Will the Fatah-Hamas unity usher in a new era?

May 20, 2014

The goal of Palestinian political unity can't be separated from an honest accounting of what the "peace process" has produced, explains Eric Ruder.

THE U.S. news media proclaimed the death of the Oslo "peace process" on April 23 when leaders of rival Palestinian factions in the West Bank and Gaza announced a tentative reconciliation that would pave the way for a government of national unity within five weeks.

But the idea that the reconciliation agreement led to the collapse of Palestinian negotiations with Israel was little more than Israeli spin doctoring. Secretary of State John Kerry had already proclaimed the talks at a dead standstill two weeks earlier--due to Israel breaking its pledge to release Palestinian political prisoners and giving a green light for the construction of yet more housing units in illegal Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank.

Western media outlets, however, have faithfully followed the Israeli establishment's preferred spin on events, which seeks to redirect blame for the breakdown in negotiations from Israel to the supposed "threat" presented by the agreement between rival groups Fatah and Hamas. The truth is that the cul-de-sac of the "peace process" paved the way for the Palestinian reconciliation deal, not vice versa.

A boy leads a protest in the village of Ni'lin in the West Bank
A boy leads a protest in the village of Ni'lin in the West Bank

After more than two decades of "peace negotiations," Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah faction are desperately seeking some way to maintain a shred of popular legitimacy. This is, of course, made more complicated by the fact that as part of the Oslo "peace process," the PA has served as Israel's security force in the West Bank, helping to crush popular and armed resistance to Israel's ever-expanding grasp for land.

The most striking example of Israel's land grab strategy is this: In the last nine months alone, during which Kerry has pursued "peace talks" with renewed vigor, Israel has approved the construction of at least 13,851 new housing units--a fourfold increase of the pace of settlement building compared to recent years.

Meanwhile, Israel has succeeded in making Hamas pay dearly for its continuing commitment to "resistance," even though this commitment is almost solely rhetorical. The failure of a U.S.-backed attempt by Fatah to wrest control of Gaza from Hamas in a 2007 coup essentially consolidated a politico-territorial division that has weakened the Palestinian side, while providing a convenient target for any Israeli politician wishing to take aim at the "peace process" at the first sign that it might actually entail Israeli concessions.

Ever since 2007, the near-total economic siege of Gaza has imposed untold misery on 1.5 million Palestinians living in this tiny sliver of land between Israel and Egypt. The Egyptian Revolution of 2011 seemed to offer hope that the suffocating siege Israel had attempted to impose might weaken, but the U.S. quickly secured the ongoing collaboration of Egyptian officials with Israel in isolating Hamas--even after the Muslim Brotherhood, an ally of Hamas, assumed Egypt's presidency.

The Rafah crossing was open only occasionally, allowing for the passage of a token amount of people and construction material so desperately needed to rebuild Gaza after Israel's repeated assaults. Since Mohamed Morsi's ouster in July 2013, Gaza's tunnel economy that once staved off its total isolation from the outside world was shut down by a combined effort of Egyptian and Israeli forces to destroy these subterranean border crossings.

ENTER THE recently announced plan for reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas.

There are several reasons that Abbas' Fatah would seek a unity government. First, the idea of bridging what is widely acknowledged as a division that has served the interests of the Palestinians' foes is broadly popular--even though this represents a tacit admission that Fatah's strategy of peace negotiations with Israel has failed.

Abbas' pursuit of unity with Hamas is also designed to send a message to Israel that Fatah has options that go beyond the "peace process." According to mainstream Middle East commentator Hussein Ibish:

Moving now on gestures towards unity with Hamas might be an effort to shore up Fatah's reputation, in advance of a potential face-saving way to keep negotiations with Israel going after the deadline of April 29. It also might be an effort to demonstrate to Israel and the United States that Palestinians still have options beyond the negotiating process, in a similar way that the PLO recently joining the 15 international treaties recently was intended to convey.

But the truth is that Fatah's pursuit of unity with Hamas hasn't been accompanied by a corresponding reevaluation of its two-decade record of failure that would prepare Fatah to actually pursue options beyond the "peace process."

Indeed, an honest accounting of what the "peace process" has wrought would show that the Palestinian struggle for liberation has been dealt a series of defeats during this time. The number of West Bank settlers has practically tripled; the Palestinian economy is weaker, unemployment more entrenched and poverty more desperate; Palestinian resistance organizations largely shut themselves down in order to become enforcers of this arrangement; those that didn't are subject to extrajudicial assassination by Israeli forces anywhere, anytime.

Hamas' lurch towards unity with Fatah is also the consequence of the failure of its strategy to produce results. Despite Israel's relentless complaints about Hamas' violence, Hamas has spent enormous political capital in its efforts to deter resistance organizations from launching rocket attacks on Israel. In fact, it is Israel that has repeatedly broken ceasefires in order to go on terrifying military offensives, which have injured, maimed and killed Palestinian civilians on a massive scale.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a slew of American politicians were quick to condemn reconciliation, saying that Israel couldn't be expected to negotiate with a "terrorist" government pledging Israel's destruction.

But for years, Israeli politicians, including far-right figures Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennet, have argued the opposite--namely, that it was pointless to conduct "peace" negotiations with Abbas and the PA, since this only amounted to forging agreement with one among several competing Palestinian political forces.

