The future of the Palestinian movement

Toufic Haddad is a Palestinian-American writer and activist based in Jerusalem. This is part one of a two-part interview conducted by the Flying Carpet Institute and first appeared on their Web site. It is reprinted here with permission.

WHAT REMAINS of Palestine has effectively been split in two after the Hamas takeover in Gaza. What are the consequences of this split on the political arena of the West Bank as well as Gaza?

I WOULD like to begin by disagreeing with your characterization that what remains of Palestine has been split into a Fatah-dominated West Bank and a Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

The Israeli State already controls every inch of historical Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, and clearly dictates every thing and every person who enters and exits this area. Hence, where is the “remainder of Palestine” that is supposedly divided between a Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and Fatah-controlled West Bank? It doesn’t exist. Palestine does not exist in any sense of political sovereignty.

What we have today in the West Bank and Gaza (hereafter, occupied Palestinian territories, OPT) are limited gradations of Palestinian autonomy, all beneath Israeli military occupation. We cannot nonchalantly accept the mutation of the word Palestine to mean whatever Israel doesn’t want from the OPT, or where there appears to be a form of Palestinian self-governance that in truth masks the occupation’s continued presence.

Pointing this out also helps answer your question—because without understanding what we mean by the term “Palestinian self-governance,” we cannot be clear about how loyal Palestinians are to it, and to which political tendencies they are loyal for that matter.

As should be well known by now, the Palestinian self-governance that exists in the OPT is a creation of the Oslo process of the early 1990s between the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] and the Israeli State. It was designed to have a very clear goal: to relieve Israel from the administration of the areas of highest population density because Israel feared that remaining in these areas indefinitely would ultimately destroy it as a self-defined “Jewish and democratic state.” In this respect, Oslo was a fulfillment of the Allon Plan, which believed that indeed a collaborating regime could be found or constructed to help Israel relieve itself of its Arab demographic “burden.”

The problem however was that the newly created Palestinian Authority (PA) did not perform fully according to Israeli and American dictates. Arafat rejected Israeli and U.S proposals at Camp David, which did not fulfill the most elementary of Palestinian historical rights.

This non-performance resulted in the United States and Israel unleashing Israel’s military might on the PA and the Palestinian people in general, to eradicate the “troublesome,” resilient nationalist elements there. This is why Ariel Sharon instigated the Second Intifada in September 2000, by entering the Al-Aqsa compound with the full approval of then Prime Minister Ehud Barak. The goal was to teach the Palestinians and the PA a lesson that there was no space for nationalist positions in “Israel’s backyard” or for resistance to Israel and the U.S.’s dictates in general.

Israel’s scorched earth campaigns resulted in roughly 6,000 Palestinian dead, 50,000 injured, 11,000 imprisoned, and countless others forced to leave seeking a more stable life elsewhere. All this has been done to a population that is essentially defenseless, with no army, no real weapons, and that cannot even move a box of tomatoes from one town to another without Israeli permission.

Now, the division you inquire of between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank relates to a division that arose from an unanticipated “mistake” that the United States and Israel made in the endgame to their plans—that is, in their efforts to translate their supposed military victories over the Palestinians into political ones.

The United States believed that after the death of Arafat (in fact after his likely assassination), and after Israel’s fierce repression of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, the time was ripe to “put Humpty Dumpty back together again,” so to speak—meaning that the United States believed that the nationalistic elements of the Palestinians had been cut down to size sufficiently to reconstruct a Palestinian political body according to their liking, one that could finally perform the way a real puppet government should.

This is why the United States allowed for and monitored the 2006 Palestinian elections, to bring precisely such a new leadership to power—a leadership that would be more willing to play the role carved out for it as the subcontracted force of the Israeli occupation. CIA intelligence assessments and U.S. discussions with Palestinian security officials gave a false sense of security that Fatah and Abu Mazen (PLO chairman and PA president Mahmoud Abbas) would have no problems rising to power. Bringing this force to power also needed to be done somewhat democratically (as democratically as possible under occupation) to show that there was no handpicking of leaders, which the opposition Hamas could complain about and organize around at a later stage.

Of course U.S. calculations about Palestinian democracy were wrong, and the election results were a dreadful mistake from their perspective. As we all know, Hamas—a revamped and resistance-oriented religious-nationalist movement—won an overwhelming majority of seats in the parliament.

