By Ramzy Baroud
The political division in Palestinian society is deep-rooted and must not be reduced to convenient claims about the Hamas-Fatah “split,” elections or the Oslo Accords and subsequent disagreements. The division is actually linked to events that preceded all of these, and not even the death or incapacitation of the octogenarian Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would advance unity one iota.
Palestinian political disunity is tied to the fact that the issue of representation in Palestinian society has always been an outcome of one party trying to dominate all others. This dates back to before the establishment of Israel on the ruins of historic Palestine in 1948, when various Palestinian clans fought for control over the entire Palestinian body politic. Disagreements led to conflict, often violent; although, at times, they also resulted in relative harmony, such as the establishment of the Arab Higher Committee in 1936.
These early years of discord were duplicated in later phases of the Palestinian struggle. Soon after Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser relinquished his influential role over the Palestine Liberation Organization following the humiliating Arab defeat in 1967, the relatively new Fatah movement — established by Yasser Arafat and others in 1959 — took over. Since then, Fatah has mostly controlled the PLO, which was declared in 1974 to be the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.”
This caveat was arguably added to ensure Arab rivals did not lay claim to the PLO, thus imposing themselves as the benefactors of the Palestinian cause. However, long after the danger of that possibility had passed, Arafat and Fatah continued to control the PLO using the phrase as a moral justification for their dominance and the elimination of political rivals.
While it is easy to jump to conclusions and blame the Palestinians for their division, there is more to the story. Since much of the armed Palestinian struggle took place within various Arab political and territorial spaces, PLO groups needed to coordinate their actions, along with their political positions, with various Arab capitals — Cairo, Damascus, Amman and even, at times, Baghdad, Tripoli, Algiers and Sanaa. Naturally, this deprived Palestinians of any genuinely independent initiatives.
Arafat was particularly astute at managing one of the most difficult balancing acts in the history of liberation movements: Keeping relative peace among Palestinian groups, appeasing Arab hosts, and maintaining control over Fatah and the PLO. But even Arafat was often overwhelmed by circumstances far beyond his control, leading to major military showdowns, alienating him further and breaking down Palestinian groups into even smaller factions — each allied with and supported by one Arab government or another.
Even Palestinian division has rarely been a Palestinian decision, although the leadership deserves much blame for failing to develop a pluralistic political system that does not rely on a single group or individual for its survival.
The Oslo I Accord of 1993 and the return of some Palestinian groups to Palestine in the following months and years was presented, at the time, as a critical step toward liberating Palestinian decision-making from Arab and other influences. While that claim worked in theory, it failed in practice, as the newly established Palestinian Authority was quickly held hostage by other, even greater influences: Israel, the US and the so-called donor countries. This US-led apparatus conditioned its political and financial support on the Palestinians agreeing to a set of terms, including cracking down on anti-Israel “incitement” and dismantling “terrorist infrastructures.”
While this new political regime forced Palestinian groups into yet another conflict, only Hamas seemed powerful enough to withstand the combined pressure of Fatah, the PA and Israel.
The Hamas-Fatah feud did not start as a result of Oslo and the establishment of the PA. These events merely exacerbated an existing conflict. Immediately after Hamas’ establishment in late 1987, PLO parties, especially Fatah, viewed the Islamist movement with suspicion for several reasons. These included the fact that Hamas formed and expanded outside of the well-controlled political system of the PLO; it was based in Palestine, thus avoiding the pitfalls of dependency on outside regimes; and it promoted itself as an alternative to the PLO’s past failures and political compromises.
Expectedly, Fatah dominated the PA, as it did the PLO, and, in both cases, rarely used truly democratic channels. As the PA grew richer and more corrupt, many Palestinians sought answers via Hamas. Consequently, Hamas’ growth led to the movement’s victory in the Palestinian legislative elections of 2006. Conceding to a triumphant Hamas would have been the end of Fatah’s decades-long dominance over the Palestinian political discourse — never mind the loss of massive funding sources, prestige and many other perks. Thus, conflict seemed inevitable, leading to the tragic violence seen in the summer of 2007 and the eventual split between Palestinians, with Fatah dominating the PA in the West Bank and Hamas ruling over besieged Gaza.
Matters are now increasingly complicated, as the crises of political representation afflicting the PLO and PA are likely to soon worsen due to the power struggle within the Fatah movement. Though lacking Arafat’s popularity and respect among Palestinians, Abbas’ ultimate goal was the same: To single-handedly dominate the Palestinian body politic.
However, unlike Arafat, who managed to keep the movement intact, Abbas is likely to oversee the dismantling of the party into smaller factions. And the chances are that the future absence of Abbas will lead to a difficult transition within Fatah that, if accompanied by protests and violence, could result in the disintegration of the movement altogether.
To depict the current Palestinian political crisis in reductionist terms as a Hamas-Fatah “split” — as if they were ever united — and other cliches is to ignore a history of division that must not be solely blamed on Palestinians. In post-Abbas Palestine, Palestinians must reflect on this tragic history and, instead of aiming for easy fixes, concentrate on finding common ground beyond parties, factions, clans and privileges. Most importantly, the era of one party and a single individual dominating all others must be left behind — this time for good.