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Gaza and the future of the Palestinian struggle

July 6, 2007 | Pages 10 and 11

IN THE wake of Hamas' dramatic takeover of Gaza in mid-June, Israel quickly moved to bolster Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas and the rest of the Fatah leadership in the West Bank while simultaneously carrying out deadly air strikes in Gaza.

Israeli aircraft struck Gaza at least six different times in the second half of June, indiscriminately killing civilians as well as armed fighters from Hamas, Fatah and Islamic Jihad.

On July 1, Israel announced it was ending its economic embargo of the PA begun a year and a half before to undermine the newly elected Hamas government after it won elections in January 2006. Israel plans to resume monthly transfers of about $50 million in taxes it collects on behalf of the PA. And Israel agreed to pay most of the $600 million that has been withheld since March 2006.

In late June, Mahmoud Zahar, one of the chief Hamas leaders in Gaza, warned Fatah that Hamas would not tolerate attacks on Hamas forces and the arrest of elected Hamas officials in the West Bank.

"If they continue to dismantle the local elections in the West Bank and punish Hamas there, the United States and Israel will face another surprise," Zahar said, raising the specter of a possible repeat of the Gaza events in the West Bank, where Fatah has its strongest base of support.

What do the developments in Gaza mean for the Palestinian national cause? Socialist Worker held a roundtable discussion with TOUFIC HADDAD, coauthor of the newly released Between the Lines: Israel, the Palestinians and the U.S. War on Terror; MOSTAFA OMAR, a contributor to The Struggle for Palestine; and Socialist Worker reporter ERIC RUDER.

What else to read

The Electronic Intifada Web site provides updates on the current situation in Gaza and the West Bank. For an eyewitness account of life in Gaza under Israel's siege, read "From Gaza With Love," an Internet blog written by Dr. Mona El-Farra.

Toufic Haddad is coauthor with Tikva Honig-Parnass of Between the Lines: Readings on Israel, the Palestinians and the U.S. "War on Terror," which documents the apartheid-like conditions that Palestinians live under today.

Haymarket's The Struggle for Palestine, edited by Lance Selfa, is a collection of essays on the history of Israel's occupation and Palestinian resistance, including an article by Mostafa Omar on the Palestinian struggle.


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THERE HAS been a conviction inside the Palestinian movement ever since the first couple years of the second Intifada that the internal front--the question of Palestinian national unity and developing a common platform to move forward together instead of putting the interests of one party or another first--must be addressed if the struggle against Israel and the occupation is to be effective.

The result of a splintered internal front--not just between the Islamists and Fatah, but even inside Fatah--allows Israel to take advantage of the situation, exploit the differences and contradictions between the two, and paint the Palestinians as terrorists. If you want to lead a national liberation movement, you have to have a leadership and centralized decision-making body, not two different strategies (let alone multiple strategies) at any given time.

The question of how this reform of the Palestinian national movement will take place has gradually unfolded and then become increasingly urgent after the death of Yasser Arafat. Fatah remained in firm control but lacked a leader who could really take on those challenges.

Hamas was the movement that could take upon itself this role, and it did this in the context of the collapse of Oslo and Fatah's strategy as well as the incredible destruction Israel was able to wreak on the Palestinian national movement in the last six years.

Hamas sees itself as realigning the national project, and the Hamas takeover of Gaza is an attempt to finally consolidate that after the election victory of January 2006.

When they came to power last year, they inherited the reality of what the Palestinian Authority had become--a shell, a corrupt bloated bureaucracy that was a nepotistic alliance of Fatah elite, and most particularly with regards to the security services and their connections to different economic sectors in the Palestinian economy that were connected to Israel.

Hamas has both a popular majority as well as a commanding majority in parliament. Moreover, what happened in Gaza is that the old PA elite, and particularly Mohammed Dahlan, Rashid Abu-Shabak and certain heads of Fatah who were benefiting from the old arrangements, made a deliberate call to scuttle any policy that would undermine their power.

The way things unfolded really showed how weak these Fatah elites were. Even with the support of the U.S. and Israelis, and with their own command and control over 20,000 or 30,000 security force members, they were unable to stave off a challenge from far fewer Hamas forces.

