Schism in the Body Politic
This chapter gets a bit political. It reveals another side to a story that Westerners have been told. Here’s the key issue: a momentous error was made in 2006 – and Israel and the West made it. Its consequences have been unfolding ever since and they will continue for decades.
This was the Bush era, when the West, with its aversion to Muslim extremism, was busy ‘not talking to terrorists’. The occasion was the Palestinian election of January 2006 in which Hamas won 60% of the vote – an election declared free, fair and exemplary in its execution by international observers.
Not talking to terrorists
But Israel and the West decided to have no truck with the newly-elected Hamas government – and this was the great mistake. Most aid was frozen in the months that followed and Hamas was labelled a terror organisation, deserving no recognition or support. The West failed to see that Hamas was also a social reform party with a history of charitable and welfare work – and this was precisely what Palestinians, particularly women, had voted for. Palestinians were disappointed with the compromises Fateh had made to please the West, pursuing policies with outcomes that often benefited the Fatah elite and its supporters. So people voted for Hamas, seeking democratic change.
Hamas had a militia and had backed suicide bombers back in the intifada and this made them ‘Muslim terrorists’ in the West’s eyes. Founded in 1987, Hamas had risen to prominence in the first intifada, a party of resistance believing that the only way to deal with the Israelis was to match their intransigence and aggression. They went quieter in the 1990s as Fateh’s negotiating strategy seemed to be getting somewhere, but as negotiations went amiss in the late 1990s, Hamas gathered steam again, to become prominent in the second intifada.
From about 2004, as the second intifada subsided, Hamas started transitioning towards democratic status but it needed time to get there, being a reform party with militants on its left wing and moderates at its centre. Yet the Israelis asserted that Hamas was a terror group and the West bought the story and set about shutting them down.
Hamas leaders were primarily doctors and engineers by origin – realists, interested in results more than fine politicians’ words. This was why Palestinians liked them. Muslim beliefs formed the basis of Hamas’ values – Islamism was a newer mindset which had superseded Arab socialist ideas of the 1950s to the 1970s. Palestinian Christians and seculars were accepted by Hamas, and the repression of women that Westerners shrieked about wasn’t really a fact. Westerners conflated Palestinian Islamism with the extremism of Al Qa’eda and the conservatism of Iranian mullahs and Afghan mujahedin, failing to understand that Palestinians were not like this. Palestinians are pretty progressive, and they sought reform and modernisation without the whole Western capitalist package – in that package they saw community breakdown, inequality and subservience to Israel.
It wasn’t specifically Muslim values that gained Hamas support. Most Hamas money went into schools and hospitals – this was popular. Also Hamas was uncorrupt, sticking by its principles in an increasingly unprincipled age. Its philosophy rested on the notion of the umma, of a community bound together by cooperation and solidarity – parallel to the idea of ‘the working classes’ which gave Western socialists their strength a century ago. Hamas was more meritocratic, egalitarian and transparent than Fateh: Fateh rested for much of its public support on preferential rewards, nepotism and sinecures. Fateh had its good points and was respected, but it was tarnished by shady dealings in many Palestinians’ eyes.
The philosophy of the umma works on the basis that community is the fairest form of social organisation, underpinned by a consensus of good behaviour, mutuality and shared destiny. Hamas was not like Al Qa’eda. Al Qa’eda lacked a popular constituency, set as it was on destroying the power of rich Saudi sheikhs and Americans, and led as it was by alienated and megalomanic Muslim radicals. Hamas was a popular movement speaking for large numbers of people. They sought Palestinian freedom, and were no threat to the established order of the Middle East or the wider world. It was also true that since the Israelis applied force and destruction, singling out Hamas for offensive action, Hamas answered back with force.
Many Palestinians were tired of corruption. Magnates in Fateh had lapsed into self-aggrandisement: patronage had been Arafat’s way of rewarding loyalty. Understandable perhaps in the 1960s and 1970s, it had later become simply Fateh’s way of staying in power. The West sent cash to fuel this system and Fateh dished it out to its advantage.
After Hamas’ 2006 electoral victory Palestine suffered an economic embargo from the West, experiencing severe hardship. An idea had arisen in the West: make Hamas unpopular by throttling Palestinians and then portray Fateh as saviours who could unlock the treasure chests. Some Palestinians did see things this way, and Hamas’ reputation was weakened thereby. Hamas adhered to resisting Israel, a sentiment which had considerable support, particularly in besieged Gaza, but its ‘blood, sweat and tears’ approach was not as attractive to some people as foreign subsidy.
