Who would have imagined that secular Palestinian nationalism would degenerate into this: Abbas vehemently refusing to meet with democratically-elected Hamas as he continues to meet with his own military occupiers, courting their approval and support. The result is the same old since Oslo: not one roadblock removed, inch of Wall stopped, settlement expansion halted (let alone reversed), or Palestinian life saved. Worse: Palestine’s largest electoral party (Hamas) has been banished into the political wilderness, and the occupied West Bank and Gaza are now ruled by two separate and antagonistic authorities. Under occupation, dual power now reigns supreme. One elected, boycotted, and dissolved government led by Haniyeh is besieged in Gaza, while the other, appointed, unconstitutional, and Western-supported led by Fayyad is now speaking Americanese. Just take the following recent examples of intensifying national decay:
Abbas: falsely accuses Hamas of facilitating and nurturing the rise of al-Qaeda in Gaza (rather than blaming this on Israel’s and the West’s brutal and despair-inducing siege); he liquidates any remaining semblance of an independent judiciary and replaces civil with military courts, while NGOs in Palestine accuse him of creating a military dictatorship.
Fayyad: calls for ‘intense and active cooperation’ with Israel, criminalizes the resistance and dubs it ‘catastrophic’, and states that it (not Israel) has ‘destroyed our national project completely’ (CNN, 28 June). Fayyad represses civil society, with Hamas’ NGOs threatened with license revocation and mosques curtailed by political repression; and he also refuses to pay all staff of the Palestinian Authority appointed since December 2005, i.e. those appointed since Hamas’ electoral victory in January 2006, thus severely diminishing the livelihood of 20,000 Palestinian families in one stroke of the pen.
Israel: looks on in glee as its policy of divide and annex has borne its poisonous fruits; Sharon’s dream, as Akiva Eldar put it in Haaretz (30 June), has come to pass: Gaza is a disengaged Hamastan, severed from the West Bank, which is cantonized, crisscrossed by settlements, Jewish-only bypass roads, and walls, with no access to 40 % of its own lands and no outlet to the outside world; Olmert throws a bone: 250 Fatah prisoners to be released (out of 10,000 Palestinian prisoners altogether), and $120 million of Palestinian tax money is returned (out of $700 million held), conditional on Abbas’ continued boycott and suffocation of Hamas.
How did the Palestinians come to a situation where even the Saudi king, head of the most authoritarian and reactionary Arab regime in the Middle East, sounds more progressive than their own President? How can Saudis sponsor unity and dialogue between Hamas and Fatah, while Abbas effectively declares a civil war against the largest Palestinian faction in occupied Palestine, calling Hamas’ takeover of Gaza a ‘crime’ and Gaza an ‘emirate of darkness’, and demanding that Hamas reverse its military action, dissolve the new interior ministry’s executive force, and apologize to the Palestinian people?
There no question that the roots of the current crisis in Palestinian politics lie with Fatah’s American-sponsored refusal to accept Hamas’ victory and to allow it to practice democratic government, having done everything since January 2006 to undermine and marginalize it. Danny Rubenstein has described this process accurately when he said: ‘The primary reason for the break-up is the fact that Fatah, headed by Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, has refused to fully share the PA’s mechanism of power with its rival Hamas — in spite of Hamas’ decisive victory in the January 2006 general elections’ (Haaretz, 13 June).
There is also no question that Hamas’ military takeover was a ‘preventive coup’. Hamas was clearly worried that Mohammed Dahlan’s American-supported security apparatus would become powerful enough to fulfill Dahlan’s declared wish to ‘decimate Hamas’. He had also actively wrecked the unity government by refusing to coordinate security matters with the independent minister of interior Hani Kawasmeh, forcing him to resign. Dahlan was clearly acting according to American and Israeli policy, which sought to destroy Abbas’ and Hamas’ power-sharing unity deal in Mecca.
