The greater rift
The conflict between Fatah and Hamas disguises a more dangerous divide that threatens the very existence of the PLO, argues Nicola Nasser*
The current rift between Fatah and Hamas, with their rival claims to legitimacy whether through incumbency in the presidency or through the ballot box, each dominating a government, one in the West Bank and the other in Gaza, is being used to cover up the promotion of an older and more dangerous divide. I am speaking, here, of the division between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its frame of reference, the Palestine Liberation Organistion (PLO), and of a power struggle between two factions within Fatah over leadership and roles of the PA and PLO. This power struggle is facilitating the real US-Israeli sponsored "coup" that is currently in progress in the Palestinian political arena. However, this coup will determine the outcome of the dialogue between Fatah and Hamas and the future of other crucial issues.
The Fatah-Hamas and PA-PLO divisions have given rise to a "third" force that has yet to assume an overt political framework. However, its principles and policies are clear: they overlap with, if they are not identical to, the US-Israeli "vision" for an end to the Arab/Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This force, whose constituent elements intersect with a trend within Fatah and factions in the PLO, is keen to fuel both divisions, as it is the sole beneficiary of their perpetuation. As it manoeuvres between the two sides, it wrests a little more ground for itself every day. It, not Fatah, is now the third force. It effectively controls the PA in Ramallah as it strives to assert its control over all decision-making centres in Fatah, the PA and the PLO while simultaneously working to perpetuate the political, military and economic blockade against Hamas because it does not yet have the capacities to infiltrate its ranks in Gaza. In short, it is engaged in a stealthy bid to commandeer the Palestinian national movement.
Among the most recent manifestations of this dangerous division are several controversies. One is whether or not to hold the sixth convention of the Fatah movement, and when and where it should be held if it does go ahead. A similar debate is taking place over whether or not to hold a meeting of the PLO National Council, whether it should be held in Palestine or abroad, and who should attend. Meanwhile, controversy also rages over President Mahmoud Abbas's approval of the appointment to the PLO military affairs department of a person not originally a member of the executive board or of one of the major factions. Then, last but not least, came the quarrel between Abbas's advisors and the leader of the Fatah block in the PA legislative assembly, Azam Al-Ahmed, over the latter's having signed the Sanaa Declaration crowning the Yemeni initiative which was aborted moments after he signed it, as well as over whether the Americans had a "veto" over a Fatah- Hamas dialogue, as Al-Ahmed claims but which Abbas officially denies.
The most recent example of the power struggle and the most tangible proof of the drive to annex the PLO to the PA, which derives its authority wholly from the Israeli occupation's military governor, is the PA's decision that its approval, and that of President Abbas, is a necessary condition for the paying of salaries to its employees. Some had expected this development to take place much sooner, cautioning that it would be the logical result of the PA's Ministry of Finance taking over the PLO's Palestinian National Fund's function of financing the PLO, thereby effectively subordinating the will of the PLO to that of its PA paymasters and, hence, to the dictates of the occupation power.
The older and more dangerous rift first reared its head in the internal Fatah disputes that preceded the legislative elections of January 2006 then intensified as Fatah politicians blamed one another for their movement's dismal showing in the elections. More recently, a new peak in the heated debate was reached over when and where Fatah's sixth congress would be held and over the agenda of the meeting if it took place. So acrimonious was this internal bickering that it led to the dismissal of Nasser Al-Qudwa, once the PLO's official observer at the UN, from the Fatah convention preparatory committee, and President Mahmoud Abbas's refusal to attend the committee meetings.
Fatah's internal problems also impeded the implementation of the Cairo agreement of 2005 which set out to "stimulate" the PLO. Instead of promoting the agreement the dynamics of the internal Fatah rift have seen the increased marginalisation of the PLO since Oslo. The campaign has now been escalated in an attempt by one side to eliminate its Fatah adversaries from the PLO. Whether or not it is an avowed aim, the drive may lead to the collapse of the PLO, which would automatically put paid to the Cairo agreement and preclude any practical opportunities for a dialogue with Hamas and, hence, for the revival of national unity.
The current inverse relationship between the PA and the PLO flies in the face of the clear decision adopted by the Palestinian Central Committee in its meeting in Tunisia on 10-12 October 1993 to establish a Palestinian National Authority subordinate to the PLO framework that founded it. This placing of the cart before the horse places the entire PLO in jeopardy, which may well be the ultimate aim of the US-Israeli alliance which is encouraging and financing the PA's power bid within the PLO in the hope of precipitating an irreparable rupture in the PLO and, ultimately, the demise of the internationally recognised "sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people".
Ironically, it is now Hamas that appears the only force capable of rescuing the PLO from these US-Israeli designs which seek to allow this "third force", bred from within the PA, to overshadow other parties. Hamas is not a member of the PLO, yet it is currently one of the most ardent advocates of breathing new life into the organisation on the basis of the principle of partnership and in accordance with the Cairo agreement.
There is also the memorandum recently sent to Abbas by PLO executive committee member Abdul-Rahim Malouh on behalf of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The letter, which airs grievances felt by many members of the central committee that they have been sidelined and which complains of the foggy nature of the relationship between the PA executive and the cabinet, concludes: "We feel that we are not true partners in the formulation and implementation of policy decisions."
It is a sad testimonial from one of Fatah's partners in the PLO. It is also an indication, albeit late, that these partners are beginning to wake up. This development should be monitored and hopefully built upon in order to save the organisation from what Asaad Abdul-Rahman, a member of the PLO's "frozen" executive committee, describes as "the dark days that await the PLO as a consequence of the Ramallah government's predatory encroachment on all PLO institutions."
To make matters worse, the current PA government is the weakest of all its predecessors. The only thing that keeps it afloat is its willingness to comply to the letter with the dictates and conditions of the occupation authority and the PA's donors. The government's economic agenda is set by donors who hold the purse strings that pay civil service salaries while its security agenda is set by the three-member committee of American generals consisting of William Frazer, James Jones and Keith Dayton. It is this committee that is the PA government's real frame of reference and its priorities are to eliminate all opposition to the US-Israeli vision for a solution to the conflict, starting with the ranks of Fatah and the PLO and, of course, Hamas.
The current PA government is also the least representative of the Palestinian people. Hamas disputed its legitimacy from the outset. It has no support among the factions allied with Fatah within the PLO framework. Nor does it have support from Fatah itself, specifically from the Fatah central committee which appointed all previous governments. This government's only basis of legitimacy resides in the fact that its head was appointed by an elected president who is nearing the end of his term of office. Perhaps this is the reason that the occupation power is rounding up Hamas's parliamentary deputies. That way the legislative assembly will remain suspended, because if it were to resume session it would dispel the last remnant of the government's legitimacy.
* The writer is a veteran Arab journalist based in Bir Zeit in occupied Palestine.