Backgrounder on Hamas-Fatah split

Shortly after Hamas won Parliamentary elections in 2006, I wrote an essay that addressed frequently asked questions about the Hamas election victory. I thought now would be a good time to link to it (read the full essay here), given that it looks like Hamas and Fatah have finally closed a unity deal — to remind people what got us here in the first place.

It should go without saying, but this should not be read as a personal endorsement for Hamas. It’s nothing more or less than a description of the atmosphere in Palestine in 2006.

An excerpt:

Why is Hamas popular?

After the results were announced, many in the West were worried that the Palestinians had elected a rejectionist terrorist organization and that the will of the Palestinian people was endless warfare or even collective suicide.

But polls consistently reveal that a solid majority of Palestinians are anxious for a negotiated peace with Israel based on international law, and that most desire a secular democratic state alongside a sovereign Israel. So why was there so much support for an Islamist movement?

Palestinians elected Mahmoud Abbas as President of Palestine in January 2005 as a vote of confidence in his pragmatic message of peaceful negotiations toward a two-state solution. Palestinians gave him a chance despite Fatah’s long history of corruption, nepotism, undemocratic methods, and counterproductive political calculations. Hamas also respected the ceasefire that Abbas brokered in Sharm el-Sheikh on February 8, 2005, in deference to public opinion. Hopes for peace after the election of Abbas were enthusiastic and genuine.

What did the Palestinian people receive in return? From February 2005, after Abbas was sworn in and the ceasefire was brokered, until January 2006, when the Hamas elections took place, more than 150 Palestinians were killed, including 38 children, at least 23 men assassinated by Israeli soldiers, and 8 innocent bystanders killed in the course of assassinations. Thousands more were arrested, making a mockery of Israel’s agreement to release Palestinian prisoners as stipulated by the terms of the ceasefire.

In the same period, 37 Israelis were killed, most in suicide bombings conducted by a rogue faction called Islamic Jihad. Scores of homemade rockets were also launched from the Gaza Strip into Israel both before and after the disengagement, causing very little damage or injuries but a great deal of fear. It is unclear whether Abbas was unwilling or unable to stop them. Israeli closures and refusal to allow necessary equipment and ammunition into the Palestinian territories weakened and splintered Abbas’s police force, and Israel’s failure to abide by the terms of the ceasefire weakened his political mandate.

Israel also continued to expand its illegal settlements in the West Bank at such a rate that the number of settlers actually increased in 2005 despite the Gaza disengagement. Settler terrorist attacks against unarmed Palestinian farmers and villagers continued and intensified, with their usual near-impunity from the law. Hamas, though not responsible for any suicide attacks on Israeli soil since August 2004, was constantly targeted, and Abbas was soon declared “no partner.”

When Israel refused even to negotiate the terms of the Gaza redeployment, Hamas was able to take credit for the withdrawal and Abbas, his party, and the PA were made to look irrelevant and foolish. Palestinian hopes that Israel would negotiate in good faith plummeted. Meanwhile conditions in Gaza only worsened with constant Israeli bombardments, sonic boom attacks, and closures that made it even more difficult for Gaza’s goods to reach world markets than before the disengagement.

When it became clear that even Fatah, which was supported by the West, could not bring Israel to the negotiating table, even symbolically in the case of the disengagement, the party lost its biggest selling point. Business as usual continued even under a pragmatic leader while most factions respected a ceasefire. The occupation had no end in sight.

With these and many other statements and actions, the Israeli establishment made it clear that its vision for a two-“state” solution was a unilateral one, not a negotiated one, no matter who came to power in Palestine. It would be based on the route of the Wall, which annexes 10% of the West Bank, including most of the so-called “settlement blocs,” and Israeli control over the Jordan Valley—another 30% of the West Bank. Settlement blocs Israel plans to keep include Ma’ale Adumim, which severs the West Bank’s north-south contiguity; Ariel, which splits the northern West Bank in two and sits atop an important fresh water aquifer; and Gush Etzion, which steals much of Bethlehem’s land and strangles several Palestinian villages.

An Israeli journalist summarized the ruling party’s plans: “Kadima’s practical diplomatic program, as elucidated by Ehud Olmert, adds up to no more than direct Israeli control over approximately one-half of West Bank territory, and the splintering of the remainder into cantons.”

To Palestinians, the resulting series of non-viable, non-contiguous, Walled-in ghettoes on the remaining 60% of the West Bank, devoid of any real sovereignty, with Arab East Jerusalem and its surroundings illegally annexed to Israel, and with no control over water or borders, would be no more acceptable as a “state” than the Bantu Homelands were to black South Africans under Apartheid. Ariel Sharon openly used terms like ‘cantons’ or ‘Bantustans’ to describe his plans for Palestine. Though Olmert has been slightly more discreet, he is committed to the same agenda.