There is, finally, no question that Hamas’ military takeover only sought to target Dahlan’s putschist stream within Fatah and not all of Fatah (though Hamas admitted that undesirable excesses were committed), and that Hamas had the implicit support of grassroots nationalists within Fatah who were equally disgruntled by Dahlan’s security collaboration with Israel and his sponsorship of lawlessness and ‘chaos of arms’ in Gaza.
It was thus evident to all that Abbas’ unaccountable and authoritarian preventive security apparatus was, as constituted, a stumbling block to unity and to democratic government. Why then did all Palestinian factions, including Islamic Jihad, come out against Hamas’ action, deeming it illegitimate and a strategic blunder? It’s certainly not out of loyalty to Abbas, or out of lack of sympathy or support for Hamas.
Take, for example, Islamic Jihad, a small group of military-oriented fundamentalists, well known for its attacks both against the Israeli military occupation and against civilians inside Israel, and persistently critical of the Oslo framework. Jihad argued that Hamas’ military takeover was a ‘painful and tragic development’, which is divisive to Palestinian unity: it therefore cannot be ‘justified or defended’. As their exiled leader Ramadan Shallah stated in numerous interviews given to the Arab press on 24 June (al-Hayat, al-Quds al-Arabi, and al-Sharq al-Awsat): ‘Mistakes were committed by both sides, and both did not have mercy upon each other or upon the Palestinian people’. Shallah also accused Abbas of exploiting Hamas’ mistakes and closing all doors for dialogue and power-sharing, busying himself instead with allying with Israel against his own people’s needs and interests. While advocating continued resistance against Israel’s occupation, Islamic Jihad resoundingly concluded that force should have no place in Palestinian politics.
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine had a similar position. In a statement made on 20 June to the same PNC meeting at which Abbas demonized Hamas, the PFLP denounced Hamas’ recourse to military force and stated that it should be reversed. The PFLP argued that Hamas’ use of force deepened rather than resolved the internal Palestinian crisis and distracted Palestinians from their main struggle against the Israeli occupation and for statehood and return. The PFLP called for an immediate resumption of national dialogue and an end to infighting. It also recommended that Palestinian democracy be reactivated and a new democratically-elected PLO be formed in order to safeguard independent Palestinian decision-making and political unity. On 10 July, the PFLP also joined forces with Moustafa Barghouti’s Mubadara and advocated a joint program of National Salvation. The new political initiative reiterated the PFLP’s earlier positions and called for the dissolution of Fayyad’s emergency government and a return to the Prisoners’ National Conciliation Document of 2006 as a basis for resolving the new Palestinian crisis. The Prisoners’ Document, which received widespread Palestinian support when it was issued in April 2006, calls for unity, democracy, resistance, and a safeguarding of all Palestinian national rights. It was officially amended and ratified by both Hamas and Fatah in June 2006.
What all such voices and initiatives express is a real concern about the current state of Palestinian politics and society. They warn that without immediate and drastic Palestinian action the Palestinian national struggle is doomed to fail for a generation to come, leading to more destructive factionalism, degeneration, and despair. There are already significant worries, for example, that al-Qaeda type nihilism is taking hold in Gaza and that Hamas’ failure to end Israel’s siege can only encourage its growth. Though Hamas’ recent freeing of Alan Johnson is a positive sign that lawlessness and ‘chaos of arms’ has come to an end in Gaza, and that internal calm has been restored, besieging and punishing Gaza and cutting it off from the rest of the world can only lead to further pessimism and despair. The tragic stranding of 6,000 Palestinians on the border with Egypt may thus only be the tip of the iceberg (23 deaths have already been reported in al-Hayat). Poverty levels in occupied Palestine are now between 70% and 80%, with extreme and unprecedented levels of unemployment and rising dependency on food aid. As Patrick Cockburn put it nearly a year ago: ‘Gaza is dying. The Israeli siege of the Palestinian enclave is so tight that its people are on the edge of starvation. Here on the shores of the Mediterranean a great tragedy is taking place that is being ignored because the world’s attention has been diverted by wars in Lebanon and Iraq’. (The Independent, 8 September 2006). How much longer can a people suffer under what UN special rapporteur for Human Rights John Dugard called ‘possibly the most rigorous form of international sanctions imposed in modern times’ (29 January 2007) before exploding in self-destructive anger and rage?
