Our Second Biggest Mistake in the Middle East

Alastair Crooke

  • Hamas: Unwritten Chapters by Azzam Tamimi
    Hurst, 344 pp, £14.95, September 2006, ISBN 1 85065 834 X
  • Where Now for Palestine? The Demise of the Two-State Solution edited by Jamil Hilal
    Zed, 260 pp, £17.99, December 2006, ISBN 1 84277 840 4
  • Failing Peace: Gaza and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict by Sara Roy
    Pluto, 379 pp, £16.99, October 2006, ISBN 0 7453 2234 4

‘The situation in Gaza is dangerous, and the danger is that Hamas will take over and turn Gaza into “Hamastan” – into a kingdom of thugs, murderers, terrorists, poverty and despair.’ This was the reaction of Ephraim Sneh, Israel’s deputy defence minister, to Hamas’s seizure of a number of key security institutions in Gaza in the days leading up to 14 June, when Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority and leader of Fatah, dismissed the unity government. But, despite what much of the media says, this is not a ‘civil war’, and Hamas is not made up of ‘gangs beyond the control of their leaders’. Hamas’s action was conducted with the aim of removing the influence of just one of Fatah’s security forces in Gaza, the militia controlled by Muhammad Dahlan, Abbas’s national security adviser. Hamas has insisted that this has not been a conflict with Fatah in general, and it was notable that neither the Palestinian security forces – effectively the Palestinian ‘army’ – nor the police in Gaza were targets of the recent violence.

The origins of the Hamas action in Gaza lie in the reaction of the international community, and of Fatah, to Hamas’s overwhelming victory in the parliamentary elections of January 2006. Fatah, Yasir Arafat’s movement, saw itself as the founder of the Palestinian Authority; it believed it was the natural party of government; and it had fought a long battle with Arab neighbours to establish itself as synonymous with the PLO, and therefore, implicitly, as the ‘sole representative of the Palestinian people’. Some within Fatah were unable to come to terms with their loss of power, or to reconcile themselves to the claim that, on the basis of the election result, an Islamist party best represented the views of the Palestinian people. At this crucial juncture, the International Quartet intervened: they pressed President Abbas not to yield to Hamas, to hang onto power; and they promised to support him if he did so.

Not only was Abbas not to yield security control to the government and its Interior Ministry, as the constitution provided, but the International Quartet also demanded that he claw back powers from the new government and embody them in the presidency: financial responsibilities would be removed from the Ministry of Finance; the salaries of government officials would be paid by the president’s office; all key policy decisions would be enacted by presidential decree. The government was to be rendered powerless. As Azzam Tamimi notes in Hamas: Unwritten Chapters, the Hamas government had no police force at its disposal, and no authority over frontier crossings.

At the same time, the West imposed financial sanctions on the government and isolated it politically, insisting on conducting business and channelling funding exclusively through Abbas. In short, instead of helping Fatah through the transition and facilitating Palestinian unity – and taking advantage of a real chance to include Hamas, Islamism’s moderates, in the political process – the international community pursued an aggressive policy of internal division that established the conditions for the recent violence in Gaza. Europeans may wring their hands at what they see on their TVs, but European policy, acting in concert with the US, bears a large measure of responsibility for what has happened.

The US and some European countries, including Britain, also chose to finance, train and arm the security apparatus led by Muhammad Dahlan, whom many Palestinians suspected – rightly – was being groomed as the ‘strong man’ who would eventually assume the presidency and restore Fatah to power. The ultimate aim was to build a Fatah militia around Dahlan that could confront Hamas militarily – and win. American officials hoped in the meantime to place Fatah in a position to depose Hamas from power – in other words, to promote a soft coup d’état against the government. A strategy document prepared by one of the US-led coalition of ‘moderate’ Arab states which was circulating among Palestinians in March 2007 said that the US objective was to have Abbas dismiss the Hamas government in August. The International Quartet endorsed these plans in principle. The support the US and Europe give to Fatah is considerable and arrives by a variety of routes: through NGOs and development agencies; through Fatah reform initiatives; through youth development programmes; through information and media projects; and – most significantly – through a large programme aimed at recruiting, training, equipping and financing Fatah security cadres, Dahlan’s chief among them. In addition, every NGO contract has a clause inserted into it by USAID requiring the organisation to pledge that it ‘will not engage in activity with groups deemed as terrorists’.