The Western media duly associated Hamas with Al Qa’eda and portrayed Hamas as a puppet of Iran. Yet Hamas had reservations about Iran, and the ayatollahs were Shi’as while Hamas were Sunni Muslims. Much of Hamas’ money actually came from Qatar, but Westerners didn’t dwell on that. Qatar was one of the Gulf Emirates, the good guys, and Qatari support might reflect well on Hamas.
Hamas distrusted the Western media and was not good at PR. Its ethos of resistance was that of the freedom fighter fighting a local battle with Israel rather than that of the terrorist ranged against the West. Extremists across the Muslim world actually detested Hamas, turning against it for engaging in electoral democracy, and Hamas disliked Al Qa’eda. Hamas advocated Muslim economics and social ideas, but it knew it had to carry the electorate along with it, so it had to be moderate and pragmatic, not extremist.
Regimes around the Middle East also disliked Hamas because it exposed their wealth and top-down power. Hamas represented a new kind of Middle East politics. They weren’t angels, but they seemed like a new, cleaner force in politics.
As a resistance party, Hamas was bound to attract Western ire because historically the West had mainly taken Israel’s side. Hamas’ logic of resistance was rather Churchillian in that by 2006 many Palestinians had come to view negotiation as futile. Disappointment with Fateh abounded, and an urge to resist the Israelis hovered around.
Hamas militants advocated eliminating Israel but the party’s centre accepted its existence: instead it wanted a return to the pre-1967 territory of Palestine with a capital in East Jerusalem, refusing to negotiate for anything less. It was willing to recognise an Israel which had withdrawn to the Green Line, but it would not recognise Israel unless that happened. Recognition of any other definition of Israel would amount to a capitulation of core Palestinian principles – and also of UN and international legal declarations of Israel’s status as an occupier.
Israel repeated endlessly that Hamas was determined to eliminate Israel and this got stuck in a loop. Meanwhile Hamas needed time and peaceful conditions to calm its militants and bring them into a more moderate fold while Israeli tactics aimed at the elimination of Hamas through violence and propaganda. This irritated Hamas militants and other armed groups. The loop happened to favour Israel, giving credibility to right-wing Jewish militants, who tend to drive Israel’s agenda.
The West meanwhile supplied arms, funds and military assistance to Fateh and in 2007 the Hamas government felt it was being unfairly treated and undermined. There was risk of a Fateh coup. Hamas MPs were arrested and imprisoned by Israel, removing its parliamentary majority and hobbling the Palestinian legislature. Things got nervy and a shoot-out started.
All this resulted in the cleavage of the Palestinian democratic spectrum. Hamas pre-empted a Fateh coup by seizing Gaza and fighting Fateh in the West Bank. Hamas lost in the West Bank, and Fateh lost in Gaza. Whether or not this cleavage reflected a master-plan of the Israelis and the West is open to debate – but the outcome was that the body politic of Palestine was now fatally split and this happened to benefit the Israelis.
The Palestinian public undermined itself by acquiescing in this political schism – though there wasn’t much they could do once it started escalating. Democracy, which had looked so promising, died in 2007. After that the West Bank was ruled by Fateh which, while it had its virtues and its good people, was dominated by beneficiaries and appointees. One popular Fateh leader who could conceivably reform the party, Marwan Barghouti, had sat rotting in an Israeli jail since 2002. Paradoxically, Hamas supported his release, wanting him freed in return for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier they had seized. They wanted Barghouti free because he could reform Fateh and help create a proper political dialogue in Palestine.
Meanwhile, in Gaza, Hamas, led by Ismael Haniyeh, doggedly resisted Israeli pressure. As a longterm strategy this might have succeeded if it could have constrained the restlessness of an imprisoned, deprived population, but Hamas’ resistance brought great suffering to Gazans, and its social reform ethos was weakened by security concerns and a creeping Hamas authoritarianism. This happened to favour Israel’s agenda. Yet popular support for Hamas still remained solid, not least because Fateh still favoured its own oligarchy.
Politically, therefore, Palestine moved into a terrible situation, with both main political movements becoming authoritarian and undemocratic. The West’s bias, its arm-twisting and military support, played a crucial role in this. Western taxpayers financed the situation and Israel gained from it, continuing its West Bank settlement-building, land acquisition, control of Palestinians and blockade of Gaza.
This put the West into an awkward position because things were tilting globally: the big money was now in the Gulf States and Asia and the West’s preferment of Israel was becoming an embarrassment. But the West was weighed down by its vested interests, where the Israelis are influential. Something had to give. This was underlined during the Israeli bombardment of Gaza in early 2009, when world public opinion shifted against Israel while Western governments meanwhile shuffled their feet, omitting to criticise Israel. It happened again with the Freedom Flotilla in May 2010. Many international Jews sided against Israel, or at least its Zionist aspect. This lurking public antipathy has grown over time.
