A year of Palestinian disunity
Amid intense foreign interference, 2007 marked a year of critical meltdown for Palestinians and their enduring cause, writes Khaled Amayreh in occupied East Jerusalem
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Hamas members walk through the streets of Gaza few days before the movement took over the city in June (photo: AFP)
2007 has not been an ordinary year for Palestinians and their enduring cause. It witnessed a mini-civil war between Fatah and Hamas, a short-lived government of national unity, followed by a brief but bloody showdown in Gaza that ended with Hamas taking over the coastal strip. For its part, Fatah retaliated by establishing its own separate authority in Ramallah and instigating a vindictive and widespread inquisition against Hamas supporters and institutions in the West Bank.
Towards the year's end, another "peace conference" sponsored by the United States took place in Annapolis, Maryland. However, like numerous prior peace conferences and initiatives, the Annapolis meeting, despite its initial fanfare and euphoria, carried little promise for genuine peace in Palestine. And as always, the reason was Israel's adamant refusal to end its decades-old occupation of Palestinian territories, particularly Arab-East Jerusalem.
The harsh financial, economic and political sanctions imposed by Israel and the West on the Palestinian Authority (PA) following Hamas's electoral victory in January 2006 continued to devastate the Palestinian economy and living conditions in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 2007. Draconian sanctions soon paralysed the Hamas government's ability to pay regular salaries for over 165,000 employees and civil servants.
This, coupled with Israel's refusal to release Palestinian tax revenues levied as tariffs on Palestinian imports passing through Israeli seaports, created an implosive situation, especially in Gaza. Rampant poverty and a haunting sense of claustrophobia tempted Fatah to destabilise Hamas through a host of disruptive tactics, such as instigating demonstrations, organising strikes, and vandalising public property.
Eventually, mounting tension between Fatah and Hamas culminated in open street battles, with each painting the other as responsible. Infighting in 2007 killed as many as 350 Palestinians. In retrospect, the near tribal confrontation between the two largest Palestinian political organisations seemed inevitable given the active interference of the United States in internal Palestinian affairs.
Indeed, through its security "envoy" to the PA, General Keith Dayton, a visibly rabid Bush administration did everything possible to ignite the flames of civil war between Hamas and Fatah, transferring large amounts of cash and weapons to former Fatah security chief Mohamed Dahlan, ostensibly in preparation for military insurrection against the Hamas government.
Truckloads of high-velocity rifles, machineguns, night-vision equipment and other military hardware were seen on several occasions crossing into the Gaza Strip from Israel. At one point, Hamas said it seized a truckload of weapons that was en route to a PA security headquarters in Gaza. Hamas asked PA President Mahmoud Abbas for an explanation, but none was forthcoming. Infighting continued intermittently in Gaza in the first few weeks of 2007 as Egyptian General Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman and his lieutenants sought laboriously to bring it to a halt. However, ceasefire agreements were violated as soon as they were signed, a clear indication that certain people were hell-bent on expediting a decisive showdown. Hamas accused former Fatah strongman in Gaza Dahlan of standing at the helm of the "coup-mongers", an accusation that seemed to carry more than a modicum of veracity. Indeed, American officials -- in addition to the Western media -- pointed out on numerous occasions that Dahlan was being used by as a pawn to destabilise Hamas's rule and hopefully bring it down entirely.
Fatah retorted by attacking Hamas and accusing it of subservience to Iran and of harbouring Shia loyalties. These insinuations were more rhetorical than real and were essentially aimed to incite the Arab masses against Hamas, an authentic religious Sunni movement. More seriously, Fatah militiamen in Gaza carried out a series of assassinations targeting Hamas politicians as well as university professors and religious scholars. In February, delegations from Fatah and Hamas travelled to Mecca for national reconciliation talks. The Saudi-mediated talks eventually yielded the "Mecca Accord" signed under the auspices of Saudi King Abdullah on 8 February. According to the accord, both Hamas and Fatah agreed to form a government of national unity that would seek to negotiate a final peace settlement with Israel pursuant UN resolutions. In the accord, Hamas agreed to "honour" outstanding agreements between the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Israel, which tacitly implied recognition of Israel. For its part, Hamas denied that the use of the word "honour" implied recognition of Israel, saying the issue was a religious and moral redline that Hamas would never cross. The Mecca Accord sought to resolve this knot by stipulating that only the ministers of national unity governments -- not their respective political factions -- would be committed to upholding prior agreements with Israel.
Hamas and Fatah thereafter formed a national unity government. However, as the West -- especially the United States -- and Israel kept sanctions intact, disharmony reappeared and sporadic but bloody clashes between the two militias continued, eventually evolving into an all-out war with no holds barred. Infighting escalated sharply on 14 June as Hamas's Executive Force and Fatah security agencies -- superior in numbers and armaments but inferior in quality and motivation -- fought for control of Gaza. The fighting, lasting for 10 days, ended with Hamas routing Fatah and taking control of erstwhile PA security headquarters in Gaza.
Outraged by "the bloody coup" against Palestinian "legitimacy", Abbas immediately dismissed the national unity government headed by Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and appointed a de facto emergency government in Ramallah headed by Salam Fayyad, a former finance minister favoured by the US and Europe. In principle, the Ramallah government was illegal and illegitimate, as testified by scholars of constitutional law who prepared Palestinian basic law. However, Abbas and the Fatah movement were in no mood to discuss constitutionality in light of the "Hamas coup" in Gaza.