Given Israel's strategy to welcome talks while always making certain that an actual agreement is never reached, it's hardly surprising to find that yesterday's critics of negotiating with "only" one Palestinian faction are today's critics of negotiating with a "unified" Palestinian side.

IT WOULD be impossible for Israel to sustain its rejectionist posture at the negotiating table without the unswerving support of the political and foreign policy establishment of the U.S. The Obama administration even had the gall to appoint Martin Indyk, a longtime Israel booster, as the special envoy for negotiations between Israel and the PA. In the words of columnist Ramzy Baroud:

The Americans want to maintain the charade of the talks for reasons other than achieving a lasting peace. Without a "peace process," the U.S. would be denied an important political platform in the Middle East. Successive U.S. administrations have presented themselves as the honest broker in the process.

Of course, it takes no genius to realize that the Americans have not been entirely honest in their dealings with both parties. In fact, the U.S. is not a third party at all, but was and remains steadfastly in the Israeli camp. It used its political and financial leverage as a platform that allowed it to advance Israeli interests first, and their own interests second. Indyk is an example of this.

To illustrate this, imagine the American response to an ultimatum from the PA that it would refuse to negotiate with an Israeli government that includes far-right or semi-fascist parties opposed to the two-state solution--in other words, parties opposed to the existence of a Palestinian state. In fact, the Palestinians would have far more justification for such a demand than the Israeli deceit about Hamas' rejectionism.

Netanyahu's own ministers, such as Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, speak openly of the unilateral annexation of 60 percent of the West Bank. Fellow Likud members recently made Danon party chair because of his pledge to stop Netanyahu from agreeing to a Palestinian state (which hardly seemed likely in any case). In an interview last year with the Guardian's Chris McGreal, Danon said:

Long-term, I am not talking about annexing the Palestinians. My goal is to annex--or "apply sovereignty," as I prefer to call it--to the land in Judea and Samaria with the minimum amount of Palestinians...So if I am doing the map, yes, I want the majority of the land with the minimum amount of Palestinians.

In McGreal's words:

That was, essentially, South Africa's 1960s blueprint for the supposedly self-governing Bantustan homelands intended to rid white South Africa of millions of Black people while taking the best of their land. I saw that plan in force in South Africa, so I put it to Danon that not only is his policy similar, but the end result might look much the same: a patchwork of Arab towns and cities in the West Bank surrounded by Israel. He didn't deny it.

By comparison, Hamas has refused to accept as a precondition for negotiations Israel's demand that Israel should now and forever be a Jewish state, with second-class citizenship for Palestinians. And Hamas' gestures towards reconciliation signal that it is now prepared to sacrifice even this.

IT REMAINS to be seen whether this most recent Fatah-Hamas effort at reconciliation will fare better than other stillborn attempts at unity in recent years, but there is little reason to think so--or even to hope for this outcome. That's because this is a unity based on the short-term survival needs of the rival factions, not an agreement to adopt a promising new strategy in response to the failure of the "peace process."

Both Fatah and Hamas seem unable to imagine a political or diplomatic strategy beyond the mantra of a "viable Palestinian state existing side by side with the state of Israel." So any unity that might emerge would amount to an awkward embrace between rivals, bereft of ideas about what to do next. The only virtue of unity under such circumstances is that it allows each side to share the inevitable price to be paid for their own record of failure.

But if Fatah and Hamas are tragically adrift, Israel is frighteningly focused. Israel is in the grips of a political zealotry that has the goal of ethno-religious supremacy at its heart. If Israeli politicians were interested in cementing their domination, they would give the Palestinians what they're asking for--a "state" that would rule over a shattered economy totally dependent on Israel, reduced to providing a cheap and easily repressed labor force, semi-attached to Israel's booming industrial economy and largely shut out of access to essential natural resources such as water and land.

Such an arrangement wouldn't provide justice for the great mass of Palestinians, but it would likely succeed at further ensuring that the Palestinian elite, tamed by years of waiting to assume the mantle of statehood, would have renewed political capital and perhaps even enthusiasm for restraining the aspirations of millions of Palestinian workers, farmers and refugees.

The fact that Israel didn't jump at this deal only exposes the exterminationist drive at the heart of the Zionist project. Like all colonial doctrines, Zionism rests on a dehumanization of the land's indigenous people in order to justify the "cleansing" of the land.

Billions of dollars in U.S. aid--year after year after year, both prior to and since the beginning of the "peace process"--have allowed generations of Israelis to exist in a bubble. But the rest of the world is now awakening to the long history of injustice suffered by the Palestinians.

And with Israel unwilling to accept a Palestinian state, millions around the world are drawing two interrelated conclusions. First, the international community has failed the Palestinian people, and so a global movement--like the movement against apartheid South Africa--is the most practical and effective way to redress this historic injustice.

Second, the time for a Palestinian "statelet" subordinate to an Israeli Goliath has passed. Instead, a new movement is gathering to demand the de-Zionization of Israel--a Palestine that would be a state of all its citizens. With equal rights for everyone--Arab, Jew, Christian and Muslim--to the water, to the land, to political rights, to the same courts of justice, and to the right to travel and move about their land freely. From the river to the sea.

Efforts to demand such long-overdue justice are emerging everywhere. Some are big, and some are small, but they all contribute to the growing interplay between the global boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement; various resistance movements in Palestine and in the Middle East; and the growing pressure on the foreign sponsors of Israeli apartheid, in particular the U.S.

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