Even when they have been politically united, the Palestinians have faced an uphill struggle to achieve any of their national objectives, but their prospects when they have been politically divided have been even grimmer. The period from the 1960s to the early 1980s when the PLO, dominated by Fatah, was universally recognised as representing the Palestinians, was one of repeated defeats, but also one during which the Palestinians maintained their unity, and there was a consensus as to their aims.
The crisis through which the Palestinian national movement is now passing is in many ways similar to the one it went through in the 1930s and 1940s. Then, deep internal divisions, expertly fanned by outside forces, contributed to a series of defeats and led in 1948 to the expulsion and dispossession of more than half the Arab population of Mandate Palestine. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Palestinian national movement, constantly undermined by the British Mandate authorities, never agreed a clear political goal and was repeatedly weakened by divisions and infighting. The movement collapsed spectacularly after the great 1936-39 revolt (during which approximately 10 per cent of the Palestinian Arab adult male population was killed, wounded, imprisoned or exiled) and it took decades to rebuild. Now, as in the 1930s and 1940s, only the solidarity of ordinary Palestinians and their family and social networks has prevented wholesale fragmentation of Palestinian society as it has come under pressure from external forces and suffered from the profound weakness of its own political structures.
Fatah and Hamas have been fighting for control of a Palestinian Authority that has no real authority. The behaviour of both has been disgraceful: not only have hundreds of Palestinians been killed by their militants but their leaders have been utterly irresponsible in allowing themselves to be dragged into a civil war. In the four decades since the founding of the PLO, there has never been such a gulf between two parts of the national movement.
The blame must be shared. Hamas’s decision to take part in the January 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections was questionable, to say the least. It is no defence to argue, as some do, that its leaders did not expect to win. Hamas faced a difficult choice. It could try to capitalise on its growing popularity, run in the elections, and accept the rules under which the PA was constituted – which would mean explicitly recognising Israel, agreeing to deal with it, and accepting the principle of a two-state solution. Or it could remain pure, by refusing to participate in PA elections, continuing to reject both the Oslo Accords and Israel, and preaching resistance. It could not do both. And yet this is what it has tried to do for the last 18 months, with disastrous consequences.
Now that Hamas has taken charge of the Gaza Strip, and with it responsibility for the territory’s 1.5 million inhabitants, it faces the same contradiction even more starkly: how can it claim to be a resistance movement, and at the same time deal with Israel about such practical matters as the movement of water, fuel and food into Gaza, and of goods and people into and out of Gaza? The Israelis and their American and European backers are now doing their best to make it as difficult as possible to resolve this dilemma, exerting pressure on Hamas by reducing the movement of goods and people to a trickle (while allowing in just enough food, fuel and medicine to stave off catastrophe), thereby continuing the slow suffocation of the people of the Gaza Strip, in a form of collective punishment.
One might also ask what strategy for liberation the Islamic movement was following when it accepted first a leading role in government, and then responsibility for the entire Gaza Strip. In effect, Hamas has adopted the Fatah/PLO strategy that most Palestinians believe has failed: trying to build Palestinian institutions of government by accepting the Oslo Accords – which include a ban on resistance to the occupation – while at the same time trying to negotiate statehood with Israel from a position of weakness. Since Israel, supported by the US, for nearly seven years refused to negotiate seriously with the PA when it was dominated by a weak and increasingly unrepresentative Fatah, on what basis could Hamas expect Israel to negotiate with it after its electoral victory, given its radical political position and the expectations of its popular base? How can it both claim to be a resistance movement and agree to suppress resistance by other factions, as it is required to do by the terms of the Accords? What pressure can it exert against a 40-year-old occupation with which the Israeli people appear generally comfortable, and which has been accepted and bankrolled by the US and the European Union, if it can’t exert some form of pressure on Israel itself? And how can the Palestinians, far weaker than the Israelis to start with, deal with them effectively when they are so divided? These are not questions for Hamas alone: they are for everyone who wishes to see the conflict resolved. But they are particularly pressing for Hamas.
Then there is Fatah, for decades the hegemonic movement in Palestinian politics. It rapidly lost popular support towards the end of the 1990s because of its abysmal record in negotiating with Israel and its failure to establish effective government or the rule of law in the West Bank and Gaza. Feeble and incompetent, its administration characterised by corruption and cronyism, Fatah got its comeuppance when it lost the 2006 PLC elections. Yet its leaders behaved as if their policies had been vindicated, as if they had an inalienable right to office. The unwillingness of Fatah to accept the election result, the need for internal reform, and the necessity of sharing power with Hamas, despite Hamas’s repeated overtures, led the Palestinians towards the current crisis. When some Fatah leaders, such as the imprisoned Marwan Barghouti, wanted to take up Hamas’s offer, Fatah diehards (and some Hamas hardliners) torpedoed the initiative, as they did the Saudi-brokered coalition government created in February 2007.
Fatah was especially unwilling to share responsibility for security. It didn’t take much encouragement for the national security adviser Muhammad Dahlan, with the at least tacit backing of Mahmoud Abbas, to succumb to American blandishments and try to mount an armed putsch against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Whether Hamas pre-empted this with a coup of their own, or whether Fatah made the first move, is ultimately irrelevant. Neither movement was able to see that such deep divisions would mean that they had even less chance of achieving their national objectives. In this, they have been equally irresponsible.
And, of course, much of the blame must fall on the Bush administration. Its contempt for the democratic decision of the Palestinian people and its encouragement of a Palestinian civil war are the natural consequences of its essentialist worldview. It sees everything in the Middle East as part of a vast cosmic struggle between the United States and so-called ‘moderates’ on the one hand, and terrorist extremists on the other. According to this view, Iran is the same as Hamas, which is the same as Hizbullah, which is the same as al-Qaida, which was the same as Saddam Hussein. This is what drives US Middle East policy, and it is responsible for creating or exacerbating a whole series of conflicts.