Recent polls clearly indicate that occupied Palestinians are fed up with continued siege and factional strife. As the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research reported, 75% of Palestinians now want new elections, with 59% saying that ‘both Hamas and Fatah are equally to blame for the bitter factional fighting that led to the Hamas takeover of Gaza’ (Haaretz, 21 June). What this means is that Palestinians have come to recognize that neither secular Palestinian nationalism nor Islamic fundamentalism have been capable of ending their occupation and misery. A new Palestinian political agent is now needed in order to organize and mobilize such growing discontent.
It is worth repeating that the closest Palestinians ever came to decolonizing the West Bank and Gaza was in the first Intifada. A whole nation struggled together then in what Edward Said called ‘one of the most extraordinary anti-colonial and unarmed mass insurrections in the whole history of the modern period’. It is clear that conditions are now much more difficult than they were in the 1980s. Palestinians are cut off, fragmented, politically divided, and made dispensable by Israel’s closure policy, which has diminished their political leverage and capacity to force Israeli society to pay the price of its brutal occupation. Palestinian bantustans are clearly Oslo’s doing, leaving most Palestinians stranded and demobilized. Only 5% of Palestinians actively participated in resistance against the occupation from the beginning of the second Intifada in 2000 to 2005, a measure of severe crisis and political disengagement if ever there was one. This is why it has long been imperative to rebuild Palestinian self-capacity for collective resistance and mass mobilization. Struggles against the Wall have testified to the political efficacy of popular mobilization, as Palestinians invited and led both international solidarity and support from Israel’s meager yet important anti-occupation groups, like Tayyush and Anarchists Against the Wall.
Grassroots organizing is Palestine’s best answer to the occupation, and can only help an oppressed nation regain its lost political momentum. Both Fatah and Hamas are responsible for militarizing Palestinian politics and for undermining their people’s capacity to self-organize and become active agents in their own struggle for liberation. This is clearly not the time for political confusion or for blind defense of one Palestinian faction or another. The objective of progressives is to democratize anti-colonialism and regain Palestine’s lost collective will. It is not to trap Palestinians in uncritical or regressive formulas. Without the direct participation of Palestinian women, workers, marginalized, unemployed, and diasporas there is no future for Palestine. Palestine awaits its new radicals.
1. The Saudi monarch was clearly motivated by fears of Iranian sponsorship of Hamas.
2. The mainstream press has been full of argument and evidence to this effect: See, for example, Peter Beaumont, ‘Those who Denied Poll Result Were the Real Coup Plotters’, The Observer, 17 June 2007; and Jonathan Steele, ‘Hamas acted on a very real fear of a US-sponsored coup’, The Guardian, 22 June 2007.
3. Khaled Amayreh, ‘Dahlan Vows to Decimate Hamas‘, Al-Ahram Weekly Online, 8-14 June 2006.
4. Even the Syrian Foreign Minister declared that Hamas had fallen into a trap, as al-Hayat reported that week.
5. See, for example, Gideon Rachman, ‘Missed Opportunities, Gaza and the Spread of Jihadism’, Financial Times, 18 June 2007.
6. See Nigel Parsons, The Politics of the Palestinian Authority: From Oslo to al-Aqsa, London: Routledge, 2005, p. 265.
Bashir Abu-Manneh teaches English at Barnard College, New York, and is spending a sabbatical year in London. His ‘Israel’s Colonial Siege and the Palestinians’ will appear in the upcoming issue of Socialist Register (2008).