Into this fray, and after 18 months of refraining from attacks on Israel, Hamas ran in the first elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council in a decade under a ticket called “Change and Reform” — not “Islamism and Terrorism.” Because Palestinian voters understood that Fatah could not deliver peaceful negotiations anyway, they voted based on other considerations. According to Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki, “The two most important issues for the voters were corruption… and the inability of the PA to enforce law and order.”

Hamas was elected because it was seen as a disciplined and clean-handed organization that provided a social safety net for some of the poorest and most vulnerable Palestinians when the Palestinian Authority was unwilling or unable to do so. Its charitable organizations include schools, food distribution centers for the needy, and community centers upon which tens or hundreds of thousands of Palestinians depend. Many of these people have, in real and measurable terms, been better-served by Hamas than Fatah.

About Pamela Olson

Pamela Olson is the author of Fast Times in Palestine. She blogs here.
Posted in Israel/Palestine

{ 9 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. clenchner says:

    “But polls consistently reveal that a solid majority of Palestinians are anxious for a negotiated peace with Israel based on international law, and that most desire a secular democratic state alongside a sovereign Israel.”

    But Abunimah says that a solid majority of Palestinians are wrong.

    • Chaos4700 says:

      You know, I’m really getting sick of this bullshit. First people attack me and try to use my sexual orientation as a wedge issue, and now we’re seeing Zionists using the same underhanded tactics to foment a split on the anti-war / anti-occupation / pro-human rights movement among Palestinians.

      This is downright sickening. You know, maybe Zionists were able to use “divide and conquer” on the American Jewish community, but that sort of thing isn’t going to work here.

      • clenchner says:

        What Zionists?
        And, just for the record, I’m fine with whatever orientation you have. Or gender identity. It’s all good!
        And, American Zionists were deeply divided. The Jabotinsky camp had a lot of support, though the pro-Ben-Gurion camp was stronger.

    • Pamela Olson says:

      Remember, this was written in 2006. Times might well have changed.

    • David Samel says:

      clenchner, what is your point. Abunimah endorses a one-state solution, and has explained his reasoning in great detail. Regardless of what a present-day, reasonably reliable Palestinian poll on one versus two would reveal, why should Abunimah refrain from expressing his own opinion? Is unanimity required in any other political debate?

  2. David Samel says:

    Pamela – you make a great point about Hamas’s popularity, one that is often missed. Hamas offers a real alternative to the corruption of Fatah, though it is almost exclusively linked to violence and rejectionism in the US. Of course, Israeli voters regularly vote for politicians whose record of violence and rejectionism dwarfs that of Hamas.

  3. merlot says:

    A couple of comments based on my experiences living in Ramallah off and on over much of the last decade. The end part of what Pamela wrote is the key. Palestinians voted in support of Hamas in 2006 as a result of frustration and anger at PA corruption and the high level of lawlessness present in 2006. After years of failed negotiations and as the second Intifada was winding down people were looking for change. Hamas offered change in a way that no other party could.

    To understand why Palestinians voted for Hamas you have to first move beyond the simplistic western and Israeli analysis that looks at all Palestinian actions first and foremost as reactions to occupation and Israeli policies and actions. You have to recognize that there are dynamics internal to Palestinian society that influenced this vote and that continue to shape the Palestinian political system. Like the rest of us, Palestinians respond to a complex web of influences and to limit analysis of political dynamics in Palestine to a reactive occupation only framework is, at best, condescending.

    In order to understand Palestinian political dynamics it is first necessary to recognize that traditionally in Palestine everyone claims some political affiliation. People on the secular left tend to affiliate with the PFLP, PPP, DFLP or one of the other small political parties. Fatah has traditionally been the largest party and represents the secular political center. Hamas is the second largest party. It not only takes support from religious conservatives but also from both moderate religious and secular voters who are disillusioned with Fatah but who are not willing to support the secular/communist leftist parties. The final political grouping consists of the more extreme Islamist parties including Palestinian Islamic Jihad and very marginal groups such as Hizb Al-Tahrir. (There is also an increasing group of young adults who don’t affiliate themselves with any of the traditional parties, but this is a relatively new phenomenon.) Political affiliation in this traditional framework says more about a person’s social politics than it does about their perspective on how to end Israel’s occupation. It is impossible to interpret support for Hamas (or any other party) without understanding these dynamics.

    Western analysis of Hamas looks at Hamas from a purely military perspective that limits understanding of the organization to the views and actions of its military wing. However, if you actually sit down with people who voted for Hamas you are forced to recognize that they are pragmatic, realistic, rational and often moderate. Most of the people who voted for Hamas did not do so because they want a fundamentalist state. Most did not vote for Hamas because they want to destroy Israel. Many did not vote for Hamas because of its position on armed resistance and most desire peace. This is not to say that Hamas is a great party, that I agree with any of its positions, or that it does not include a sizable number of religious conservative and militants. This is to say that Hamas is complex and that because its politics are based on pragmatism the US and Israel could have worked with Hamas after the 2006 elections.

