Palestine vs. The Palestinians

(This week’s post will unfortunately be shorter than usual as work is kicking into a higher gear with the approaching end of the semester.)

One of the bigger stories of the past week has been the (tentative) reconciliation suddenly achieved between Fatah and Hamas with the prospect of a unity government on the horizon for the first time since the Palestinian elections in 2006.  The announcement was almost immediately overtaken by Israel’s reaction and the United States reaction to the reaction, and at present the media coverage is focussed on the presumed death of the peace process (although how you can kill something that’s already dead is beyond me).  Nevertheless there is, I think, an implied assumption that the reconciliation is beneficial and a good step forward for Palestine.  This might turn out to be true, at least inasmuch as it ensures that Fatah and Hamas will no longer be openly at each other’s throats and paves the way for the presentation of a united Palestinian front to face Israel, at least on a governmental level.  But I don’t think the unity agreement is a spark of unalloyed good news for Palestinians.

There has always been a strong perception that Hamas and Fatah are the only political game in town for Palestine, and while this might be true on a strictly party level – we’re not going to see the Third Way streak to power anytime soon – it is foolish to believe that this means the two parties command the loyalty of all Palestinian citizens, or even a majority of them.  Hailing the unity agreement as some absurd ‘reunification’ of the Palestinian people gives credence to the idea that the two parties represent everybody.  There are some rumours that third parties will be included in the unity government, as well as independent technocrats, but I don’t think anybody has any real doubt that Fatah and Hamas will be the real driving forces behind it.

Neither Fatah nor Hamas is a particularly good model of governance for any nation, particularly one which needs it as direly as Palestine.  Both parties are staggeringly corrupt and given to subjecting the Palestinians to additional human rights violations on top of the already gigantic burden of being under military occupation and blockade.  Since the split in 2006, they have focussed most of their energies on staying in power rather than doing what they can to improve the country.

Furthermore, assuming that Fatah and Hamas represent everyone leads to the equally invidious idea that Palestinian elections only serve to work out the balance of power between the two groups.  Palestinian elections are long overdue – the last parliamentary ballot was held in 2006, and since the Fatah-Hamas split the Palestinian government has effectively been operating under emergency law.  Mahmoud Abbas, who was elected in 2005 after the death of Arafat, formally should have ceased to be president in January 2009.  His avowed intention not to stand for a second term whenever the elections are finally held seems to be less an expression of democratic principles and more an explanation for his unwillingness to actually conduct elections.  That the negotiations with Israel have been run since 2009 by a government with no formal mandate has not helped their credibility among Palestinians.  The country urgently needs to hold new elections, and while the unity government might be a prelude to such an announcement, it might equally be yet another excuse to postpone them, especially with Israel not in the mood to facilitate the process.

The reconciliation has also been the cause of the most recent death of the long-imaginary Peace Process, and has led to increased tensions with the Israeli government (or at least, more visible tensions than usual).  Netanyahu’s particularly crass statement that Fatah had to choose between peace with Hamas and peace with Israel seems to demonstrate an unwillingness to acquaint himself with the basic principles of conflict resolution: if your conflict has three parties, you cannot end that conflict by only dealing with two of them.  Today’s Hamas, for all its many faults, is not the same party which came to power in 2006.  Having to deal with actual responsibility for a piece of territory and the people living in it has altered the movement’s priorities over the last few years.  That Israel itself has (indirectly) negotiated with Hamas on several occasions is a tacit recognition of that fact.

The Peace Process has been dead for years, but what has been damaged in the past week is the public fiction of its continuation.  That this thoroughly intangible but deeply symbolic blow has come as a result of what most outside observers will see as Israeli intransigence will benefit Fatah and the newly-formed unity government enormously.  Two days ago, Mahmoud Abbas gave a public statement in which he called the Holocaust “the most heinous crime to have occurred against humanity in the modern era”, at the same time that the Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman accused him of being a Holocaust denier.  The situation has even pushed John Kerry to use the word “apartheid”, which I thought was definitely not supposed to be on the Secretary of State’s traditional vocab list when discussing Israel.

Out of all the players, one party clearly benefits most: Fatah.  The veneer of the peace process has collapsed, and nearly everyone thinks it’s not their fault; Abbas sent the Israelis sympathy about the Holocaust and got an earful of vitriol from Netanyahu; Hamas is coming back into the fold with its tail between its legs; and Abbas and Hamdallah will remain the Heads of State and government.  The party is still in control of Palestine despite the lag of almost 10 years since the last elections (and it didn’t even win those).  Meanwhile Hamas, pressured by its separation from its erstwhile sponsors, Syria and Iran, and the regional irrelevance of its more recent sponsor, Qatar, as well as the reinstatement of the blockade on the Egyptian border, looks weaker and more desperate.  Fatah is up, Hamas is down, and the Palestinian people are nowhere.

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