Roni Ben Efrat: Palestine in Suicide

By Roni Ben Efrat

June 5, 2007 marked forty years of Israeli Occupation. Five days later Hamas began its conquest of Gaza, and on June 14, PA President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah formally dissolved the unity government. After forty years, Israel has finally succeeded in breaking the Palestinian national project.

Defeating the Fatah apparatus of Muhammad Dahlan, the Hamas fighters committed war crimes, aimed at warning other potential nests of opposition. The surviving Dahlan loyalists escaped from the Strip with Israel’s assistance. Israelis take a grim satisfaction in the new Palestinian tragedy, but in this they remain as short-sighted as ever: their country’s national/colonial enterprise cannot long survive without a viable Palestinian counterpart that accepts its legitimacy.

One outcome of the violence is that Abbas—also known as Abu Mazen—has performed his own disengagement from Gaza. He voices no interest, for now at least, in finding common ground with Hamas. Another outcome is clarity of line: after the start of the second Intifada in September 2000, Palestinian discourse became blurred, with Hamas adopting nationalist language and Fatah religious. Now the ruler of the West Bank is Fatah, anchored in the secular, Israeli, pro-American camp, while the ruler of Gaza is Hamas—militant, anti-American, Islamist, isolated from the Western world.

The wider Arab context is divided as follows: Egypt and Jordan support Abu Mazen alone. Qatar too recognizes his legitimacy, but not as exclusive; the Hamas government, it says, is also legitimate. Saudi Arabia, which recently ushered Hamas and Fatah into the Mecca Agreement, supports Abu Mazen but believes that the two sides must return to the table.

From Oslo to Mecca

Few recall that toward the end of the first Intifada—when the PLO was at a low point—Israel’s initial concept was to set up a Palestinian state in Gaza, over which Yasser Arafat would preside. The idea was to deck it with the symbols of sovereignty: the Palestinians would settle for that, it was thought. Under the same concept, the Oslo Accords never specified the territory that the Palestinians would receive in the West Bank, or the fate of Jerusalem and the settlements. In the course of the second-stage talks, Yasser Arafat managed to nail down the unity of the West Bank and Gaza. He even got control of the major Palestinian cities.

The Oslo process had been hampered all along by the opposition of Hamas (which refused to take part in the parliamentary elections of 1996). Hamas never accepted the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority (PA), an Oslo creation. It did all it could to stop the process. Its suicide attacks, which began in 1994 after Muslims were massacred in Hebron, made the whole PA untrustworthy in Israeli eyes. Israel demanded that Arafat clamp down, but he could not do so completely. An all-out fight against Hamas would have alienated other Palestinians, who were already criticizing the PA for its corruption and impotence.

In this way a vicious circle developed that has been with us ever since. Israel said, and continues to say, that it cannot make concessions toward a peace agreement unless the PA first dismantles the terror apparatus; the PA answered, and continues to answer, that it cannot gain the popular support it would need to dismantle Hamas unless it first can show achievements in the peace process. Within the stalemate created by the circle, Hamas gained legitimacy. Its new status became evident during the second Intifada, which erupted, we recall, after the Camp David talks of July 2000 broke down. Why did they break down? Because the Palestinians—under closure while Israel thrived and the settlements swelled around them—had by then lost faith in both Israel and Arafat. The PA president no longer had a domestic or pan-Arab mandate to sign an agreement with Israel. 

It was the militant wing of Fatah, the Tanzim ("Organization") that started the second Intifada. The Tanzim did so without a national strategy. The revolt was motivated largely by resentment, aimed not so much at Israel as at Arafat’s PA. (The Tanzim members had been marginalized—edged out of the better PA jobs—by Arafat’s cronies from Tunis.) Two further factors then joined the uprising. One was Arafat himself, scrambling to keep his leadership. The second was Hamas, which welcomed the collapse of Oslo. None of these contributed a strategy. The national question was merely sidetracked into an arena of blood. Fatah’s al-Aqsa Brigades, competing with Hamas for the hearts of the people, adopted the tactic of suicide attacks. The practice of atrocity became a habit. We have just now witnessed its boomerang in Gaza. 

The Second Intifada ground to a halt after three major actions by Israel: (1) Operation Defensive Shield, which destroyed Fatah’s military apparatus in the West Bank; (2) assassinations of the top Hamas leaders; and (3) unilateral disengagement from the Strip, which Hamas viewed as its own victory. For various reasons (one was the ease with which Israel had picked off its leaders) Hamas decided to turn toward politics. The decision, we shall see, had implications it failed to think through. Hamas entered the elections of January 2006, winning 74 seats in parliament, compared to 45 for Fatah (23 for other parties).

