November saw both an intensification of Israel’s low-level war on Ghazzah, and a further murderous tightening of its economic blockade. But hopes for healing the breach between Fatah and Hamas failed yet again, largely as a result of internal political pressures on Fatah and the Israelis. IQBAL SIDDIQUI reports.
Much of the last few months in international politics has been spent waiting for the US presidential elections to determine the future course of the world’s hegemonic superpower.. Now that Barack Obama has been confirmed as president-elect, the world waits for him to take office in January. Only then will there be meaningful movement on many of the most pressing international political issues of the day. The fact that for millions of suffering innocents around the world, every day’s delay means further pain and probable death appears irrelevant to the slow grind of the political machinery. Such are the realities of the world we live in, as perhaps they have ever been.
Similar political schedules are also affecting the development of the political scene in occupied Palestine. After the failure of Tzipi Livni, the new leader of Israel’s Kadima party, to form a coalition government, Israel faces elections that will probably take place on February 10. Until then, Israeli politicians are competing to be as ruthless and brutal as possible towards the Palestinians, in the knowledge that that is what wins votes in Israel. This is a race in which Moshe Feiglin, a potential deputy leader of the former prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, appears to be winning; he is an advocate of the ethnic cleansing of all non-Jews from the area that he regards as Biblical Israel, along with its “judaisation”, and a longer-term war on Islam as a whole that would result in its eradication. Unsurprisingly, polls show Likud to be leading the polls, with Netanyahu most likely to be Israel’s next prime minister, although much of course could change by February.
On the Palestinian side, meanwhile, president Mahmud Abbas faces a time bomb of a different sort. His presidential term ends on January 9, and Hamas, which won the last major elections in the country, the parliamentary polls of January 2007, has made it clear that it will oppose any unilateral attempt to extend Abbas’s rule beyond that date. It has, however, left open the possibility of an agreed extension provided it is part of a negotiated package approved by the Palestinian Legislative Council; which of course has been severely restricted since Hamas took control of it in January 2007, with several members in Israeli or Fatah jails, and Abbas routinely by-passing it in his increasingly desperate attempts to legitimize the political war on Hamas that he was pressured into launching by Israel and the US after Hamas’s election victory in 2007. Abbas’s problem – and by extension, that of his backers – is that every step he has taken against Hamas appears only to have made the Islamic movement stronger. Despite having restricted its authority to Ghazzah, effectively dividing the Palestinian territories into two separate sections, cooperated with Israel in the blockading of Ghazzah, and having launched crackdown after crackdown on the Hamas infrastructure and support in the West Bank, Abbas knows that Hamas has emerged the stronger from the political ordeal and that he cannot reasonably expect to win even rigged political elections in the West Bank, let alone nationwide elections.
The result has been pressure on him to reach some sort of political accommodation with Hamas, something that Hamas has long been open to; it had offered to establish a government national unity in coalition with Fatah immediately after its election victory last year. But this too has been impossible to agree, for two reasons: first, that Abbas’s allies in Israel and the US continue to resist the idea of of dealing with Hamas, and second because Abbas himself would be severely weakened by such an agreement. This is why repeated attempts in recent months to arrange reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah have failed, most recently early last month, when talks scheduled to take place in Cairo were postponed indefinitely after Hamas decided that they could not take part unless Fatah security forces released hundreds of Hamas supporters provocatively rounded up in the days leading up to the talks.
There is no doubt that Hamas was right about the Fatah crackdown on it. After months of persecution of Hamas in the West Bank, PA security forces launched their largest crackdown yet in late October, acting in cooperation with the Israeli forces to target all that was left of Hamas’s political, social, educational and cultural infrastructure. In the Hebron region, for example, PA forces swept through towns, villages and refugee camps, arresting wanted persons on the basis of lists provided by Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence agency. In a campaign code-named “Ishraqato Watan”, an estimated 400-500 people were arrested, few of whom were subsequently released. In a detailed account of the operation in Al-Ahram Weekly (November 13-19, 2008), Khalid Ameyrah reported that PA security agencies had resorted to renting private properties to house prisoners, in which Hamas detainees had been subjected to severe beatings and ridiculed for their Islamic practices.
An interesting feature of this latest crackdown has been the emergence of details of collaboration between the PA forces and Israel’s occupation forces, which have resulted in many ordinary, non-political Palestinians calling the PA security forces “omala” or collaborators. When Israeli news services reported the PA crackdown on Hamas, they emphasized that the pictures being broadcast were not of Israeli troops operating against Palestinians, but of Palestinian security forces acting against other Palestinians.
The coverage confirmed earlier scandalous reports about Palestinian security forces’ collaboration with Israel. In another embarrassing media scandal in September, an Israeli journalist was allowed to observe a meeting between Israeli officers and Palestinian security chiefs in Beit El, near Ramallah. Palestinian general Diab al Ali, known as Abul Fatah, reportedly told the Israelis that “we are allies, not enemies”, and that “we have a common enemy: it is called Hamas.” Even sources within Fatah called Diab al Ali a traitor when these details were published, and demanded that Abbas sack him, with no effect.
This cooperation between Fatah and PA institutions and the Israelis is not new and is not unexpected; but it has reached unprecedented levels in recent months, as Israel has tried to use the PA to achieve what it failed to achieve itself: to marginalize and destroy Hamas. The problem for both Fatah and Hamas is that this has not been achieved. There is increasing realization among some sections of Israeli politics that Hamas will have to be dealt with as it cannot be defeated, and it is clear to many Palestinians that the role that Abbas has played has perhaps done more damage to the Palestinian cause in recent years than any other single factor.
Three questions arise, the answers to which will both emerge from the unfolding of political events in coming months, and determine them. First is how Hamas can be brought back into the mainstream of Palestinian politics, where it rightfully belongs; and by extension, whether this will be through some reconciliation with Fatah and the PLO (under Abbas or some future leadership) or by supplanting it; and whether this can be achieved with minimal further damage to the unity of the Palestinian movement, or whether further conflict is unavoidable. The second is whether and how the Obama regime and whatever government Israel has in future will deal with Hamas, now that it has proven itself the most established and legitimate leadership in Palestine; and the third is what future strategy Israel and the West will find to try to achieve their ends in Palestine now that the policy of the last two decades – that of trying to reach a deal with some sector of the Palestinian leadership that would then act as a local proxy for the Israelis – has effectively failed.
And while these political dramas play themselves out, the Palestinian people, particularly but no only those of Ghazzah, will continue to suffer appalling hardship and deprivation, as well as constant Israeli military attacks, for their determination to achieve justice for themselves as their future generations. Their commitment and capacity for sacrifice and suffering has long been a source of wonder to all Muslims; and so they are likely to remain.