For its part, Hamas denied the accusation of a coup, arguing that it embodied Palestinian legitimacy since it came to power via the ballot box, not by decree or violent revolution. Moreover, Hamas leaders in Gaza told Al-Ahram Weekly on several occasions that the Palestinian Islamic movement had to act swiftly to thwart a real coup against the democratically elected government, backed and financed by the Americans.
Hamas politician Yehia Moussa told the Weekly : "what were we supposed to do? What would anyone have done in such circumstances, seeing Dahlan and Dayton sharpening their knives and preparing to decapitate us?" Abbas didn't stop at bringing down the national unity government and neutralising the Hamas-dominated Palestinian parliament. He also ordered his forces, beefed up by fresh American weapons, to wage a widespread campaign against Hamas throughout the West Bank. The campaign targeted Hamas's social, charitable, educational, cultural and even religious institutions, many of which were thoroughly vandalised.
Further, nearly 3,000 Hamas political leaders and activists were arrested, with many of them harshly tortured. This inquisition wouldn't have been possible had it not been for active security coordination between PA-Fatah forces and the Israeli occupation army. Fatah gunmen killed several Hamas supporters and Hamas's political and cultural activities were effectively banned.
In December, the Fatah-backed Minister of Religious Endowments Jamal Bawatneh issued a decree closing down all zakat (alms) committees in the West Bank. Bawatneh sought to justify the decision by arguing that the charities needed to be reformed. It was clear to many, however, that the main purpose of the decree was to stamp out Hamas's influence over these committees. Gleeful at Palestinian schism and national disunity, Israel and the US hastened to back the Ramallah-based authority of Abbas. Israel agreed to unfreeze some of the Palestinian tax revenue money withheld in order to "strengthen Abbas". Similarly, the US and European states resumed financial aide to the Salam Fayyad government. Citing the Hamas takeover of Gaza, Israel -- possibly in collusion with the US and the Ramallah regime -- on 19 September 2007 declared the Gaza Strip a "hostile entity", imposing a hermetic blockade on the densely populated and thoroughly impoverished territory. The blockade, unprecedented in its ruthlessness and harshness, brought 1.4 million Gazans to the brink of starvation with dozens of ill Palestinians dying because of a dearth of medicine.
Additionally, Israel decided to significantly reduce fuel and electricity supplies to Gaza, apparently to force Gazans to revolt against Hamas. Further, Israel generally barred Gazans from either leaving or returning to the Strip, which also caused tremendous distress to tens of thousands of students, patients seeking medical care abroad, as well as ordinary Palestinians. Some reports from Gaza described the situation as "very similar to Warsaw Ghetto" and as "a slow-motion genocide". On 13 December, and in a rare foray into politics, the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) harshly condemned Israeli policies against Palestinians. "Palestinians continuously face hardship in simply going about their lives; they are prevented from doing what makes up the daily fabric of most people's existence. The Palestinian territories face a deep human crisis, where millions of people are denied their human dignity. Not once in a while, but every day," an ICRC report stated.
The ICRC report also highlighted Israel's economic stranglehold on Gaza and its system of roadblocks that has divided the West Bank into disconnected cantons, cutting farmers off from their lands and preventing free movement. Concomitant with the virtual humanitarian and economic meltdown in Gaza, Israeli and the PA leaders held a plethora of high-profile meetings aimed at reaching a broad common understanding of how a final status settlement of the enduring conflict would look. However, the numerous meetings, often accompanied with high-expectations and propped up by highlighted visits to the region by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, failed to reach any agreement as Israel continued to refuse to commit itself to ending the 40-year-old military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. Eventually, Israeli and Palestinian leaders did attend the American-hosted peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland, which most Arab commentators and observers described as a resounding failure, some of them applying to it the famous Arab proverb, "the mountain went into labour, but gave birth to a rat." Though such epithets may carry an air of exaggeration, Israel and the PA continue to be as far apart from each other on core issues as they were before the Annapolis conference. The two sides did agree to commence talks that would lead to a final status settlement based on the now-revived American-backed "roadmap" plan. However, the two sides do not share a common understanding or interpretation of the American plan, which could cause the rupture of talks sooner rather than later. For example, Israel does not consider East Jerusalem part of the West Bank, and insists that pledges made by President Bush to former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon be treated as part and parcel of the roadmap.
Israel also continues to build hundreds of "for Jews only" settler units all over the West Bank, especially in and around Arab East Jerusalem. Similarly, Israel insists that in the context of a final status agreement with Palestinians, the future Palestinian entity would have to recognise Israel as a "Jewish state" of the Jewish people everywhere -- a clear allusion that non-Jewish Israelis have no permanent right to residency, let alone equality.
As to the PA leadership, it is clear that it is negotiating from a position of critical weakness, not only because of the enduring rift with Hamas, which is likely to persist for sometime, but mainly due to American and Israeli pressure on Abbas. The Weekly has been struggling in vain to obtain from PA and Fatah leaders in Ramallah a coherent and credible answer for the following question: What strategic alternatives does the PA have in case negotiations with Israel hit a dead end?
Alternatives there must be. The failure of talks with Israel, which is more than expected, may very well lead to the collapse of the PA itself, in which case all parties concerned would return to square one. Such an ominous event would be the best news ever for radical forces on both sides, including for the United States and its strategy of "creative chaos" in the so-called "Greater Middle East".