In the scathing final report he wrote before resigning in May as UN Special Co-ordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Alvaro de Soto said: ‘The US clearly pushed for a confrontation between Fatah and Hamas, so much so that, a week before Mecca’ – where the two factions met in February and under the auspices of King Abdullah agreed a unity government – ‘the US envoy declared twice in an envoys’ meeting in Washington how much “I like this violence,” referring to the near civil war that was erupting in Gaza in which civilians were being regularly killed and injured, because “it means that other Palestinians are resisting Hamas.”’ It was this situation that pushed Hamas into pre-emptive action. With Fatah refusing to delegate constitutional authority over the security services, and with the build-up of the Dahlan militia, the military arm of Hamas moved to seize all the key assets associated with Dahlan and his colleagues in Gaza. Having achieved complete control, the elected government is now finally in a position to provide security in Gaza.

There is a price, of course; but it has nothing to do with damage to the so-called ‘prospects for peace’. There was no peace process. And, in the view of most Palestinians, there is little prospect of one. On the contrary, the leadership of Hamas – like their colleagues in Hizbullah – are preparing for the long hot summer of regional conflict that inevitably lies ahead. The real cost of Hamas’s military putsch against the Dahlan militia is the weakening of that significant faction within Fatah which, for some time, has been uncomfortable with Dahlan’s and Fatah’s co-option by US and Israeli interests, and has – until now – advocated real co-operation between Fatah and Hamas. But now that Fatah has been humiliated the grass-roots are unlikely to be in a mood to support anyone who argues for a working partnership with Hamas. It is one thing to be perceived by fellow Palestinians as a Western proxy: to be regarded as a failed Western proxy is far worse.

It is too early to judge, but it is possible that the Hamas putsch will come to be seen by Muslims beyond Palestine as an event as significant as the outcome of the Israeli-Hizbullah war last July. The next few weeks may see the beginnings of efforts at mediation on the part of other Arab states, in an attempt to form a fresh unity government in Palestine. If this happens, the issue of security has already been decided: Hamas has settled the facts on the ground. The Americans and Europeans, however, can be expected to continue to resist any transformation of the political dispensation. What they want, and remain wedded to, is a reversion to the status quo ante of Oslo, however discredited its processes now are. But in attempting to ensure Fatah’s continued hold on power, they risk schism, renewed violence, and a fracturing of the Palestinian body politic for years to come.

A peace process with Israel, were that ever to become a reality, cannot be built on Palestinian division and internal conflict. The action of previous US envoys – such as General Zinni and George Tenet – served only to increase these divisions. The lesson has not been learned. President Abbas’s dismissal of the government on 14 June and his declaration of an emergency government – both decrees of questionable legality – brought an end to what remained of Palestinian unity. And did so at a moment when Hamas, in common with moderate Islamist movements throughout the region, is trying to deal with the radicalising of its constituency and a widespread questioning of the value of electoral participation.

The West could not have chosen a worse time to try to make Fatah a proxy dependent on Western financial subsidy and Israeli ‘concessions’ to make up for the popular support it patently lacks. The largest Hebrew newspaper, Yediot Aharnot, noted on 14 June that ‘in Nablus, Jenin, Hebron and Ramallah, the people of the Fatah al-Aqsa Brigades are in control, much thanks to the Israeli General Security Services who have jailed anyone vaguely smelling of Hamas.’ European policy-makers – to judge by their public statements – are largely oblivious to the rising tension in the region. Instability is feeding instability; and the American and European imposition of a bank freeze that left the Palestinian government unable to gain access to its funds – including those from Muslim countries – will trigger new and potentially dangerous disturbances in the region.

