Thursday, January 27, 2011

No Sulha for Hamas and Fatah

The singular inconvenient truth that advocates of unilateral Palestinian statehood and an imposed solution to the Arab-Israel conflict labor intensively to play down is the spoiler role of Hamas and the crippling divisions within the Palestinian polity.

To focus attention elsewhere they industriously campaign to delegitimize Israel's
presence beyond the 1949 Armistice Lines and to "expose" the so-called Judaization of Jerusalem. Indeed, practically any Israeli measure from the mundane to the imprudent is skewered as heralding the death knell of the two-state solution – anything to deflect attention from Fatah's mulish refusal to negotiate with the Israeli government and Hamas's chronic rejectionism.

The Westerners and Israeli leftists who unfairly place the onus for the diplomatic deadlock entirely on the Jewish state, refusing to call on Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority to meet Israel half-way, have no sympathy for Hamas.

Yet by removing Fatah's incentive for indispensable compromises on boundaries, security, indeed the very nature of what peace should mean has meant that the Palestinian polity can avoid the tough choice: either the path of Hamas, or ending the conflict once and for all. With this left up in the air, the Fatah-Hamas rivalry continues to fester as both movements compete for the allegiance of the fickle Palestinian street, Arab and international legitimacy, and over which "resistance" movement is top dog.

Perhaps this is a good time to remind ourselves about what divides Fatah and Hamas. Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and came into its own in 1987. It considers Palestine a Muslim trust and sees Islam as engaged in a zero-sum religious war with the Jews. Fatah was founded in the 1950s – when the Arabs controlled the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem – with the straightforward nonsectarian goal of destroying Israel via "armed struggle." Under the mercurial Yasser Arafat, Fatah came to dominate Palestinian politics. In 1993, abandoning the immediate full liberation of Palestine for a nebulous alternative strategy, Arafat signed the Oslo Accords.

Hamas viewed Arafat's prevarications on Israel, his rumored personal decadence and the Palestinian Authority's endemic corruption with contempt.

Hamas overwhelmingly defeated Fatah in the Palestinian Authority elections held in January 2006. A Saudi-engineered unity government crashed and burned when Hamas expelled Fatah from Gaza in June 2007. Since then Fatah has continued to arrest Hamas men in the West Bank while Hamas persecuted Fatah followers in Gaza. Efforts at a sulha or reconciliation of the two camps have failed.

Fatah is hardly secular in the Western sense yet neither does it want Islam enveloping all of public and private life as demanded by the Islamists. The two camps also have opposing patrons with Fatah relying on the ostensible moderate Arab states and Hamas getting its main backing from Persian Iran. Moreover, both camps suffer from internal schisms. Cleavages within Fatah are many including along generational lines. Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas expelled his former Gaza strongman Mohamed Dahlan from the West Bank fearing a putsch. For its part, Hamas inside Gaza is at odds with the Damascus-based leadership. Even within the Strip, "Prime Minister" Ismail Haniyeh holds little sway over Izzad-Din al-Qassam gunmen.

Episodically, come signs of rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas. Intermediaries continue to work toward a meeting between senior figures in the opposing camps. Haniyeh and Hamas co-founder Mahmoud Zahar recently telephoned Abbas -- and a local Hamas delegation visited his Ramallah offices -- to offer condolences on the death of his older brother Ata in Damascus.

Responding to internal pressure from the popular Marwan Barghouti (incarcerated in an Israeli prison for murder) for a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, and external demands from the Emir of Qatar (whose influential Al Jazeera's Arabic service leans toward Hamas over Fatah), Abbas recently ordered the release of several hunger striking Hamas prisoners from his "protective" custody. Among those set free was Wael al-Bitar involved in the killings of four Israelis. (He was swiftly taken into custody in Hebron by Israeli commandos.) Funnily enough, it is the IDF's presence in the West Bank that helps secure Abbas against the possibility of a Hamas-led overthrow.

Rank-and-file Palestinians know there can be no "Palestine" without reconciliation and hold both factions jointly responsible for the split. That the price of burying the hatchet would likely be an even more obdurate policy on Israel appears not to phase the Palestinian consciousness. In the meantime, Hamas and Fatah leaders pay lip-service to unity. But as Mkhaimar Abusada, a Gaza-based political scientist told the Christian Science Monitor, Hamas gunmen in the Strip remain unalterably opposed to reconciliation with Fatah even if the Damascus-based leadership is tempted to pursue the idea.

At stake is who will lead the Palestinian Arabs where and how. The betting is that the Hamas-Fatah divide will last a very long time. Meanwhile, apologists for the Palestinians will continue to cover-up one of the foremost obstacles to peace.

Jan 2011

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