The struggle between Hamas and Fatah for the soul of the Palestinian people began almost from the moment that Hamas was created in 1987 as a radical off-shoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Hamas regarded the PLO (the Palestine Liberation Organization), founded in 1964 to “liberate Palestine through armed struggle”, as not effective enough, despite the string of terrorist actions it perpetrated. When the PLO entered into peace talks with Israel, Hamas was appalled. Its leader, Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, condemned the first Oslo Accord agreement of 1993, and rejected the PLO recognition of the State of Israel. Yasser Arafat, he declared, was “destroying Palestinian society and sowing the seeds of discord and division among Palestinians.”
Hamas was never comfortable either with the Palestinian Authority (PA), which emerged from the Oslo accords, nor with its claim to be the sole representative of the Palestinian people. It rejected the PA’s “play it long” policy of pressing for recognition of a sovereign Palestine within pre-1967 boundaries, even though it was only the first stage in a strategy ultimately designed to gain control of the whole of Mandate Palestine. Equally Hamas opposed PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s efforts to obtain recognition of a State of Palestine within the United Nations, since to do so would also legitimize Israel.
At the heart of the Hamas-Fatah conflict is this fundamental difference about the most effective route to reach their common objective. It led to the refusal by Hamas in 2006 to participate in a national unity government dominated by Fatah. Led by Khaled Mashal, Hamas mounted an armed coup in Gaza, ousted Fatah from the Strip and seized control. Since then Hamas has made no secret of its aspiration to replace Fatah as the governing body of the West Bank. Sometimes it chooses to acknowledge Abbas as Palestinian leader; sometimes it refuses to recognize him as PA president at all on the grounds that his presidential mandate, granted in 2005 for a four-year term, has long expired. Hamas has, moreover, consistently tried to undermine his PA administration by forming militant cells in the West Bank to launch attacks on Israel.
Ismail Haniyeh, who replaced Mashal as leader of Hamas in 2017, pursued the same hard line. Abbas reacted by attempting to force Hamas into submission through cutting financial support and restricting the Strip’s access to electricity. The many efforts at reconciliation between the parties, the most recent sponsored by Egypt, have failed, and the Hamas-Fatah schism has led some to speculate on an eventual full-scale separation between the two Palestinian communities.
The current PA government, headed by prime minister Rami Hamdallah, was formed in 2014 following a temporary truce between Fatah and Hamas. On 27 January 2019, in view of the obvious split between the two organizations, the Fatah Central Council recommended that the PA government be disbanded, and that Abbas form a new administration mainly drawn from various PLO groups.
The next day, as Hamdallah indicated that he was willing to step down, Hamas declared that a new PA government would serve only to deepen its split with Fatah.
“A new government consisting of PLO factions will consolidate the rift between the West Bank and Gaza Strip,” said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum. “Our people are in need of a national unity government representing all Palestinians.”
As Abbas accepted Hamdallah’s resignation and set about forming his new government, conspiracy theories proliferated. One Hamas official, Hazem Qassem, declared “This is an attempt by Abbas to detach the West Bank from the Gaza Strip.”
A dissident Fatah figure, Khaled Abu Hilal, believed that Abbas was in the pocket of US President Donald Trump. “Fatah’s intention to form a political factional government in the West Bank proves that Abbas is involved with the deal of the century.” He was referring to Trump’s pending peace plan for the Middle East which, according to wilder Palestinian speculation, will propose setting up a separate Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip.
Two PLO groups, the DLFP (Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine) and the PLFP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) declared that they would not participate in the new government – an irrelevance in their view The real priority, they declared, was to heal the Fatah-Hamas split. Miriam Abu Dakka, a senior PFLP official, maintained that Abbas’s ruling Fatah faction was not authorized to decide on forming a new government, and had usurped the function of the PLO.
Azzam al-Ahmed, one of many possible successors to Hamdallah, said that the rationale behind forming a new government was to disengage from Hamas, which had been trying to exploit the current administration. Hamdallah himself, on the other hand, said that attempts to detach the Gaza Strip from the Palestinian state would not succeed.
“There will be no state in the Gaza Strip,” he said, “and there will be no state without the Gaza Strip… National unity and reconciliation are the ideal solution to ending the occupation. And,” he added for good measure, “the deal of the century will not materialize.”
This change of government comes hard on the heels of another political coup engineered by Abbas in December 2018, when he announced a new Supreme Constitutional Court ruling calling for the dissolution of the PA’s Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), and for elections to it to be held within six months. The following day Hamas rejected this as unconstitutional, asserting that neither Abbas nor the court were permitted to dissolve the PLC. Hamas called instead for general elections, including for the presidency.
Hamas has dominated the PLC ever since the 2006 elections. It holds 76 of the 132 seats. Fatah holds only 43. However, ever since Gaza and the West Bank have been at loggerheads, the PLC has been dormant, and Abbas has increasingly ruled by presidential decree. The dissolution of the PLC would allow Abbas to consolidate his power by moving much of the decision-making process to the PLO Central Council, in which Hamas does not feature.
Meanwhile, Public Opinion Poll 70, conducted in December 2018 by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, not surprisingly reveals that confidence in the political system among Palestinians, as well as Abbas’s popularity rating, continues to decline.