Western commentators – prompted by Fatah loyalists – are still inclined to see the 2006 election result as no more than a severe rap on the knuckles for the hitherto dominant Fatah on the part of an electorate angered by its corruption and mismanagement. Since 1993, Palestinians have been living under a one-party system: patronage, jobs and government have been in the gift of Fatah, and it is to its members that these benefits have been distributed. The election outcome, however, was not primarily a judgment on Fatah’s corruption, even if this was a significant factor. I recall a leader in a refugee camp in Lebanon saying: ‘You will see . . . what this victory for Hamas represents is the final rupture of the Palestinians’ faith in the international community. We no longer believe that the Americans or the Europeans ultimately can be counted on to do the right thing by us. We know that we must rely only on ourselves now.’ Hamas had recognised for some time that the Palestinian constituency that voted Fatah a monopoly of power and of armed force in 1993, following the Oslo Accords, no longer existed. Hardly any Palestinians now believe that Palestinian ‘good behaviour’ – as promised to Israel by Fatah – will induce the US to ignore its domestic Israel lobby and exert pressure on Israel to withdraw from the lands occupied in 1967. ‘Hamas had predicted all along that Israel would not fulfil its bargain,’ Tamimi writes, ‘and that it was using peacemaking in order to expropriate more land.’

Palestinians have seen their putative state in the West Bank salami-sliced away by settlements, army posts, military zones, fences and Israeli-only roads that cut the territory into enclaves in which 2.5 million Palestinians are confined, their movements heavily curtailed. A map of the West Bank recently published by the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs shows that the Israeli system of settlements and protective infrastructure has rendered 40 per cent of the West Bank off-limits to Palestinians. Palestinians have seen the US and Europe do nothing about this. The US and the EU argued that Palestinian violence was the problem; but the Palestinians noted that in periods of quiet more rather than less of their land fell to the Israeli salami-slicer – yet still the international community remained silent. Any optimism from Oslo had long faded by 2006, when the Palestinians voted in Hamas. There is no longer a significant ‘peace camp’ that believes in gradual progress towards a Palestinian state.

Against this background of disenchantment, the contributors to Jamil Hilal’s Where Now for Palestine? The Demise of the Two-State Solution point either towards a binational state in Israel/Palestine, or to a further chapter of armed resistance, or both. Ziad Abu Amr argues that the ‘Palestinian Authority is becoming a façade hiding an actual Israeli occupation, and a tool to help Israel regulate its occupation policies.’ Jamil Hilal argues that ‘Israel’s policy has amounted to a systematic negation of the basic conditions necessary for a viable and sovereign Palestinian state,’ and Ilan Pappe, looking for the roots of Israeli policy, concludes that ‘occupation proceeds from the same ideological infrastructure on which the 1948 ethnic cleansing was erected.’ None of these contributors thinks that the psychological and political conditions for a two-state solution any longer prevail. The adoption of demands for a new Israeli constitution by Adalah, a human rights organisation based in Israel, is a further signal of radicalisation. ‘The Democratic Constitution’ – a discussion document that has generated widespread interest among Palestinian citizens of Israel, and outrage in some parts of the Israeli press – calls for a constitution that conforms to democratic principles, is bilingual and multicultural, and which, above all, enshrines the right to complete equality of all residents and citizens, thereby making Israel no longer an exclusively Jewish state, or even a state that affords special privileges to Jewish citizens.

One reason for Fatah’s election defeat was its failure to recognise that the Bush administration was different from the Clinton administration. Fatah persisted in its assumption that, at bottom, the Bush administration shared its vision of a Palestinian state based on Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967. The leadership continued to assume that if they pleased the US they would eventually be rewarded by pressure on Israel to concede a viable Palestinian state. It has long been obvious to most Palestinians, including many in Fatah, that the vision Bush shared was not Fatah’s, but that of Tel Aviv, and it sees Israel remaining in the West Bank for ever.

