestinian politics since Hamas’ rise to power in January 2006, and the shock effect it has generated both internally and externally. However, the intensity and concentration of factional confrontations between Palestine’s two giants in the Gaza Strip, which have been contained to a large extent in the West Bank, calls for deeper assessment of the social, cultural, political, and economic composition of the former.

Throughout Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories (since 1967), the Gaza Strip, more so than the West Bank, has evolved into a conservative socio-political entity in which the absence of individual and communal security has given rise to a dominant alternative to a social order usually provided by the state, or government: the family, the neighbourhood, the clan, even the security forces have increasingly become the haven in which Gazans find refuge, and consequently, the protector to which they pledge their loyalty.

Combined with Israel’s relentless military assaults and strangulating blockades against it, the dire economic situation inside the Gaza Strip, particularly during the past two years, has resulted in the near complete collapse of basic security; a soaring unemployment rate has already exceeded 42%, 79% of Gaza’s population are living below the poverty line of US$ 2/day, and prolonged shortages in fuel, medicine, food, and other basic commodities have provoked repeated appeals even by the international community (who’s economic boycott of the Palestinian government is partly to blame) to reverse what has evidently become a humanitarian disaster.

Ultimately, a socially and economically disintegrated Gaza Strip has narrowed its people’s sense of communitarianism in shape and form; it is no longer the (collapsing) collective system of governance that they can depend on, but rather their own tribal instinct and order, albeit at the expense of greater social cohesion and national unity.

Of particular significance are the composition, weight, and standing of Palestinian security forces among the local community of the Gaza Strip. Since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994, Gaza has become the power base of the PLO’s security apparatus. As a result of decades in exile, the returning Palestinian security figureheads have been able to exploit the welcoming climate of Gaza, which was provided without the slightest sense of scrutiny or demand for accountability.

Consequently, militaristic forces were capable of mobilising public support for the security services, as political entities in themselves, on the basis of the existing social trends mentioned above. In other words, the ground in Gaza was ripe for mobilising wide public support for the security services; entire families were labelled as “pro” or “anti” a certain jihaz (Arabic for security force), clans indirectly, and often openly, made their loyalties clear to certain security forces, so on and so forth.

In effect, this meant that in times of increased hostility, these masses from within the populace became directly involved, and not merely observers. Ultimately, what added more volatility to this explosive equation rested solely on the creation of the Executive Force in the Gaza Strip last year; the Palestinian Interior Ministry’s Hamas-led 5,000 plus man-strong security force, which was created in contradiction to Palestinian basic law and posed a serious disruption to the fragility of the existing Fateh-led security apparatus.

It is no surprise, therefore, that today’s direct political collision between Fateh and Hamas has been rapidly translated into military confrontations inside the Gaza Strip. This is only a natural progression of the composition of Gaza’s apparently antagonistic social order.

Ironically, Palestinians have repeatedly advocated unity and compatibility between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip at all levels (socially, politically, and economically), in order to counter Israel’s attempts at fragmenting Palestinian society altogether. Civil society has evolved hand in hand in both regions, yet with all its efforts and commitment, it was unable to overcome the powerful sense of “micro-communitarianism” prevalent in the Gaza Strip.

While Gaza is being buried alive by our own shortsightedness and inadequacy, and with it the realisation of our greater national aspirations of liberation and independence, a true dilemma presents itself before us: should the infighting ultimately infect the West Bank, then we have indeed achieved a harmonious, albeit plagued, social and political entity among the occupied Palestinian territories, yet if the catastrophe remains confined to the peripheries of the Gaza Strip, then it may well be that our troubles are routed in tribalism.

-Rami Bathish is director of the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). He can be contacted at mip@miftah.org  (www.miftah.org)

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