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Four years after the Hamas victory in elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council, and three years since the movement’s successful coup in Gaza, the split in the Palestinian national movement has an increasing look of permanence about it. This has major implications for the currently frozen diplomatic process.
This week, Dr. Salah al-Bardawil, a leading Hamas official, said that efforts toward Palestinian reconciliation are “frozen.” In an interview with Al-Kuds, Bardawil stated that communication between Hamas authorities in Gaza and the government of Egypt on the issue of reconciliation had ceased. Talks were now restricted to “matters such as permission for patients to leave Gaza for treatment or the return of deceased Palestinians across the Rafah crossing.”
Bardawil’s message was confirmed on Monday by Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in a speech in Damascus. Mashaal said Hamas had been urged by Arab officials to accept Quartet conditions, including recognition of Israel, in return for changes to an Egyptian-brokered reconciliation agreement. He said that Hamas had reiterated its refusal. Addressing “the Americans, the Zionists, and everyone,” he asserted that Hamas would not “succumb to your terms. We won’t pay a political price no matter how long the blockade lasts. God is with us and he will grant us victory.”
These statements indicate that there is now no process under way toward ending the Palestinian political divide. On the ground, meanwhile, the rival Ramallah and Gaza Palestinian authorities are entrenching themselves.
PARALLEL TO the rise of Hamas in Gaza, and its ongoing popularity in the West Bank, Fatah is currently in a process of severe decline. The movement failed to embark on a major project of reform following its election defeat in 2006. As a result, it remains riven by factionalism and corruption. It is also, increasingly, irrelevant.
The key Palestinian leader in the West Bank today is Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Fayyad is not a Fatah member, and his government holds power not as a result of that movement’s authority. Rather, Fayyad is in effect an appointee of the West. The security forces led by Gen. Keith Dayton, which keep him in place, are Western organized and financed, and not beholden to any political faction. His gradualist approach is quite alien to Palestinian political culture, and despite the undoubted improvements this approach has brought to daily life in the West Bank, the level of his support is uncertain.
It remains widely believed that without the presence of the “Dayton” forces and more importantly without the continued activities of the IDF in the West Bank, the area would fall to Hamas in a similar process to that which took place in Gaza.
Veteran Palestinian political analyst Yezid Sayigh recently noted that both the Gaza and Ramallah governments are dependent for their economic survival on foreign assistance. The Fayyad government has an annual $2.8 billion budget, of which one half consists of direct foreign aid. The Hamas authorities, meanwhile, announced a budget of $540 million, of which $480 million is to come from outside (Iran). The dependence on foreign capital reflects perhaps the salient element shared by both Palestinian governments – they are both able to continue to exist because of the interests of rival outside powers that they do so.
The split in the Palestinian national movement is ultimately a function of the broader strategic situation of regional cold war. It is thus likely to continue for as long as this regional reality pertains.
The Middle East is currently divided between a loose alliance of states aligned with the US and the West, and an Iran-led “resistance bloc” of states and movements. Hamas is able to maintain its sovereign enclave in Gaza as a result of the willingness of Iran to arm and finance it. The Gaza enclave serves Iran’s purposes well. It gives Teheran an effective veto over any attempt to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It also gives non-Arab Iran a direct point of entry into the single most important regional conflict in the eyes of the masses of the Arab world.
The West, which also attaches massive importance to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has itself in turn been prepared to create, finance and underwrite a version of Palestinian politics and governance – that of Fayyad – which is to its liking, once it became clear that the Palestinians themselves were not going to do this.
The result is that Palestinian politics has been thoroughly penetrated
by the larger regional standoff. Each of the regional blocs has its own
Palestinian authority, which acts as a laboratory and advertisement for
its preferred methods. The Gaza version favors strict Islamic
governance and armed struggle to the end against Israel. The Ramallah
government – according to Sayigh the less representative of the two –
stands for alignment with the West and proclaimed acceptance of a
The proudest achievement of PLO and Fatah leader Yasser Arafat was the
establishment of a single, authoritative Palestinian national movement
not beholden to or dependent on any outside power. Such a movement no
longer exists. The split represents a profound change in Palestinian
politics, which calls into question many of the basic assumptions
regarding the conflict which have become received wisdom in Israel and
the West over the last couple of decades. The writer is a senior researcher at the Global Research in International Affairs Center, IDC, Herzliya.
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