Divide and Conquer will fail in Palestine

Divide and Conquer will fail in Palestine

Aref Assaf

Daily Record Op-ED

Herald News Special Feature Op-Ed , 6/24/2007

Published in the Star Ledger, 6/28/2007

We could see it coming when, upon a recent visit to Palestine, a young Palestinian child asked me if I was with Fatah or with Hamas, the two rival and politically irreconcilable groups in the Palestinian territories. I answered rather spontaneously that I was simply a Palestinian to which the young man seemed bewildered. The Palestinian people, we are being told – at least those under Israel occupation, no longer have Israel’s 40-year-old military occupation as their common enemy but a seemingly bloody and almost tribal war to decide who should speak for the Palestinians and best exemplify their national and political narratives and aspirations. What we are witnessing is a civil war in Palestine. But it is a civil war by proxy, where the populace is merely a victim of the warring factions’ desire for power and not the driving force behind the recent events. The cumulative failures we faced led us to finally exploded with a desperation born of decades of oppression, lack of opportunity and complete loss of hope. We brutalized each other over the scraps of power. The shame and the guilt are ours to bear — but the responsibility is shared between reckless Palestinians and outside forces that turned a brother on his own flesh.

But what led to the recent coup d’état which ended Fatah’s political presence in the Gaza Strip? A more reasoned assessment must lead to at least two root causes: the immediate factor is rooted in unhappiness – mostly among members of Hamas’s armed wing but also by some in the political leadership – with the Mecca agreement. The critics of Mecca were unhappy that Hamas had been forced to offer political concessions to Fatah, which they saw as too weak or too corrupt to deserve them. Not only may Hamas not have been ready to transition from an opposition group into a governing infrastructure, but Fatah, Israel, and the United States torpedoed its efforts at every turn.

We recall Hamas’s surprising electoral victory last year which ended Fatah’s one-party rule over the Palestinian movement. The agony of Fatah’s defeat would only lead to systematic and deliberate actions or decisions by Fatah to destabilize Hamas and render impossible their smooth transition from an opposition party to a governing entity. At every turn, clashes would occur between enriched Fatah operatives and the new cadre of Hamas-appointed heads of public entities and government posts. The simple rule deciding if you lost or gained your post depended largely on the how you were defined politically. In the West Bank, Fatah ruled and Hamas supporters were rooted out; in Gaza, Hamas ruled. The political divisions slowly seeped into the daily lives of every Palestinian. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement is still not prepared to accept the result of the elections held in spring 2006, which brought the Islamist Hamas to power.
In Gaza, meanwhile, Hamas’ takeover may soon be seen to be shortsighted. While the Islamist movement has proven itself strong militarily, it has weakened its position politically. The battles exposed the ideological and sectarian side of Hamas, and the brutality exhibited during the weeklong fighting has damaged the movement’s standing among ordinary Palestinians. Hamas, it would seem, did not think of the day after.

However, the all-important cause for the infighting between Fatah and Hamas must lead us to Tel Aviv and Washington, D.C. Successive Israeli governments systematically destroyed or weakened moderate Palestinian leadership, from the destruction of the Palestine National Front in the mid-1970s (the early champions of the two-state solution within the territories) through the total failure to undertake any measures that might have strengthened Mahmoud Abbas as prime minister or president in the eyes of his people, all the way to the recent imprisonment of the few Hamas leaders willing to speak with Israel.

Add to this PM Ariel Sharon’s successful effort to weaken and disperse the Palestinian Authority, as well as Israel’s undeclared policy of separating Gaza from the West Bank, and we have the situation we are facing today. Fatah obviously carries its share of responsibility for the situation as well, through its own internal divisions, corruption, and indecisiveness. Let us not forget, however, the underlying, critical matter: Israel’s failure to end the occupation throughout these 40 years of increasing hardship, poverty, and disappointment, loss of land and lives and hopelessness for the public – over which Hamas and Fatah are competing.

And while our government talks about its support for a two-state solution and Palestinian moderates, little has been done to build Palestinian institutions capable of dealing with the depraved economic conditions in the occupied area. The recent offer to give Abbas some $70 million dollars will not go to feed the poor but to strengthen his security force in Gaza, a move seen by Hamas as a direct threat to their de facto military superiority there. Meanwhile, the Bush administration has either been indifferent or supportive of Israel’s illegal expansion of settlements and its systematic maltreatment and humiliation of the Palestinians; it’s building of the Apartheid wall separating Palestinians from other Palestinians and from their farms and places of business. No wonder the course of “moderation” that Fatah adopted yielded no tangible benefits to the local population – add to this Fatah’s endemic corruption, abuse of authority and nepotism – and one should not be surprised the rise of Hamas. Palestinian frustration with Fatah, Israel and the United States reached its zenith when after demanding parliamentary elections, those powers refused to accept the outcome of the elections – Hamas’s victory.

It has been the accepted alternative to the continued instability in the Middle East to argue for the two-state solution – one Israeli and the other Palestinian. If the US and Israel proceed with their unwise policy of creating a third Palestinian state in Gaza, we can be assured of a bleaker future, a massive humanitarian crisis where close to two million people will face a torturous destiny. Divide-and-conquer- a mark of British colonial legacy in the Middle East, will fail in modern Palestine. Hamas cannot be isolated and a different approach besides showering money and accolades on Abbas and his Fatah organization is needed.

Aref Assaf