The United States would make a second faulty calculation in reacting to this situation. From a U.S. perspective, Hamas governance needed to be countered at all cost, and defeated, if not politically, then militarily. Allowing it to govern and achieve any successes would send ripple effects throughout the entire Arab world and challenge the most important of U.S.- sponsored Arab dictatorships—Egypt and Jordan—whose peace accords with Israel cushion the Zionist state’s presence in the region as an outpost of U.S. imperialism.

The United States hence aligned itself with the most corrupt and opportunistic military elements of Fatah to try and organize a coup against Hamas, and prevent it from taking over any of the ministries it was entitled to take over after winning elections. Hamas, which was more adept, better organized, and in tune with the Palestinian street than Fatah at the time, suspected what was going on, repelled the coup, and killed or kicked out of Gaza the Fatah renegades who were behind it.

This covers the background to the division, as well as the nature of the power supposedly “enjoyed” by Palestinians under self-governance.

WHAT THEN are the consequences of this division on the political arena of both the West Bank and Gaza? And have Fatah and Hamas been able to consolidate their respective rules?

IT IS a complicated question to answer. What we see is the development of Palestinian politics in two very different directions according to geographic location, and more importantly, direct U.S. imperial and Israeli intervention. Recognizing the intervention of these powers is crucial because it shows that the development of each trajectory is not happening in a vacuum.

Let’s start with the West Bank.

After the failed coup attempt in Gaza, the United States and other Western powers realized that the situation was quite precarious for their unpopular Fatah allies. It appears that a multidimensional plan was drawn up between all interested parties—the United States, the European Union, Israel, and Fatah—to shore up the latter, and to resuscitate its appeal in the face of the rising popularity of Hamas. In this game, the United States acts as the facilitator and guarantor of all interests to make sure things go smoothly between the Israeli and Palestinian sides.

A key element of this plan was ensuring the military power and physical security of Fatah itself. The latter needed to be strong enough to prevent a repeat of what happened in Gaza, but weak enough so as not to “threaten” Israel. The answer to the security question was to bring in U.S. general Keith Dayton to train Palestinian security brigades in Jordan and Jericho. These crack forces protect Fatah security compounds and go after dissidents or movements that they feel threaten Fatah control of the West Bank.

On any given day, Fatah jails in the West Bank have between seven hundred and one thousand political prisoners in them—mostly from Hamas, but many from other factions. Fatah is also building eleven new security compounds, thanks to U.S. and EU funding—ironically rebuilding the very compounds that Israel destroyed during its incursions into West Bank cities during the Second Intifada. The new facilities are larger, with high walls, sniper positions etc.—clearly designed to be able to prevent what happened in Gaza from happening in the West Bank. All this is to maintain strict physical control over the population to prevent any potential alternative arising to Fatah rule in the West Bank.

Of course, it is important to note that Israeli occupation forces routinely enter Area A (the area of the West Bank allegedly under Palestinian control) and arrest activists from all factions—but the Fatah-run PA offers no resistance to these incursions. If anything, there is coordination. According to one Israeli source—2009 witnessed 1,297 instances of joint coordination, representing a 72 percent increase in this activity from previous years.

On the “soft power” front—winning the “hearts and minds” of West Bankers so to speak—efforts needed to be made to reform the PA governance structures to strengthen its popularity from within and to better fulfill the role it was created for—self-governance of Palestinians. A major part of this has been the implementation of economic reforms through Salam Fayyad, the prime minister empowered by Abu Mazen (in so doing, illegally displacing the elected Ismail Haniyyeh.) In general, the thrust of these reforms has been to create a more stable, functioning bourgeois order in the West Bank that can ensure the confidence of both foreign investors and the Palestinian bourgeoisie in the PA puppet regime project.

The previous political and economic order under the Arafat-dominated PA was considered corrupted by both parties: Western funders who had backed the PA during the 1990s didn’t feel they got sufficient returns on their investments (“we bankrolled Oslo and got corruption and an Intifada”). The Palestinian bourgeoisie was also not happy with things under the first PA: Arafat ran it like a fiefdom, with any real decisions subject to his final approval. Governance was unpredictable, subject to graft, nepotism, and opportunistic short-term interests. For example, the PA and its business partners held on to their majority stakes in the Palestinian telephone company Paltel and the cell phone company Jawwal for more than ten years, then extended this monopoly position another five years, obtaining legal permission for the extension by changing local laws. This was hardly a way to “even the playing field” for Palestinian capital, let alone Arab or international capital.

