A Zero-Sum Game
Fall 2009 - Number 17

A Zero-Sum Game

Daniel Diker

Jonathan Schanzer, Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 256 pp. $26.95.

In the nearly seventeen years since the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, radical Islamic terror and failed Middle East peace processes have claimed the lives of thousands of Israelis and Palestinians. Ironically, one of the greatest casualties of this conflict has been diplomatic creativity.

Today, a common view in Western capitals is that the 100-year-old conflict between Israelis and Palestinians can be reduced to two primary obstacles—Israeli settlements and Hamas-orchestrated violence. Both problems, it is widely asserted, can be tackled and tamed with the right amount of international pressure.

This two-decade-old misconception is brought into sharp focus by Washington-based Middle East analyst Jonathan Schanzer in his pathbreaking book, Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine. Schanzer’s very readable and meticulously documented chronicle of the 20-year civil war between Hamas and Fatah is an eloquent appeal for more attention to be paid to the internal dimension of Palestinian politics.

The international community, Schanzer asserts, has largely, even willfully, overlooked the “Hamas versus Fatah” phenomenon, preferring instead to focus on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as the point of reference for instability in the Middle East. But, he correctly contends, the civil war raging within Palestinian politics is a reality, and one that merits serious attention.

Hamas vs. Fatah, in other words, was written for the West, and it successfully demolishes a number of well-entrenched myths. Schanzer corrects the common but mistaken notion that, until quite recently, Hamas was largely a peripheral movement that languished in the shadow of the nationalist, secular, “moderate” and more popular Fatah. To the contrary, he documents, since its establishment in 1987 Hamas has increasingly posed a threat to Fatah’s self-proclaimed status as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

Schanzer also urges us to avoid reducing the narrative to simply one of extremists and moderates, “good guys” versus “bad guys.” The truth, Hamas vs. Fatah makes clear, is that both factions have been shaped by radical Islam, and in turn have exploited its symbols. At the same time, both have also been driven by the impulse of Palestinian nationalism, which “helped Hamas win 45 percent of the Palestinian electorate in 2006.” This underscores an essential theme running through the book, one largely lost on Western audiences: that Palestinian politics has been profoundly shaped by the ongoing violent competition between Hamas and Fatah over who is the most authentic voice of Palestinian “resistance.”

Schanzer uses this prism to bring the Middle East peace process into sharp focus. While many in Israel and the West were hopeful about the prospects of peace with the Palestinians under the leadership of Yassir Arafat, even going so far as to award Arafat a Nobel Peace Prize, they fundamentally misread the agenda.

Arafat’s tactical turn toward negotiations, beginning with Oslo, was driven more than anything else by domestic politics, and by the desire to sideline an increasingly powerful Islamist opposition in the form of Hamas, which since the first Intifada had gained in popularity and was “rapidly transforming its military capabilities” with the support of the Iranian regime.

Oslo, then, was not a watershed signaling the end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Rather, Arafat’s establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and his initiation of peace talks with Israel were about reviving the nearly-defunct PLO and gaining international legitimacy. But, as Schanzer notes, Arafat’s tactics bred no shortage of enemies; Hamas likened Arafat’s move to “sacrilege” and within months carried out the first of scores of suicide bombings in Israel’s major cities to demonstrate its defiance.

The violence worked. Arafat’s leadership became more precarious and “his attempts to suppress Hamas weakened his authority.” The Palestinian street came to see Arafat and the PA as doing Israel’s dirty work, “which contributed to Hamas’ popularity as the political underdog and spokesman for the marginalized and forgotten.”

This, in turn, precipitated the unrest known as the “al-Aksa Intifada.” Through it, Arafat made a bid to co-opt Hamas’ Islamic based rejection of Israel, cloaking his secular nationalist Fatah faction in religious garb. He even established Fatah’s own version of an Iranian-backed militia, the al-Aksa Martyrs Brigade, which “co-opted Islamic symbols and slogans, drawing heavily from the Quran and Islamic tradition” in a series of grisly suicide bombings between 2001 and 2004.

But Arafat’s strategy worked only nominally. Nearly 3,500 Palestinians were killed and many thousands more wounded during the course of the second Intifada, while Arafat found himself confined to his Muquatta compound in Ramallah, a virtual prisoner of Israeli forces. The PA was in ruins, its economy shattered, and Fatah’s popularity had plummeted. Hamas, meanwhile, exploited the resulting political vacuum to plan a “Green Revolution” to take control of the Palestinian Authority.

The rest is history. As Schanzer documents in meticulous detail, the combination of Israeli military action and the catastrophic economic and social conditions within the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority helped Hamas fill the void left by Arafat’s discredited PLO. So did massive military and financial assistance provided to the group by the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Though he does note that connection, it would have been helpful had Schanzer written more about the new proxy relationship between Hamas and the Iranian regime, given its vital role in the power struggle between Hamas and Fatah. But Hamas vs. Fatah does explain convincingly how the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in August 2005 made Gaza a battleground between Fatah and Hamas, as both groups vied for political control and territory. The ultimate victor was Hamas, and the result was the rise of a “Hamastan” in Gaza—a virtual terror state on Israel’s doorstep.

Perhaps the most important theme Schanzer illustrates in his book’s final chapters is that, following Hamas’ January 2006 parliamentary victory; the miserable failure of a Palestinian “national unity” government; Hamas’ bloody summer 2007 takeover of Gaza; its torture and murder of hundreds of Fatah activists in Gaza and the reciprocal murder and torture of Hamas operatives in the West Bank; and the Hamas-Israeli war in Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009; Gaza and the West Bank today have become two virtually separate geographical and political entities, with different futures.

The author admits that this talk of permanent West Bank-Gaza rupture is heresy among Palestinians. Yet the separate tribal and family structures, Jordanian-Palestinian family lines in the West Bank, Egyptian Gazan family relationships in the Strip, and deep-seated enmity between Hamas and Fatah indicate a new and very possibly irreversible reality.

It seems appropriate that towards the end of Hamas vs. Fatah, marking the end of the Bush Administration and its abject diplomatic failure on the Palestinian track, Schanzer quotes a senior U.S. official as saying, “I don’t think in the long term that an agreement is going to work if Hamas continues to control Gaza. That’s why we repeatedly said that the Palestinian Authority should resume its responsibility for the government in Gaza …How that is going to work I don’t know. Neither Jerusalem nor Ramallah knows either.”

President Obama would have been well served had he read Hamas vs. Fatah before his Cairo speech. It still may not be too late.

 

Daniel Diker is a senior foreign policy analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He is also an adjunct fellow of the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.