By Barry Rubin
There is a major struggle going on that could be described as the biggest internal Palestinian conflict in memory, perhaps in history. The question is whether this conflict will develop into a full-blown civil war.
The battle is between Hamas and Fatah, between Islamism and nationalism. It is also a struggle between two groups each wanting the fruits of leadership: power, prestige and money.
With the demise of unchallenged Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and — no less important — Fatah’s inability to gain a state due to its own intransigence, the way lay open for Hamas’s rise. This trend was also made possible by Arafat’s encouragement of anarchy and attempt to use Hamas for his own purposes.
Of course, it can also be traced to Fatah’s corruption and incompetence in running the Palestinian Authority for twelve years.
The turning point was Hamas’s landslide victory in the January 25 election, partly due to Fatah’s internal splits. Another factor was Fatah’s incredible arrogance and inflexibility. It assumed that no one else could possibly lead the Palestinians.
Fatah’s campaign manager told me before the balloting: “People will vote for Mahmoud Abbas and everything will be okay.” Since then, power has been divided between Abbas, the PA’s leader and self-styled president, and a Hamas-dominated parliament and cabinet.
Abbas has unilaterally given himself control over borders, the media, and some security agencies. Hamas is fuming but cannot do much about this power grab. To make matters worse for Hamas, the 60,000-member PA bureaucracy, including security forces, is dominated by Fatah members.
International sanctions against giving money to the Hamas regime also hurt the Islamists. Yet the European Union had earlier stopped aid to the PA because of its financial irresponsibility. This kind of thing should be remembered in the face of a strong temptation to declare Fatah, as opposed to Hamas, the “good guys,” or at least the lesser of two evils.
While Fatah is somewhat less horrible than Hamas, it is Fatah’s past incitement, terrorism and refusal to make real peace that are at the root of the current situation. There is no reason to believe it would do better in the future if restored to power.
THERE IS much discussion of why Hamas won the elections. Some would say that Palestinians supported Hamas’s program; others that voters were merely reacting against Fatah’s corruption. Both points are valid, but there is more to the story.
About half of Hamas’s voters have shown they support its program. The other half has no problems with its views except that of Islamizing society. Yet regarding terrorism, Israel, peace and general world view there is not a big difference between Fatah and Hamas, except on the religious issue.
What of the future?
First, can Fatah return to office? This is possible but far from certain.
Not the slightest reform has taken place in Fatah, nor has any of the leadership been replaced or the younger generation fully incorporated.
Fatah, as was once said of France’s reactionary Bourbon dynasty, has learned nothing and forgotten nothing.
A Hamas-Fatah deal is also possible, but not so likely. Any such arrangement would necessitate Fatah accepting the role of junior partner, which Hamas never did. Given the Fatah mind-set this seems unlikely, though some cadre may join Hamas out of their own views or opportunism.
One reason for keeping up the pressure on the Hamas regime is to discourage such a rapprochement.
SECOND, how is Fatah competing with Hamas? Certainly, it is not doing so by laying out an alternative, moderate line. If Fatah so wished it could take the option available to it for a decade and urge an end to the eternal struggle with Israel that would quickly win it a state and international support.
While a few people in Fatah do think this way, Abbas among them to some extent, there is no sign that anyone is seriously considering such a strategy. Instead, Fatah is competing by trying to prove that it is just as militant as the Islamists, including the escalation of its own attempts at terrorism.
Since the election, Fatah statements and actions are more, rather than less, extreme.
Of course, Fatah can also hope that Western and Israeli pressures will bring down Hamas and simply hand it power once again. Fatah is encouraging its supporters to blame Hamas for the economic problems of the PA and to demonstrate, demanding their pay. Equally, Fatah is resisting any moves by Hamas to take over the security forces and put its own people into the bureaucracy.
This effort may even succeed. But such an outcome cannot be taken for granted.
FINALLY, WILL there be a civil war? Clearly, armed resistance to Hamas’s encroachment on Fatah-controlled areas and institutions is happening periodically. Yet both sides are trying to avoid an all-out struggle.
Continuing anarchy and periodic clashes seem more likely than full-scale battle.
It is important not to underestimate the staying power of either Hamas, Fatah or the PA. The stakes are too high for both sides to give much ground. Equally, there is a deep-seated strategy of being willing to sacrifice the welfare of the Palestinian population in the fight against each other and Israel.
Let them suffer, the activists and gunmen argue, and that suffering will force the West and Israel to ease the pressure and give into their demands without Palestinian concessions.
This seems a strange approach, but it is one that the Palestinian movement has used for a half-century and does not seem to have yet transcended. On more than one occasion in the past it has even worked. Often, however, it has led to disaster.
In this case, the latter appears more likely.