It doesn't mean that everyone is pro-Hamas, but certainly Hamas has an organized constituency that backed the move in Gaza, and then there is a silent majority, which is willing to wait and see what Hamas does now.

The Fatah leadership is now running to the West Bank to try to set up the remains of their empire, and Gaza is now going to be the seat of Hamas.

So this is a half victory, but I think there's just as much animosity toward the Fatah elite in the West Bank, even though there are different geographic and military considerations that would make it more difficult for the same thing to happen in the West Bank as took place in Gaza.

But that doesn't necessarily mean that politically the conditions don't exist in the West Bank for the same thing to happen.

TO TAKE a step back from the most recent conflict between Hamas and Fatah, I think there's been a growing consensus among the genuine activists still interested in the idea of the liberation of Palestine--whether it's the majority of the rank and file in Hamas or sections of Fatah, like the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade--that the Oslo Accords has actually deepened the occupation and was never meant to do away with the occupation.

Since 2000, there have been attempts to build some kind of unity on the ground--if not ideologically at least practically--in terms of day-to-day resistance to the Israelis.

The second point is that the main obstacle since the signing of the Oslo Accords to any effective national liberation strategy has been the leadership of Fatah, which is basically allied with some of the most reactionary Arab regimes and the United States, and which wants to find some way to compromise with Israel on some of the basic, most fundamental Palestinian rights, especially the right of return.

I think the death of Arafat gave that leadership in Fatah the opportunity to do so--or at least they thought his death gave them this opportunity. I think Abbas wants to be able to sign a deal with the U.S. very similar to the one that Arafat was forced to reject at Camp David in 2000.

At the same time, Abbas has always been interested in national unity with Hamas and other groups, but only on the basis of them agreeing to a deal that would not have Jerusalem be the capital of a Palestinian state, and that would maintain a substantial number of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

So the Palestinian Authority was not simply corrupt, but it was brutal as well in suppressing those genuine liberation fighters who disagreed with those compromises--whether in Hamas or within their own ranks.

Several stories came out in the last few weeks about the reign of terror that Fatah employed in Gaza and the West Bank--the torture chambers, the weapons and aid they were receiving from the U.S.--which all was meant to weaken the national liberation movement.

THERE'S SOMETHING that's going to be interesting in this whole thing, and we'll have to wait and see what it amounts to, but Hamas has been able to get a hold of the entire archive of these intelligence agencies. It's amazing to think that these intelligence people were so out of touch with the situation in Gaza and so caught off guard that they didn't try to get rid of these records.

Hamas is promising to publish the documents, which cover a wide range of issues, including economic and intelligence relations with the Israelis, weapons smuggling, drug dealing, prostitution rings, blackmail of ministers.

And there are elements of political corruption that are also important here regarding--for example, the imprisonment of Ahmad Saadat, the general secretary of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. There might be information in these files that elements in Fatah played a role in both his initial imprisonment and his later capture by the Israelis. Other issues include the building of the wall and even the death of Arafat.

This is relevant to the question of Gaza because it gives a picture of the kind of regime that Palestinians were asked to fight for--the "principles" they were asked to uphold in sustaining the resistance, while at the same time, significant elements of the leadership were making deals with their enemies.

But it's not just a dictatorship by Fatah that explained their strength. The other political parties are also so weak politically. The whole political setting is bankrupt, and this created the conditions for opportunism.

Hamas is perhaps the only grouping that challenges the commonsense assumption of the Fatah leadership that we can't fight, we can't win, we just have to keep our noses clean and expose the fact that the Israelis don't want a solution, and eventually, we'll be able to create the conditions where we can get our state and our rights.

It's not about trying to defeat Zionism or gain the sympathy of the world. This is an elitist strategy that doesn't actually believe that you can win--while Hamas is actually posing an alternative, saying that we can and we will, but it starts from what we do on the ground.

FOR A long time, not only did Fatah say we'll see what we can get at the negotiating table, but they also sincerely believed--although they were wrong about this, too--that the U.S. was actually their friend and would do right by them.

They somehow thought the U.S. would settle the Palestinian question on terms favorable to the Palestinian cause rather than suffer the political consequences of supporting Israel while the Palestinians languish.

