The Region: Hamas's Fatah problem

How is Hamas going to displace Fatah and control the Palestinians without setting off a civil war?

hamas flags 88 (photo credit: )
hamas flags 88
(photo credit: )
Following its election victory Hamas faces a problem that has no easy solution: How is it going to displace Fatah and control the Palestinians without setting off a civil war? After all, Mahmoud Abbas will probably stay on as nominal leader of the Palestinian Authority until his term ends in three years. Since he has been powerless from the beginning, the election results will certainly reinforce his practical irrelevance. Abbas's value, however, lies in international public relations, providing a rationale for the PA to claim - and part of the West to accept - that the PA is relatively moderate. No matter what the PA actually does, experience has shown, much of the world will ignore it. Hasn't there been massive corruption and misuse of funds up to now? But the European Union pretended for years that it did not exist. Wasn't there daily incitement in the official media, schools, and mosque sermons to kill Israelis and wipe Israel off the face of the earth? The Western media didn't report it. How about continual efforts to assist - or at least not discourage - hundreds of terrorist attacks? Much of the world gave the PA and its Fatah rulers a free pass. Hamas will not find this pattern as easy to duplicate, but it will certainly be possible to succeed here, if in fewer places. And having a powerless Abbas still at his post will aid these efforts. Ironically, it will now be left to a Hamas-dominated regime supposedly to stop terrorism and disarm the armed militias - that is, mainly Hamas itself! Already Hamas leaders have put forward a proposed solution to this problem: the formation of a national army. There would be no more militias or armed terrorists, merely the Palestinian armed forces in which Fatah and Hamas people serve side by side. But this conversion to a conventional military also has a problem: For if the Palestinian army starts battling Israel on a regular basis and Palestinian soldiers are blowing themselves up trying to kill Israeli civilians, perhaps someone will hold the PA directly responsible for terrorism? Yet the Palestinian army idea reflects Hamas's number-one need right now: getting control of Palestinian institutions and obtaining jobs and salaries for its people. THERE ARE two problems. First, what are the Fatah people who lose their jobs going to do, and, second, who is going to pay for it? This is not merely a matter of the security forces. Every PA government ministry - the media, the PA-controlled monopolies, and so on - is full of people who are there to collect salaries in exchange for supporting Fatah. This is the house that Yasser Arafat built, and it is a very rickety house indeed. The PA is an internationally funded welfare state (Palestinians pay no general taxes) based on government employment. Generally, those receiving a salary do nothing much to earn it. Thus money is funneled into political patronage rather than economic development. After receiving billions of dollars of international aid over a dozen years the PA has made zero progress on building a productive economy or raising living standards. Of course for Fatah, as for Hamas, this is not important. The only important thing is to mobilize the long-term struggle against Israel and muster as much international support for it as possible. Even Hamas's much-discussed welfare measures have amounted mainly to supporting its own cadre, providing for the families of dead terrorists, and creating institutions where it can find recruits. But if Hamas pushes out tens of thousands of Fatah, or at least nationalist, employees and replaces them with an equal number of Hamas, or at least Islamist, ones, those who are laid off will pick up guns and start shooting. Even under Fatah disappointed office-seekers (a term used in the 19th century for people who had assassinated at least two US presidents) regularly rioted, seized offices and kidnapped people. THERE IS, however, an easy and tempting solution, and perhaps the only possible one. Keep all the Fatah employees and add on a huge number of Hamas people. In administrative and economic terms this would be a total waste, but in political terms - which is all that is important to Fatah and Hamas - it's a brilliant strategy. True, the PA budget would be unable to pay these people regularly, but their loyalty would be ensured and they would be paid occasionally, which is what was anyway happening in the PA bureaucracy in past years. Donors will have to decide whether to finance such fiscal irresponsibility while knowing that their money is subsidizing Hamas terrorists' training and operations. Aid funds can go to the Ministry of the Interior's Missile Factory Number One, which builds rockets to fire at Israeli civilians; or to a Ministry of Education that teaches the necessity of holy war on Israel, the glory of being a suicide bomber, the natural evil of the Jews, and so on. Another method Hamas can use to conciliate Fatah is to stage joint attacks on Israel. The well-established practice of Palestinian politics is that the best way to defuse internal conflicts is to join hands in hating and trying to kill the enemy. Whatever it does, Hamas must deal with its Fatah problem before doing anything else. In this context, though, Hamas has an even greater incentive to continue its hard-line position, which is about the same as the mainstream Fatah stance, because it has no other way of bringing about the minimal unity needed to avoid either civil war or the PA's collapse. Thus, the difference between a "moderate" and "radical" Hamas regime comes down to this: The former will merely prepare for a war to destroy Israel, while the latter will try, albeit ineffectively, to wage it. The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs.