PRAGUE — Regardless of the latest hastily negotiated truce, the battle between nationalist Fatah and Islamist Hamas seems to be gaining intensity. Palestinian politics, always self-destructive, has reached new heights of internal conflict, pulling the population deeper into disorder and pushing them further away from statehood.
The movement’s remarkable ability to sabotage itself is not new. In the late 1960s, the PLO, led by Fatah, antagonized its Jordanian hosts until they expelled it by force.
During the 1970s, the PLO entered Lebanon’s civil war, wearing out its welcome there. The sole issue on which Israel, Syria and Lebanese political leaders agreed in the 1980s was that the PLO should be thrown out of Lebanon.
During the 1990s, the PLO botched its opportunity to govern the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, create a stable and development-oriented regime there, and make peace with Israel.
Rejecting a deal with Israel in 2000, Fatah instead launched a violent revolt that has lasted ever since, destroying the infrastructure built up in the Palestinian territories during the previous decade. Massive foreign aid was stolen, squandered or wrecked by unnecessary violence.
When Yasser Arafat, the perennial PLO, Fatah and Palestinian Authority leader, died, Palestinians in theory had a chance to end this history of disasters. Yet Arafat’s replacement, Mahmoud Abbas, was a colorless, not particularly strong figure with no real political or military base of his own.
During the 1990s, as the challenge from Hamas steadily grew, Arafat thought he could use the Islamists — after all, he was basically one himself — and refused to curb them. He was notorious for refusing to build strong institutions. So once Arafat died, the roof caved in.
Three main factors brought Hamas into leadership in the January 2006 parliamentary elections. First, Arafat’s legacy left Fatah and the PLO completely undisciplined. Its deep divisions meant that Fatah candidates split the vote and ensured a Hamas landslide.
Second, Fatah never gave Palestinians any alternative vision. Apart from a few scattered speeches — some by Abbas himself — it never accepted peace and compromise. In this respect, Fatah was not much different from Hamas, and the two competed to prove who waged terrorism better and was more militant.
Finally, Fatah did a terrible job at governing, bringing Palestinians neither material benefits nor a state. Instead, it brought massive corruption and administrative incompetence, together with breathtaking arrogance. When I predicted Hamas’ victory before the election, Fatah’s campaign manager replied, “Everyone will vote for Abbas and everything will be all right.”
But while Abbas remains chief executive, Hamas controls Parliament and the government.
Yet Fatah was hardly going to give up. One of Fatah’s few remaining assets is that the West, horrified by Hamas’ more open hate-mongering and extremism, has largely boycotted the new Palestinian regime and cut off aid. With Hamas allied to Iran and Syria, Fatah has seemed more attractive in geopolitical terms.
The West continues to believe that there is still a chance of Arab-Israeli peace — that this problem is the region’s centerpiece, that Hamas might become more moderate, and that Fatah and Hamas can somehow create a government of national unity.
People of good will who want a real negotiated solution, with Israel and Palestine living peacefully as neighbors, simply don’t want to face the fact that any such deal is now decades away. In Palestinian politics, total victory and Israel’s destruction is still preferable to an honest assessment that this goal is unattainable, terrorism must be abandoned, and law and order must be imposed.
Fatah is almost as extreme as Hamas. Anarchy rules, and there is no one with the vision and strength to end it. Dozens of international plans and proposals collapse one after the other. The current “ceasefire” with Israel is violated by the daily salvos of missiles fired from Gaza, while ceasefires among Palestinians have typically been broken by gunfire and assassination attempts within a few hours.
Now Abbas has called for new elections, which Hamas rejects, and it seems unlikely that he has the capacity to impose his will. Many people advocate the simple expedient of “strengthening Abbas” as a moderate, but one cannot strengthen a wet noodle.
The irony is that real change could come about only from a civil war won by moderates. But the Palestinians are not engaged in a civil war pitting moderates versus extremists. The reciprocal low-level violence between Hamas and Fatah is simply a struggle fueled by greed and patronage. There are limits to how far that struggle will go, but the Palestinians are not going to stop fighting among themselves or against Israel.
This is an unfortunate truth. Recognizing it is crucial to understanding why no political solution works, and why every clever plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian or inter-Palestinian conflicts fails.
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