Except that it's not clear who or what force was supposed to make the U.S. pay this political price. World public opinion? Obviously, the hyper-superpower isn't too concerned with this. The other Arab regimes of the Middle East? They're also corrupt and generally in the pockets of the U.S.

So the events of the last couple weeks in Gaza do show that the leadership of Fatah is discredited, and that's why they fell so easily. But at the same time, it's a fact that Fatah has served as the backbone of the organized fighting force of the Palestinian national movement for years and decades.

It has a larger number of rank-and-file militants loyal to it than Hamas does. So for me, I don't think it's as clear that this represents a "half victory." On the one hand, it seems that you have to find a way to elbow aside a corrupt leadership that's collaborationist.

But on the other hand, the situation now--with Hamas in control of Gaza and Fatah in control of the West Bank--is one that Israel and the U.S. are quite happy with.

They can reward the people they deem the "moderates" in the West Bank, while they punish the "extremists" in Gaza, which plays well internationally in the context of the "war on terror."

And it clarifies the sides, in the sense that it deals a mortal blow to the unity government, which was always an uneasy alliance that generally served the interests of Hamas by mollifying its critics, both internally and externally. Now it's easier for the U.S. and Israel to return to collaborating with Abbas and others in the PA willing to act as the police of the Palestinian movement.

At one level, these events seem to show how weak Fatah is, but they also seem to pose the question of how weak the whole national movement is, and how strong the U.S. and Israel are.

The U.S. and Israel have taken a page out of the playbook the U.S. has used in Iraq, where the combination of poverty and divide-and-conquer policies--supporting one faction against another--turns a whole population in on itself, and the society rips itself apart, leaving Israel and the U.S. to be the beneficiaries.

IN THE bigger context, the U.S. is quite concerned about the fact that the majority of Palestinians--despite the embargo, the siege of Gaza and Israeli brutality--still refuses to surrender in one way or another. And that gives a tremendous amount of hope to millions in the wider Arab world.

This is coming at a time when, one, there's general instability in the area because of the war in Iraq (and the resistance in Iraq doesn't seem to go away, as Bush always insists it's about to) and, two, a number of Arab regimes face an incredible economic and political crisis, such as Egypt and Jordan, where neoliberal policies have made things worse for most of the population over the last 20 years.

There's now the beginning of the revival of workers' struggle in countries like Egypt. The U.S. is concerned about the overall picture, and crushing the Palestinian resistance in one way or another is key for them. And that's why they have thrown their support behind Fatah.

As you said, Fatah has a lot of rank-and-file members, a lot of fighters, but for the past 13 years, those fighters have been used more or less to curb the Palestinian resistance.

But I also want to make a point about the differences and similarities between Fatah and Hamas. Fatah believes you can achieve some kind of a "statelet" through negotiations with the Americans--through endless compromises on giving up national rights.

Hamas isn't opposed to compromises with Israel either. It has offered a 10-year truce, and some of its leaders have said while they would not give up on the right of return, they are willing to postpone it for a generation or two until the two peoples manage to reach some kind of healing.

But the difference is that Hamas believes that the only way you can get anything out of the Israelis and the Americans is through struggle--and of course, their main method of struggle is armed struggle. That's the main difference between the two--Hamas understands that the Israelis and the Americans will not relinquish anything without struggle.

Having said that, there's a contradiction with Hamas. While they've been the most consistent in the past 15 years in resisting the Israelis, they actually are willing to negotiate with Israel, and they are willing to allow reactionary Arab regimes, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to come in and play a major role in Gaza and the West Bank.

So in the short term, things don't look very promising. But if you look at the bigger picture, including the beginnings of class struggles in the area, there's the possibility for a new generation of Palestinians from (to borrow a term from American politics) across the aisle--young Fatah militants who refuse to give up the struggle--to find ways of connecting with the younger Hamas generation, who are also against those compromises that do away with national rights.

That kind of unity, from the bottom up, is what's needed, and the future will tell if there will be organizations and leadership that will be able to go beyond the corrupt politics of inconsistency.

TOUFIC, ARE you both saying that Hamas' consolidation of power over Gaza may pose certain problems, but that it should generally be seen as a welcome development?

ABSOLUTELY, AS a result of Hamas' takeover of Gaza, the pro-American current inside the Palestinian movement has been weakened, and now there's also the first possibility to organize the society, economy and politics of a territorial base--inasmuch as this is possible under conditions of siege and occupation--around a political project of resistance.

There are, of course, complications. There's the split between the West Bank and Gaza, and Israel can use the stick with Gaza and the carrot with the West Bank. But on another level, it's a sense of accomplishment for the popular forces.

Hamas may not have the means or the politics to be able to lead the Palestinian liberation movement. But there was something so stagnant in the Palestinian movement because these Fatah elite dominated for so many years.

So now a window is opening for a new politics to be decided and hopefully new institutions to be developed. On one level, people might be happy with Hamas coming to power, but people also have big questions about it.

For years, the Palestinian movement struggled to win the independence of their movement from any other Arab party. Just to set up the PLO, thousands of martyrs lost their lives.

Hamas is not a part of the PLO, nor does it recognize the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian national movement. It's an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood--not exactly the Muslim Brotherhood, but it doesn't distance itself from it. And people also worry about the fact that there are regional players--that Hamas takes money from Iran and the Saudis.

There are so many compounded problems--political, institutional--but I think people will be willing to give this new effort a chance. But the whole project needs to be reinvigorated. And Hamas has been very smart about it.

Hamas could have led the whole government on its own by using its democratic majority to pass whatever it wanted, but Hamas wanted to form a unity government. And every time they did, they ran into various conflicts--with Israel and with Fatah. Despite this, Hamas still said that we want a unity government and to make a deal, because we don't want to impose our agenda on others.

But Fatah is still refusing to see the error of its ways. Abu Mazen fired Rashid Abu-Shabak, Dahlan's number two in Gaza--on the basis that they didn't defend their positions. But who the hell is going to defend their positions when the rank and file fled, and it's just the cronies and gangsters who were still around?

If you want to see what they are like, you can go to Hamas' English Web site to see how Fatah were torturing Hamas members and making them praise Mohammed Dahlan.

IN THE short term, I think the Hamas victory in Gaza is a step forward, because despite all the contradictions of Hamas' politics, they're saying we need to get rid of corruption, we need to end torture, we need to build some kind of a national united movement to be able to speak in one voice and resist the Israelis. That's a welcome step.

But they will face tremendous pressures--from the U.S., Israel and the Arab governments. I don't doubt that Israel and the U.S. will try once again to starve Gaza. That's going to raise a number of concrete tasks for Palestinian activists, whether they're Islamists or not, in Gaza or the West Bank--and the question is whether they can mobilize the support and the solidarity and the resources needed to withstand such a siege.

It's also a step forward because it shows that it's possible to build an alternative to Fatah. You can disagree as much as you want with Hamas, but at the end of the day, this is an alternative to Fatah--even if it could be built, and hopefully will be built, on a much stronger political basis.

I ALSO don't think you realize what can be done now. Even though Gaza has terribly limited means, the PA had businesses that it was running there--cement, grain and gravel operations. Hamas could organize the economy and collectivize production in a way, so that instead of building big penthouses, they can make Gaza much more self-sufficient. And Hamas knows that that's the kind of stuff it needs to be doing.

BUT EVEN if you leave aside the question of its own political limitations that may not lead Hamas to those particular conclusions about how to run the economy, two things still trouble me.

One is the extent to which this is the outcome of a divide-and-conquer strategy. Even if the Fatah leadership got what it deserved, it's going to be difficult to recover from these divisions, especially as they become entrenched territorially.

And two, what's going to happen to all those Fatah fighters who do sincerely want to organize? It doesn't seem to me that their conclusion--even if Fatah leaders have been exposed as complete collaborators--will be to join Hamas and fight under the this new banner.

Even if people conclude this later, in the short to medium run, this could have a significant impact on the confidence of those who make up the backbone of the resistance.

IN TERMS of the leadership of Fatah and Hamas, the leadership of Fatah was not interested in any resistance to Israel, so in that sense, this isn't really a consequence of a divide-and-conquer strategy. On the other hand, there is an element of divide-and-conquer in that there are Fatah militants who could be actually cooperating with Hamas militants and other militants to build some kind of a united resistance, so in the short term that is a setback.

While you could look to Hamas doing certain things in Gaza, what is absent and absolutely needed--and Gaza might be a fertile ground for such a development--is a political organization (either coming out of Hamas or developing independently) that could actually put forward the message that the division between Fatah and Hamas, the West Bank and Gaza, is artificial and that everybody who is genuinely interested in liberating Palestine needs to be united under one umbrella.

Even a national liberation movement, let alone a left-wing movement, would be a step forward at this point. There's a big vacuum, and I don't think Hamas can fill it. That's what's been missing for the last 15 years since the PLO surrendered in the Oslo agreement.

ERIC, YOU seem to be saying that this is an accomplishment for the U.S. because it represents a success of their divide-and-rule approach. But the U.S. and Israel are even against Fatah, because it represents a sector of the national leadership that's holding its own--that's just asking for UN Resolution 242 [passed in 1967 and calling on Israel to withdraw from the Occupied Territories] to be implemented.

They couldn't get what they wanted from this leadership, which was Arafat's signature at Camp David. And since then, Israel's strategy was to destroy any Palestinian national leadership. They did it methodically and targeted all factions, and the only currents to survive were Hamas, which reorganized in Gaza, and a sliver of Fatah that was allowed to survive because of their connections with the Israelis.

Those are the two currents that exist on the political scene today. That's why the Israelis helped these Fatah elite move from Gaza to the West Bank when Hamas' takeover of Gaza went down. So it's not a success for a divide-and-rule strategy--in fact, it's a failure because Abbas' current is getting weaker and weaker, and is on the brink of extinction.

Olmert is talking about releasing 250 Fatah prisoners and the tax money and so on to resurrect Abbas' fortunes. But in those rooms where all those intelligence people are sitting down to figure out what the hell this means, they're not going to say that now we have to pump up Abbas, because they didn't even help him out during the last period.

I think they see their strategy in the next period as letting this play out, and then destroy what's left of Fatah. You can't try to build up people like Dahlan and Abbas when there's still a resistance option out there. And that's why they have to do away with the resistance, and then bring these people back as the only political option available.

So they want to decapitate Hamas, then try to deal a mortal blow to the Palestinian resistance forces, and then bring in Abbas. And they want people to conclude, yes, the struggle is useless, and I want Abbas, because that's the best we can hope for.

I THINK you can look at the goals of the U.S. and Israel in another way. As Toufic said, the purpose of supporting Fatah and Abbas is to isolate Fatah and put more pressure on them. My guess is they want Abbas to sign a deal that's much worse than the Camp David Accords, and he's going to have no choice but to sign such a deal. That's their goal.

The most anti-Arab of the presidential candidates, Rudy Giuliani, who refused to allow Arafat to attend an opera when he was at the UN General Assembly back in 1998, just gave a whole speech about why the U.S. needs to support Fatah and Abbas.

This isn't because they want a stronger Palestinian organization that they can negotiate with on an equal footing. They want a weaker one that will surrender what Arafat couldn't surrender back at Camp David. If Arafat was willing to allow them to keep 50 percent of the settlements, now they can maybe get 70 or 80 percent out of Abbas.

DAY BY day, the Fatah leadership are losing legitimacy, and so an agreement is not worth more than the paper it's printed on. It will simply be rejected by the popular will.

THAT'S WHAT made Arafat so useful to the Israelis. He could collaborate with Israel, but he also had enough respect and prestige that he could actually deliver some degree of support when he made this or that concession. Abbas, on the other hand, in this political climate, will only lose more credibility.

There was a reason Hamas won the January 2006 elections, and it's because of the long string of Fatah concessions. And it doesn't seem to me that Abbas is strong enough to give away what the Israelis want him to sign off on.

TOUFIC MIGHT disagree with me about this, but even though I think the Israelis want to get a better agreement out of Abbas, I don't think they have any intention of even implementing that one.

I think for him to sign an agreement doing away with basic Palestinian rights that have been at the center of the Palestinian question for 60 years would only de-legitimize him more, and weaken the liberation movement more--and I think that's their main goal.

They don't want a settled agreement, but they want to crush the resistance and continue the occupation indefinitely.

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