Khalil Shikaki of the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research, an institute funded by foreign governments to conduct opinion surveys in Palestine, conducted three crucial polls that affected perceptions in Washington in the early parts of June, September and December 2005. They all showed Fatah leading Hamas by a comfortable margin. In June, Shikaki showed Fatah ahead by 44 per cent to Hamas’s 33 per cent; in September Fatah’s share had gone up to 47 per cent as against Hamas’s 30; by December, one month before the election, he gave Fatah 50 per cent and Hamas 32. In the election, however, Hamas won 74 parliamentary seats and Fatah 45 in a 132-seat chamber. Hamas’s own assessment of November 2005 anticipated that they would win between 70 and 80 seats.

It is difficult to know whether it was the European and American refusal, on the basis of these polls, to acknowledge that Palestinian perceptions had changed which influenced the actions of certain Fatah leaders after the election. Or whether Europe’s friends in Fatah, such as Dahlan, with his claim to be able to deal with Hamas, persuaded Europeans to shut their eyes to the revolution in Palestinian sentiment. Dahlan, Al-Ahram Weekly recently reported,

tacitly admits that he has been behind much of the lawlessness and security chaos in Gaza: ‘I just deploy two jeeps, and people would say Gaza is on fire . . . Hamas is now the weakest Palestinian faction. They are whining and complaining. Well, they will have to suffer yet more until they are damned to the seventh ancestor.’

Whatever the cause, Europeans embarked on one of their greatest policy mistakes in the region – second only to their support for the invasion of Iraq – with their dogged determination to isolate Hamas and attempt to return Fatah to power.

Hamas had argued during the election campaign that Fatah’s promise to Israel of an end to violence would bring Fatah only Israeli contempt for what it would perceive as Palestinian ‘weakness’. As Hamas sees it, a just solution will emerge only when Israel comes to ‘respect’ its adversaries; meanwhile Fatah’s pleading to be Israel’s peace partner is indirectly contributing to Israel’s hegemonic ambitions. Hamas therefore argues for continued resistance, and for a reversal of the Arafat doctrine, which held that Palestinian institutions should not be established until a state had been achieved. It believes that good governance now, and the unity it will bring, is the path to a Palestinian state. With its record of effective and corruption-free local government, it has been keen to put this into practice at the national level: it may now have its chance in Gaza.

The problem for Hamas is that its constituency – the rank and file – and the wider Islamist movement have now embarked on a period of introspection. What is apparent – and this can be ascertained on any number of Islamist websites – is that the mainstream Islamist strategy of pursuing an electoral path to reform is now being questioned. This will have an impact well beyond Palestine – most obviously in Egypt and Jordan. Three events have triggered this reassessment: the sanctions imposed on the Hamas government; last summer’s US-backed war to destroy Hizbullah in Lebanon; and the repression of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which raises not a peep of protest from Europeans. Continued Western hostility towards all Islamists, however moderate their policies, has also frustrated the grass-roots.

At a conference held in Beirut in April, the senior Hamas official present, Usamah Hamadan, was strongly criticised by Fathi Yakan, the leader of Jamaat Islamiyah in Lebanon, for having embarked on the electoral route in the first place. Yakan pointed to the failure – experienced by all Islamists without exception – of those who have participated in their national parliaments. No MP or deputy, from Islamabad to Cairo, or anywhere in between, has succeeded in bringing any significant change to their society. At the same time, young Egyptians in the Muslim Brotherhood have been debating whether their eighty-year-old movement has lost its way. Commentators have been arguing that for it to sit in parliament – while its leaders are being interned, its economic base is being attacked, and legislation is being passed aimed at excluding movements with a religious basis from elections – undermines its credibility and invites derision. The movement, it’s suggested, is too big, rigid and ungainly, and needs to be rethought – and perhaps broken up.

At issue in these discussions is whether moderate Islamist groups such as Hamas and Hizbullah will manage to retain their influence over this process of radicalisation; and whether they will survive as a cohesive, disciplined political bloc. Sunni Islamist movements are increasingly concerned at the spread of small Salafist groups that verge on the nihilistic in their disdain for political ideology and in their belief that to set fire to the remnants of colonial power is in itself enough to raise the revolutionary consciousness they hope for. Salafist groups are beginning to make inroads in Gaza, as they have already done in Iraq, Lebanon and North Africa.

