By Barry Rubin
There was an election on Hamas’s mind when it cancelled the ceasefire with Israel, leading to the Gaza war. But it wasn’t the February Israeli election but rather the January Palestinian non-election.
Four years ago, Mahmoud Abbas was elected leader of the Palestinian Authority (PA) for a two-year term. Two years ago, Hamas won a majority in the Palestinian parliamentary election. Hamas then made a coalition agreement with its rival Fatah, which previously controlled the PA. Shortly thereafter, Hamas staged a bloody coup and threw Fatah out of the Gaza Strip. But Fatah, and Abbas, still controls the internationally recognized PA and the West Bank.
While Hamas and Israel went to war, Israel and the PA remained at peace. The war had nothing to do with Israel-Palestinian relations as such but as a response to Hamas’s extremism, rejecting not only any comprehensive peace agreement with Israel but even a real truce. How, then, does this triangular relationship figure in Palestinian politics?
Analysts have generally ignored the proximity of Hamas’s decision for war to its impending January 2009 showdown with Abbas, Fatah, and the PA. It was widely predicted that Abbas was going to announce that, given the impossibility of holding new elections, he would simply extend his term for another year.
The event was expected to mark a major widening of the rift between the two groups. Hamas, it was thought, would declare Abbas a usurper, name its own candidate for “president,” and the establishment of two rival Palestinian governments would be complete.
Even before that date, the PA had apparently enjoyed some real success—with Israeli help—in reducing Hamas’s organization on the West Bank, ensuring any takeover bid there would be impossible, and making progress toward restoring order and even improving the economy.
Hamas no doubt saw choosing war as a way of upstaging Abbas, showing that it was the real fighter for Palestinian rights (principally the right to wipe Israel off the map), and even attracting support from some Fatah men who concluded that Hamas was macho and their own organization was too meek. In effect, it was a reiteration of traditional Palestinian politics in which those who take the most extreme action, evidence the greatest intransigence, and kill the most Israelis prove their credentials for leadership.
In practice, though, Hamas played into Abbas’s hands. Now he has the perfect rationale to insist that elections cannot be held—which is, of course quite true--and he must remain as leader for the indefinite future.
Despite this, the relationship between Hamas and Fatah remain quite complex. It seems bizarre that Hamas set off a civil war, murdered Fatah men in cold blood, and kicked the group out of Gaza yet still most of Fatah is ready to forgive it. There is a strong likelihood that if given the choice, Fatah leaders—though not necessarily Abbas himself—would prefer conciliation with Hamas, which would make any peace with Israel impossible—to making a diplomatic deal with Israel and getting a Palestinian state.
From Israel’s standpoint, of course, how can it negotiate any comprehensive solution with the PA when it cannot deliver half of the territory, people, and armed men who are supposed to be bound by such an agreement? Moreover, the possibility that either Hamas will overthrow Fatah at some future point or even that the two will join together in a new war against Israel rather puts a damper on Israeli willingness to make concessions.
The paradox of a simultaneous blood feud and brotherly love relationship between the two Palestinian organizations is explained by the supposed sanctity of being fellow Arabs, Muslims, and Palestinians, coupled with a deep and abiding loathing of Israel.
Yet this also coexists with such deep Fatah anger at Hamas that interviewed Fatah cadre told reporters that they were glad Israel was trouncing Hamas in Gaza Strip. The solution of this paradox was for the official PA line to be: it’s all Hamas’s fault but there should be an immediate ceasefire and Israel is behaving in a beastly way.
This approach is strengthened by the fact that most Arab states and a surprising amount of the media (albeit in many cases the two are identical) are taking a similar line. Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the smaller Gulf states and more—pretty much all the leaders except for Syria—hate Hamas. They see it as an agent of Iran, meaning a friend of their Islamist opponents.
If Fatah were more adept politically, it could benefit from this situation. A clever and active policy would combine an energetic campaign to unite the Arab states behind the PA, while persuading the UN and West that they should ensure its restoration to power in the Gaza Strip as the “legitimate government.” The Fatah underground in the Gaza Strip would be reinforced and figure out some way (even with a little secret coordination with Israel) to oust Hamas and seize power at least in sections of the territory.
Yet both the PA and Fatah lack the will power and political skill to take advantage of such a promising situation. They are sitting back and hoping that someone—though not Israel—will give them back the Gaza Strip on a silver platter. The problem also includes their lack of charismatic leadership and failure to deal seriously with the problems that led them to being kicked out by the election: corruption, incompetence, and the failure to articulate a moderate vision of achievable peace with Israel.
No outside power, including Israel, and no amount of money can make up for the shortcomings of the PA and Fatah. Thus, it is much easier for Hamas to lose the war than for the nationalist forces to win.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His books include The Israel-Arab Reader, Revolution Until Victory, The Tragedy of the Middle East, and Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography.