The 'elections-militias' connection

When the Palestinians warn against the dangers of civil war, they know what they are talking about.

gunman hamas 88 298 (photo credit: AP [file])
gunman hamas 88 298
(photo credit: AP [file])
To anyone familiar with the history of the Palestinian national movement, the emerging civil war in Gaza is reminiscent of the way the Arab Revolt in British Palestine fizzled out in 1939. After three years of attacks against the British and terrorism against the Jewish population, the two major Palestinian armed groups, mainly identified with the radical pro-Husseinis and the more moderate pro-Nashashibis, descended into an orgy of internecine killings that killed thousands of Palestinians. More Palestinians were killed by their brethren than by either the British or the Jews. The scars of this civil war are remembered in every village in the West Bank, though it is seldom mentioned in public. Few foreign journalists, for example, have ever heard of it, as it is carefully excised from the Palestinian narrative. When the Palestinians now warn against the dangers of civil war, they know what they are talking about: They've been there before. Yet the current armed clashes between various security forces, militias and clan-based armed gangs in the Palestinian territories have a wider dimension. It is a cruel paradox that the emergence of armed militias is characteristic of societies in the Arab world that have either experienced a failure of their relatively more democratic structures - or that have been going through processes of democratization. THE FIRST case of armed militias fighting a civil war was, of course, Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s. When the Lebanese multi-party system, based on communal and ethnic-religious loyalties, collapsed, each group - Christian, Druse, Shi'ite (less so among the Sunnis) - gave birth to one or several militias and historical parties morphed into armed militias. In Iraq and the Palestinian territories elections were held under difficult conditions, but they were heralded at the time, especially by the Bush administration, as a great step toward democratization. The Hamas-led government draws its legitimacy from these elections. On the surface, this is so. But it appears that in both cases, neither the winners nor the losers were ready or capable of behaving according to the basic rules of democracy. Once President Mahmoud Abbas lost the parliamentary elections, he decided to move control of a number of security services from the Ministry of Interior to the presidency; and on taking power, one of the first steps of the Haniyeh government was to set up a security service of its own. This is where the real basis of power lies. In Iraq, each of the various Shi'ite groups has its own militia, and since the Shi'ites control the government, each ministry has its own sectarian-based, de-facto police. The Sunnis, who lost their hegemony after the US-led invasion, have transformed their historical security services -the Republican Guard and other Special Forces of Saddam's Mukhabarat state - into the shadowy militias that are the logistical and ideological infrastructure of their insurgency. They have killed many more Iraqi civilians than US soldiers. WHAT IS happening is pretty clear: In both cases, lacking an effective civil society with its traditions of tolerance, pluralism and an effective party structure, each political player needs its armed wing. Neither Fatah nor Hamas are political parties in the usual sense - Fatah, after all, was a guerrilla and terror organization before it became the hegemonic power within the Palestinian Authority, and its members became the core of the various security services under Arafat; Hamas is a religiously-based social movement. When the conditions for democracy are lacking, suddenly introducing elections into authoritarian societies fosters militias. In Iraq and the Palestinian national movement, power grew historically out of the barrel of the gun. This is also the case today, only now no one has a monopoly over the guns. The Bush administration, with its messianic belief in instant democracy, never realized this. In Iraq as well as in the Palestinian territories, it appears that political power will be decided by bullets, not ballots. The writer, professor of political science at the Hebrew University, has been involved in democracy-monitoring activities and research in post-communist Eastern Europe.