So changes were made. Fayyad is an experienced economist from the World Bank who knows how to please both Palestinian and international capital interests. For him, neoliberalizing Palestinian economics offers the best economic model of development, which he also believes brings Palestinians (ironically) closer to liberation. Fayyad’s reforms hence deliberately seek to cultivate a Palestinian bourgeois class so that it can borrow, invest, expand, and, quite simply, make money off of the “captive” Palestinian market.

Here we might add that this kind of class formation is how the U.S. intends to build the soft power that can strengthen and entrench Fatah and Fayyad.

For the United States, this is the healthiest way to achieve its long-term interests of weaning Palestinians from all those radical notions embedded in Hamas and other oppositional/resistance movements. The United States seeks to engineer a class, with specific interests that organically tie Palestinians (or a section of them) to global and Israeli capital, that will have more stable disciplinary interests in a functioning, secure internal order. Although such an approach takes longer to build, it is a better investment in the long term, because your allies are more stable and organically part of the Palestinian body politic—as opposed to recycled PA military personnel brought to power through an old-school, Cold War–style coup.

Here it’s worth noting that Israel is probably less enthusiastic about these plans, because it is suspicious of any strengthening of the Palestinian position. Nonetheless, it can tolerate it for now, not only because the United States deems it necessary, but also because the creation of such a Palestinian class dovetails with its own interests to disengage as much as possible with Palestinians—what Israeli politicians call “separation.” It also resonates with Netanyahu’s idea of an “economic peace”—where politics should just be forgotten, while big Palestinian capitalists and bigger Israeli capitalists essentially divide the local pie, and if possible, work together to gain access to the regional pie.

In any case, Israel plays its part in this game by loosening the closure restrictions on trade and movement of persons in and out of the West Bank, creating the conditions for impressive economical growth rates there—7 percent according to the International Monetary Fund.

HOW DOES this translate into political capital and support for Fatah?

IN SOME circles, it certainly does make them more popular. But we must remember that like all neoliberal development, economic growth under Fayyad’s plan is uneven, benefiting the bigger fish of the Palestinian economy, as well as parts of the petit bourgeoisie, which believes it can get a piece of the pie (though most probably will lose out there, too). Certainly a large sector of the population is unaffected, though they are being sold a lot of hype about the potential of the era, which could work against the PA if left unfulfilled.

It is also dangerous and inaccurate to make linear connections between positive economic growth and support for the policy makers who bring it about. Palestinians are well aware that their democratic choice was deterred, that in the West Bank their police forces are trained by the CIA, and that behind this rosy portrayal of growth, Israel invades and arrests Palestinian activists on a nightly basis.

Opinion polls (for what they are worth around here) also indicate that Palestinians continue to see corruption as rampant, and indeed there has yet to be the indictment of any “big fish” corrupt officials from the previous era.

Does all this mean that Palestinians in the West Bank can’t try and stabilize their personal situation or attempt to profit from the situation at hand—after years when their lives were made hell during the Second Intifada; where Palestinians were regularly under curfew, tanks at their doorstep; with virtually nothing operating, the entire society practically unemployed, etc.? Clearly not.

In this context, I think it safe to say that the West Bank situation is one of contradictions. If student elections at West Bank universities are any indication of things, we can get a window into where things stand in terms of Fatah’s popularity. In the 2010 student elections at Birzeit and Bethlehem Universities, election results actually showed a slight decline in Fatah support. Hamas boycotted the elections, so their strength was difficult to measure from other non-voting students. In this context, the left bloc (the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine [PFLP], the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine [DFLP], and the People’s Party) were successfully able to unite their slates and increase their votes from what they had gained in previous years at both universities, and at Fatah’s expense.

To me, this means that Hamas has likely maintained its base core support, with the left picking up as the only alternative vote against Fatah.

The irony here is that Fatah in fact might be the victim of Fayyad’s success. Remember, Fayyad is not a Fatah member, and his gains do not necessarily flow to Fatah. His gains go to bourgeois ideals, which may or may not be able to thrive in the absence of a state. Fatah in this sense indeed has the potential to become increasingly irrelevant, even though it still has physical power over the West Bank, and no serious efforts are under way to dislodge them, including from Hamas. The Islamists appear sufficiently happy with their territorial base in Gaza for now. The Islamists are confident that, although in the short term, Abbas, Fayyad, and company are being coddled and enriched by the United States, European Union, and to some extent Israel, in the long run, all these players will abandon Fatah when push comes to shove—if serious negotiations are ever to come about. Hamas understands that none of the Western powers are interested in fulfilling any one of Palestinian national rights (a genuine state on 1967 lines, East Jerusalem, the right of return, etc.) and it does not need to waste time confronting Fatah head-on in the West Bank, when the West will simply defeat its (Fatah’s) project there themselves. This has been Hamas’s strategy from day one vis-à-vis confronting Oslo and the “official” Palestinian leadership.