The landslide plunged Hamas into a dilemma. On the one hand, it had entered elections whose framework and legitimacy derived from the Oslo Accords. But those Accords are based on Palestinian recognition of Israel—a thing Hamas refuses to do.

The party was in a peculiar position. Because Palestine was a state-in-the-making, there was hardly anything to govern: rather, the main task of government would be to engage in a political process leading to statehood. Those who had voted for Hamas expected and wanted it to engage in that process. Disgusted with Fatah corruption, they believed that Hamas would do better. To engage in the process, however, Hamas would have to negotiate, and negotiate it could not. 

The impossibility of its position weakened Hamas. Meanwhile, the Western world imposed a boycott on the PA, and four million Palestinians found themselves under economic siege.

In response, Hamas attempted to wear two faces. There was the moderate governing party that tried to use Fatah as a mediator with the West. Second, there remained the rigidly fundamentalist movement, whose leaders went East in search of money for salaries, bringing it back—literally—in suitcases.

The predicament of Hamas opened the crack through which Fatah (especially Dahlan’s forces in Gaza, supported by the US) could return to the fray. Fatah had never accepted the decision of the people (just as Hamas, earlier, had never reconciled itself to Arafat). The Mecca Accord, signed in February 2007, was an attempt to paper over very basic differences. Behind the new unity government stood two shadow regimes, one belonging to Fatah, which included the military wing of Dahlan, and the other belonging to Hamas, which fired Qassam rockets from Gaza into southern Israel.

Where Are You Going, Palestine?

After being ousted from Gaza, Abu Mazen—in his fourth presidential year—made the decision that the US and Israel had long demanded: he dissolved the Hamas government. 

On a superficial view, Abu Mazen killed two birds with one stone: he ended the boycott on the PA in the West Bank and he isolated Hamas. On a deeper view, however, the national project (and he is among its last surviving founders) has been smashed to bits.

Suppose Israel were to make a separate peace with Abu Mazen? This would solve nothing, because there would still be none with Hamas, which has forces in the West Bank. The split between Hamas and Fatah has provided Israel with excuses not to withdraw, not to dismantle settlements and not to permit the rise of a Palestinian state. It can say: "How can we cede land to Abu Mazen, knowing that Hamas could use it for launching rockets toward Tel Aviv or the airport? Our army must remain in the West Bank to keep Hamas from taking that too—and to defend Abu Mazen!"

The PA president, by ditching Hamas, has diminished his bargaining power: he can no longer say to his Western protectors or to Israel, "Excuse me, but I have an internal opposition to contend with, so I cannot accept your terms." What is more, in the absence of honest leadership, the Western money soon to hit the West Bank will likely find its way into private pockets, creating new resentment and strife.

As for Hamas, which had once hoped to conceal its agenda beneath Abu Mazen’s table, it is now the sole ruling party in Gaza. It will have to justify the rash operation in which it divided the unity package. It faces 1.4 million hungry citizens. It has no industry, no donor money, no infrastructure, and no international legitimacy. Hamas will see the support of the people crack. If Hamas again seeks unity with Fatah, it will find that it has to bend.   

And what about Israel? It frolics in its villa behind walls and checkpoints, but the Palestinian problem never ceases to knock. Israel could not cope with a united Hamas-Fatah front, but it cannot cope with their separation either. It doggedly seeks tactical solutions for a basically strategic problem. Each solution becomes a new impediment, requiring further tactical solutions. An example is the proposal to release Marwan Barghouti, currently serving five life sentences; he, it is thought, is the only Fatah leader with the strength and credit to stand against Hamas. But who is Barghouti? He is head of the Tanzim, the group that started the second Intifada. 

The solution, for Israel, is not to create another collaborator. The solution—despite new excuses to avoid it—remains what it has always been: real Palestinian sovereignty over all the lands conquered in 1967. But such a thing will not happen, cannot happen, unless a different kind of leadership emerges on both sides. The Israelis will have to find leaders who are willing to pay the price of peace. Among the Palestinians, a leadership will have to emerge that resembles neither Hamas nor Fatah. It will have to be both honest and realistic. It will have to put the common people first, the workers and refugees—rather than trying to buy them off with the drug of foreign charity or the promise of an otherworldly paradise.

-Published with permission from Challenge Magazine (104, July-August 2007)

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