By Ray Hanania
Palestinian politics has been in a nosedive for decades. The only surprise is that there doesn’t seem to be any bottom to the abyss — it is just one continuous downward spiral with no end and no relief. It is plagued by conflict, violence and uncertainty.
This week, Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah announced his resignation, frustrated by the daunting pressure from all sides. Palestinians face escalating hate and violence from Israel, fueled in part by Israeli candidates competing for votes in the April 9 election. The Palestinians are being bullied and blackmailed by America to accept Israel’s peace diktats or lose hundreds of millions of dollars in funding, throwing the Palestinian economy into worsening chaos.
But the most pressing concern has been Hamdallah’s inability to achieve unity with Hamas, the militant religious movement that rules the Gaza Strip and is the primary obstacle to Palestinian unification.
Palestinians’ inability to overcome their own political divisions has always been a major obstacle to dealing with their conflict with Israel. We’re not talking about achieving peace, but rather empowering the Palestinians and achieving the presumably simple goal of unity.
Hamdallah, an acclaimed academic and Fatah political activist, was named prime minister in September 2013 to usher in unity with Hamas. This week, he conceded defeat and resigned. He cited his achievements, including bolstering the Palestinian economy despite the brutality of the Israeli occupation and Jewish settler terrorism. He tweeted: “We are proud that, despite all constraints and Israel’s illegal practices, our national exports have exceeded $1 billion. We have brought our national product to more than 80 countries and increased our foreign investments to $ 3.4 billion.”
But Hamdallah could not achieve unity with Hamas. Last March, he was even the target of an assassination attempt as he entered the Gaza Strip to negotiate reconciliation.
The policies of Hamas do not concur with the policies of the Palestinian Authority and it has been engaged in a decades-long battle to take control of the Palestinians’ future.
In a way, Hamas was the unintended delusion of Israel’s extremist and violent leadership. In 1977, former terrorist and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin embraced a plan by anti-Arab militant Ariel Sharon, then only a general with a long history of massacring Palestinians. Israel thus launched the “Village Leagues” in the Gaza Strip, which it hoped would undermine what they saw as the more threatening rise of Palestine Liberation
Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat. The Israelis never expected them to eventually help form a militant group called Hamas at the start of the First Intifada in December 1987.
Rather than working together, Hamas and the PLO, which was already fractured and divided, instead saw each other as rivals. And that rivalry has never ended, forcing Palestinians to pay a high price.
The divisions were exacerbated when Israel withdrew, for its own selfish reasons, from Gaza in 2005. Faced with mounting casualties at the hands of Hamas fighters, Israel withdrew both its military and its settlements to border positions. Israel turned Gaza from an occupied territory into the world’s largest open-air military prison, governed by embargo. Israel controls the borders, the passage of civilians and commodities, and utilities including water and electricity, often curtailing or limiting both.
The withdrawal had the unintentional consequence of strengthening Hamas, giving it power over a semi-autonomous landmass. The embargo actually brought Hamas and the civilians of Gaza together as one oppressed group, while in the occupied West Bank the Palestinian government enjoyed limited freedoms and Jewish settlements and settler violence against Palestinians continued to increase.
While Hamas enjoyed “unity through Israeli oppression,” the Palestinian Authority has struggled to bring the two sides together, always failing and exposing the Palestinian “government” as weak and ineffective in the face of Israeli oppression. Hamas has pursued confrontation, making it appear tough and uncompromising, even though the cost can be measured by the hundreds of lives lost. As a victim, Hamas has looked more like a hero. As a failed peace partner, the PA looks like it has been duped.
Last December, Mahmoud Abbas tried to impose unity by dissolving the Palestinian Legislative Council and setting new elections. But the move was rejected both by Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a rebellious member of the PLO.
The PA has enjoyed some successes. In 2012, the UN General Assembly handed Palestine the status of “observer state,” allowing the PA to join international organizations. And, this month, Palestine became chair of the largest voting bloc at the UN — the 134-nation Group of 77.
Yet, despite these “historic” steps forward, Palestinian statehood is stymied at every turn, not just by Israel and America at the UN, but also by Hamas’ rejectionism. That refusal to submit to the greater good or a mainstream, secular leadership continues to undermine Palestinian statehood. It appears Sharon’s Hamas experiment continues to succeed more than 40 years on.