WHAT THEN of Hamas in Gaza?

AGAIN THE environment Hamas is working in is key to understanding their popularity or otherwise. Although it is difficult to assess these things without being on the ground (something impossible at this stage for most people), we can say that we know that Israel and the United States have not been shy about trying to ensure that Hamas makes no gains for its positions, stopping at almost nothing to make them fail. In so doing they have turned the lives of average Gazans into a living hell, and held captive 1.5 million people in an open-air prison. The aim is to punish Palestinian society for its democratic choice and crush Hamas physically and morally. Operation Cast Lead at the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009 was the clearest example of this, and continuation of the siege of Gaza is the continuation of this policy through other means.

HOW HAS Hamas survived in this climate?

TO SURVIVE is an accomplishment—and indeed they appear to have been able to maintain their base, hunkering down and waiting to see if opportunities can be created locally or internationally to break their isolation and expand their sphere of influence.

On the one hand, because Hamas is the major player in Gaza, the siege reinforces its rule, and tightens and widens the sphere of people dependent upon them from a sheer economic point of view, if not also politically. Hamas leaders argue that the international antagonism against them is an affirmation of the justness of their path.

On the other hand, there are certainly sectors of Palestinian society that are fed up with the situation, angry that their lives are fodder for such a cruel fate. Despite this, there is no serious organized resistance to Hamas in Gaza now, and it seems unlikely to arise anytime soon.
Who would organize such a movement? It is difficult to tell. But it seems clear that it won’t be Fatah. The experience of the Fatah years is alive in recent memory to Gaza society. Corruption and lack of security in Gaza was so rampant before Hamas took full control in June 2007, that Fatah had alienated considerable portions of its own base. This is why the majority of Fatah supporters didn’t come out to stop Hamas when it finally moved to seize control of Fatah’s compounds in Gaza. This doesn’t mean Fatah-Gaza agreed with what Hamas was doing. But the reality is, Fatah in Gaza appears to be an entirely demoralized lot. Their demoralization since losing control in Gaza has only increased in the past three years. Their leadership is in the West Bank, and Fatah leaders who remained in Gaza are on a tight leash, monitored, harassed, and imprisoned by Hamas.

The significant thing here is that Fatah as a national movement appears to have given up believing that Gaza can ever really return to its fold. We saw this quite clearly in how Fatah representatives from Gaza were dealt with during the sixth annual Fatah conference—the coordination committee for the conference barely consulted them when it was taking place, and demonstrated little will to get their votes and voices tallied in conference proceedings. Instead we see that Fatah in Ramallah has essentially given instructions to its people in Gaza to sit at home and receive their paychecks. Locally, Fatah in Gaza also appears uninterested in any head-on confrontation with Hamas, which they would clearly lose. Moreover, they are stuck with the same miserable leadership that got them there in the first place, who now are a world away in Ramallah.

SO IS Hamas’s success only a symptom of Fatah’s weakness?

I THINK it is important to acknowledge certain things about Hamas’s rule in Gaza that have not gotten sufficient attention, but play an important role in securing the movement’s base.

Despite the hardships Hamas has faced because of the siege, I think to some extent it is important to acknowledge that the movement has taken a principled stance and rejected the logic that it is to make political concessions to be able to allow its people to survive. Instead, Hamas has worked to shift the entire trajectory of the national project, and to set it on a political footing that rejects humiliating negotiations, endorses resistance, and works to build an alternative power based on popular support both locally and internationally (mainly, however, in the Arab and Muslim world).