    I personally see the 2006 elections as one of the biggest missed opportunities in a decade of missed opportunities. The significance of Hamas joining the political process cannot was huge, as was their win which thrust them into a role of responsibility they had never previously held. The US and Israel should have recognized that this was an opportunity to strengthen the moderate voices in Hamas. To do this however they would have had to see Hamas as more than a one dimensional monster. I truly believe that Hamas would have moved towards the political center and some of its most extreme elements could have been marginalized. Instead, by sidelining Hamas the US and Israel only strengthened the most extreme voices in Hamas and marginalized the individuals who needed support.

    If a new unity government is formed I again see this as an opportunity to move Hamas towards the political center and to strengthen the pragmatic voices inside the organization, although this will be more difficult this time around. The isolation of Hamas and its control over Gaza has given a great deal of power to some of the most extreme elements in Hamas. However, pragmatic voices are still present in Hamas and among the Hamas electorate these voices predominate. This is an opportunity to give these voices space.

    Unfortunately, Israeli politics have moved in a direction which guarantees that Israel will not engage Hamas and the US (congress in particular) shows no sign of having changed policy. Contrary to their stated goals, the US and Israel will continue to strengthen the most extreme elements of Hamas through the prolongation of their misguided policies. Some will argue that this is Israel’s goal as the continued Hamas boogey man takes attention off of Israel. This may be true, but it also true that Israeli and US policy push forward Israel’s slow suicidal march towards oblivion.
    Hamas is here to stay. It represents a significant portion of the Palestinian population and peace won’t come without Hamas. At some point the US and Israel will have to recognize these facts and will have to engage Hamas. Now seems like a good time to start engaging Hamas, but I’m not holding my breath in anticipation of change.

    • Sumud says:

      I personally see the 2006 elections as one of the biggest missed opportunities in a decade of missed opportunities. The significance of Hamas joining the political process cannot was huge, as was their win which thrust them into a role of responsibility they had never previously held. The US and Israel should have recognized that this was an opportunity to strengthen the moderate voices in Hamas. To do this however they would have had to see Hamas as more than a one dimensional monster. I truly believe that Hamas would have moved towards the political center and some of its most extreme elements could have been marginalized. Instead, by sidelining Hamas the US and Israel only strengthened the most extreme voices in Hamas and marginalized the individuals who needed support.

      I wanted to pull this paragraph out and highlight it merlot because it’s a critical point – especially in light of ‘The Gaza Bombshell’ article that later appeared in Vanity Fair outlining how the US, Israel, Egypt and Fateh conspired to overthrow the elected Hamas Government. This is really a case of the lunatics running the asylum – I also view the 2006 election as a golden opportunity, missed – and feeds into the later point you make about the success of US and Israeli policy actually being a slow Israeli suicidal march to oblivion.

      Zionists like to talk of the transformative effect of Israel on jews. Beyond the appearance of the ‘tough jew’ or ‘physical jew’ I disagree. Zionists in Israel have been unable or unwilling to see Israel stand or fail on it’s own merits, instead, the nation is succeeds to the degree it does because it has friends in high places (ie. the US with it’s UN Security Council veto power). This is straight diaspora behaviour, perhaps wildly successful in the short term but what is the use of having an independent nation if your fate is hitched to that of another? Inevitably as the US declines in power and influence, Israel’s ability to exercise control over the region, and eventually it’s own fate, will be curtailed.

  4. sycamore says:

    When I lived in Ramallah, I knew several Christians who also preferred a Hamas government. Mind you, this was in 2001 or so, when nothing of the kind seemed even remotely likely. But Fatah is renowned for it’s corruption, and unlike Americans, Palestinians for the most part are quite aware of the service role that the PLO took on for the Israeli occupation as a product of Oslo.

    My own opinion, as a diaspora Palestinian like Abunimah, is that a one state solution is not only preferable, but inevitable. Whether or not the Palestinian people prefer that makes no difference to me in terms of my advocacy. Nor does the fact that Israeli hasbaristas often shake it like some taboo stick to frighten Israeli bigots and children.

    Far too often we hold up OPT Palestinian opinion as if it’s some kind of holy writ. I don’t think that the will of the majority of Americans is any more valid simply because a lot of Americans hold the view–certainly, I didn’t think so during our invasions of Iraq and other places.

    While Hamas is no doubt, a slightly better alternative to Fatah, and has forced Fatah to at least be accountable to an entity somewhere, it’s a very problematic organization, and not a very effective one. I think Palestinians on the ground should reject the Palestinian Authority, the Hamas version and the Fatah version, a system wide general strike from Area A to C, that recognizes that the PA is nothing more than a subsidiary of the Israeli colonization project. Perhaps this will finally happen at years end–I have a sneaking suspicion that the unity agreement, the Rafah opening, and the unity agreement are little more than smoke and mirrors. There will be yet another rude awakening, something Palestinians must be bone-tired of by now.