What will happen is far from clear. A return to the violent vanguardism of the 1960s and 1970s, detached from popular legitimacy and support, seems unlikely. More plausibly, moderate movements such as Hamas and Hizbullah will encourage popular resistance while also striving to maintain their political presence. Hamas’s armed resistance in Gaza to what they perceive as a Western campaign to depose them is an example of the way an Islamist movement can satisfy a radicalised constituency increasingly angry at American interference in their societies in the interest of what Hassan Nasrallah has termed the ‘Western project’.

One indication of what voters now want can be gauged from Nasrallah’s speeches. ‘In our region,’ he said in Beirut in March, ‘we witness the serious threat . . . presented by the US administration to achieve its scheme for the control of our resources, countries, decisions and destiny . . . Today we no longer hear talk about elections and democracy . . . They discovered that, if free and honest elections were to take place in the Muslim world, patriots who are hostile to US policy and who refuse to succumb to US hegemony will win in every country whether they are Islamists or not due to the general mood in the Islamic world.’ In other words, the test will be whether individuals and states acquiesce to US policy, or ‘refuse to succumb’.

The activities of the US are fundamental to the present crisis. Iraq continues to radiate instability and is exacerbating tensions between the Shia and Sunni everywhere. US and EU policy in Palestine and Lebanon is driving internal tension and polarisation, and the risk of conflict involving Iran and possibly Syria overshadows everything else in the region. In all, the Americans and Europeans are engaged in six internal conflicts in Muslim societies – in Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine – in each case providing finance and weapons for one faction to use against another. As I write, Hizbullah is preparing for the possibility of renewed conflict with Israel, and Syria and Iran have also reached the conclusion that conflict is a real and imminent prospect, and are actively preparing for it.

When all parties begin to see conflict as inevitable, then the ‘inevitable’ becomes self-fulfilling. Americans are fond of comparing the situation in the region to the 1930s and the rise of totalitarianism; but perhaps Europe in 1914 is a better metaphor: the situation is such that some small, unexpected autonomous event might trigger a sequence of events that even the great powers of the region could find it beyond their ability to control. In the past, after all, a car accident (in the case of the first intifada) and a cinema fire (triggering the Iranian revolution) have unleashed consequences that no one could have foreseen.

Israel, too, seems oblivious to its position. It believes that the Palestinian conflict can be sustained, and it continues to enjoy a growing economy and a healthy tourist trade. Israelis have arrived at a modus vivendi with their peculiar circumstances: life can go on, they sanguinely presume. In Failing Peace, which charts the psychological and human costs of occupation and prolonged violence, Sara Roy warns that

prior to Oslo there was a belief among Israelis that peace and occupation were incompatible but this has changed. In recent years more and more Israelis are benefiting from the occupation. Their lives, for example, have been facilitated by the vast settlement road network built in the West Bank and by an improved economy . . . hence, Israelis no longer feel uncomfortable with the occupation at a time when the occupation has grown more repressive and perverse. This contradiction is dangerous and unsustainable.

Roy’s warning is timely. Over the middle term it is possible to predict that a greater number of Palestinian citizens of Israel will become radicalised, as well as members of the Palestinian population as a whole. Israel’s ‘moderate’ friends among Arab leaders may disappear. It may also encounter Islamists not only in the Palestinian government, but at the Jordanian and Egyptian frontiers; and conflict with Iran, were it to occur, might finish up by sweeping away many of the region’s landmarks.

This prospect may not disturb the slumbers of the Europeans, who will dismiss it as alarmist, even if their record of reading events in the area has been less than inspired. But these are the scenarios that are being taken seriously by thoughtful Islamists in the region. We should hope – that may be all we can now do – that moderate Islamist movements manage to navigate these turbulent times, in spite of European attempts to prevent Islamism, which is clearly now the dominant regional current, from reshaping Middle Eastern societies. These attempts are opening space, not for the moderate pro-Western secularists whom Europeans seek to empower, but for those who believe that to build a new society you must first burn down the old one.

18 June