This is a significant effort that cannot be understated. It is a far cry from the way the PLO and PA-Ramallah leadership speaks of things or has run the show for years. Hamas is trying to create a resistance-oriented society. It is holding an Israeli military prisoner and demanding the release of Palestinian prisoners in exchange. It is smuggling weapons in and developing new military means. It has created a Ministry of Tunnels to monitor and import as much materiel and funds to allow for the society to live and resist, in the face of the barbaric siege. It is attempting to rebuild the homes and buildings destroyed in Israel’s campaigns against Gaza by either developing mud-brick structures taken from local clay soils or taking the old concrete from rubble, recrushing it, remixing it, and building with it again. It is taking metal reinforcing bars, straightening them, and using them again as well.

Although I have my criticisms of Hamas’s approach to many things, it is commendable that they are trying to be self-reliant and build a power base from below that is independent politically and financially. This is the only way a colonized people can win its struggle. This is important in the context of the fact that Palestinians stand in the face of a brutal settler-colonial conflict, where every day Israel is putting new pieces on the board, and taking more and more Palestinian land. That is to say, Palestinians need to remain loyal to their principles, and work to build strength and solidarity around them—from a position of strength, and not a position of humiliation (which no one can be in solidarity with in any case).

The leadership in Ramallah does not share this approach. The money and support it receives is conditioned on forms of political silence and non-confrontation. Its project is cynical and opportunistic. The United States and European Union will support Fayyad and Abu Mazen to a point—the point where it is sufficiently repressive and self-contained, and then will abandon them—like it did with Arafat.

WHAT ARE the long-term prospects of Hamas’s approach though?

JUST BECAUSE Hamas’s approach is commendable does not mean it will work. Hamas does not have the military or ?political means to be able to bring about liberation.

Militarily, its back is against a wall, and the movement barely has any means for self-defense against Israel’s military might. We clearly saw this in Cast Lead. If this front is not our strength, then we need to be able to engage in a powerful alternative—a political struggle, and a popular one, because it is evident that neither Western governments nor Arab/Muslim ones are going to come to our aid. While Hamas may be able to engage allies in the Arab and Muslim world, it’s relatively hamstrung on the Western front of popular opinion, where Israel’s soft support remains high, though somewhat eroded by the Gaza siege.

The Palestinian struggle needs to be able to engage on this front if it is to win. Building popular support in the West for the Palestinian struggle cannot be understated, as it sets the political and moral conditions that can allow for breaking Western government support of Israel. It is the most important front for the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement as well. I say this not because I think the Western front is more moral or deserving of this position—but because in the contradictions of the era, and under the existing balance of power (including the reign of liberal humanist ideas—with all its contradictory application), winning Western popular support—morally and politically—is crucial for winning the debate, and making any gains that take place in Palestine or the Arab world more likely to stick.
Hamas lacks the ability to be able to do this. Only a Palestinian left, working with an international left, can make lasting gains for the Palestinian cause. But the state of these forces is another story. In any case, we need to be conscious of the limitations of what Hamas can do.

One final thing worth noting is that while Hamas has consolidated its power in Gaza, it has also shown itself subject to excesses of power both in terms of relying upon excessive force, as well as through forms of cultural experimentation with ideas that are supposedly Islamic—tendencies I fear can only grow if Gaza’s isolation continues.

Hamas’s use of force is well known, with Fatah and other Islamists being its consistent targets. The killing of at least twenty-five people in September 2009 in the ruthless crushing of a Salafi sect that emerged in Gaza was a message that Hamas will not tolerate being outflanked in radicalism, Islamic politics, or control over the small niche it has created in Gaza. Of course the hypocritical Western press said absolutely nothing critical about this event, though from a civil Palestinian perspective (let alone a leftist one) it is highly troublesome.

THERE HAVE been reports of Hamas enforcing “Islamic morals” in Gaza. Does this hold true?

ON THE cultural front, Hamas has fumbled with experimentations in establishing a supposedly Islamic social order. There have been some well-publicized cases in which Hamas banned female lawyers from practicing without the hijab for example, or where men were banned from working in hair salons for women.

These ventures into the cultural sphere were met with opposition from Palestinian society, including in Gaza, eventually resulting in their repeal. But the damage was already done. They made the movement easy prey for the Islamophobic Western press, and moreover set the potential stage for introducing an ugly and potentially dangerous cultural polarization between secular and religious elements in Palestinian society—something that thankfully has not been an issue in Palestinian society and politics to date.

Both Fatah and Hamas can benefit from the situation in the short term, having more or less consolidated their seats of power—despite the contradictions that beset both. Yet the Palestinian movement’s long-term interests have the potential to get lost in the short-term politicking between each group, so long as the left remains an insignificant force in the game.

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November 2010

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