The West supported Israel and Fateh but was itself losing wealth and influence. Hence increasing pressure was asserted on Israel in 2010 by US President Obama to get a grip on settlement building and other excesses – the West needed to get itself out of a hole. It could not just abandon Israel as too many vested interests and shady issues would be exposed, but Israel was becoming a liability. An enormous mistake had clearly been made. Governments, Fateh and the PA were increasingly out of step with the public and something was bound to blow. The change came in the form of the Arab revolutions of 2011, loosening political gridlock in the Middle East. In Gaza and the West Bank, young demonstrators called for reunification of Palestine and restoration of democracy, without which dealing with Israel would be impossible.
There was a glimmer of light as well. Salam Fayyad, the PA prime minister, was an independent, non-Fateh politician, a former senior World Bank official – trusted, astute and rational. He took a line of stimulating economic development and establishing Palestinian ‘facts on the ground’, with a view to preparing it for independence and statehood. Some suspected him of being a Western placeman, but he was incorrupt and favoured justice.
The West regarded him as a safe pair of hands, though there was some consternation over his idea of obliging the international community to recognise an independent Palestine within the pre-1967 boundaries, even though he was only calling the world to honour its obligations. His deadline was September 2011. The Israelis were anxious and the world was shifty over this. Coming in the same year as the Arab revolutions, a potent showdown reared its head. Israel was cornered: if it responded with military violence, the world would turn against it. But something else needed to happen too: the Palestinian ‘body politic’ needed to be healed. Gaza and the West Bank needed to be reunited.
The strange stalemate between Hamas and Fateh was upstaged by young Palestinian protesters. The two parties both embodied older generations and their failures and younger people were seeing things with clearer eyes. The main answer was the reintegration of Hamas into the Palestinian political spectrum, since its moderate wing represented an ethos many Palestinians supported. Fateh would also need to clean up its act, restoring its avuncular nationalism and its principles.
A problem awaiting a solution
This situation awaits an avalanche of events in which the tectonic plates of power shift wholesale and quick decisions will be needed. Aware of this, the Israelis have accelerated the judicisation of East Jerusalem and appropriation of West Bank land, with the aim of creating irreversible facts on the ground before such an avalanche gathers critical mass.
Muslim extremism is on the wane and a measured, modern, democratic orientation has again become the politics of the time. The Middle East is strong on youngsters. In Palestine the average age is around 21, while in the West it is around 45. The current generation of young adults is the globalised internet and mobile phone generation, lacking the fixed perspectives of its parents and grandparents. They look at the world differently. To younger people, Muslim fundamentalists are old-fashioned and Fateh represents their grandparents’ generation while Hamas represents their parents’ generation. If the pressure heats up, both parties risk irrelevance unless they deliver change.
Hamas is not the answer to everything and nothing is ever simple and black-and-white but, on a good day, Hamas seems closer to the answer than Fateh, unless Fateh reforms itself. But Fateh has its vested interests who want to retain power. Hamas represents decent leadership, social principles, human respect and an indigenous approach to Middle Eastern politics. It has a tendency toward gritty, spartan, authoritarian doggedness. In the longterm Hamas could achieve lasting peace since, unless something changes in Israel, it must be worn down through resistance. Israel, meanwhile, influenced by its own extremists and vested interests, digs itself into a hole while the West’s influence is declining. A situation is gathering and a resolution of tensions is needed.
This might involve further violence in Palestine, a third intifada. One flashpoint is Jerusalem, another is land-seizures and settlement-building, and yet another is a possible Palestinian revolt against Fateh. It might be over water, it might be the restlessness of the young, or something else. Whatever is the trigger, the safety-catch is off.
Yet the majority of Palestinians and neighbouring Arabs seek no further conflict. Israel, dependent on having an enemy in Hamas, or in Hezbollah, or in Iran, needs to relax this historic obsession with enemies. But Arabs, while reluctant to re-enter conflict, are nevertheless unhappy with circumstances in the Middle East, and a tectonic shift just needs that trigger to start it. In Tunisia in early 2011, a desperate young man setting light to himself provided the spark that started the fire.
The Israeli people need to get a grip on the powers-that-be in their country. With or without further conflict, something on the Israeli side must give, as much for Israel’s as Palestine’s benefit. Something on the Palestinian side must shift too. Peace processes are a spent option. We’re now down to defining events – decisive things that just happen. And there’s always a chance of a miracle. After all, this is the Holy Land!
© Copyright Palden Jenkins 2011. This is an extract from the book Pictures of Palestine by Palden Jenkins. You may print it out in single copies for your own non-commercial use or forward it by e-mail as long as the piece is unaltered and properly attributed to the author. The book's website is at www.palden.co.uk/pop