The Jewish Policy Center’s Jonathan Schanzer gave his take on how factional struggles are preventing Palestinians from building a lasting peace.
Schanzer, the center’s director of policy, began his Eaton Hall talk yesterday by referring to the ongoing conflict between the antagonistic Palestinian groups Fatah and Hamas as a “civil war.”
He urged the audience to view the Middle Eastern peace process in the context of this struggle rather than looking at it purely from the standpoint of Arab-Israeli conflicts.
“[This is] not an American failure of diplomacy, not an Israeli failure of diplomacy, but the fact that the Palestinians continue to fight on who is the legitimate interlocutor that should be representing the 6.5 million Palestinians out there,” he said.
Hamas currently controls the Gaza Strip, where it ascended to power following resounding electoral victories in 2006, but remains cut off from Israel by a “security wall” aimed at limiting terrorist incursions. Meanwhile, Fatah is the de facto leadership in the West Bank.
This division receives scant attention in the international community because it does not directly involve Israel, according to Schanzer.
“Most professors won’t deal with this subject right now,” he said. “It’s just not being talked about — not in academia, not in the media.”
Originally, the quest for Palestinian statehood found political expression in Fatah, an organization whose charter still explicitly states the destruction of Israel as a primary goal. After Yasser Arafat assumed leadership of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1968, it became largely synonymous with Fatah.
“[Arafat] was responsible for some of the worst terrorist attacks before 9/11 in the modern era,” Schanzer said.
Hamas, currently listed as a terrorist organization by the European Union, the United States and Israel, formed as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. With its inception in 1987-88, Hamas began openly competing with Fatah for Palestinian support, dropping propaganda leaflets in the West Bank.
In response, Arafat sought international legitimacy by affirming Israeli statehood and formed the Palestinian Authority with the goal of joining the West Bank and Gaza Strip through political consolidation and the construction of bridges and tunnels between the two.
Hamas, however, undercut this project by continuing to carry out suicide bombings against Israel that hamstrung the peace process and raised questions about Arafat’s ability to lead.
Schanzer said Hamas’ continued aggression demonstrated that it wanted to weaken Fatah, not achieve peace. At the time, polls showed that as much as 70 percent of Palestinians endorsed the attacks “in support of the Palestinian cause.”
Although the media focused on the threat to Israeli security, Schanzer said this missed the more urgent point of growing fractures within the Palestinian community.
“There was very little chance they could destroy Israel with one suicide attack, or even 50 or 100 attacks,” he said. “There was a deeper message, and that was simply that Hamas did not want to allow Fatah the legitimacy to continue to negotiate.”
As internal divisions continued to set back Arafat’s attempts to create a “viable state,” he began to initiate terrorist attacks after then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to the Temple Mount, a site sacred to Muslims.
This “calculated gamble” rapidly spiraled out of control, since rather than unify Fatah and Hamas against Israel, it encouraged Hamas to act independently and claim responsibility for attacks.
Arafat effectively “lost control,” Schanzer said, noting that as a result of his crumbling authority, “Basically, clans, tribes, families control pockets of the West Bank and Gaza.”
“From 2000 to today, no one knows who controls Gaza and the West Bank,” he said.
The tensions between the two rivals intensified with a 2006 election that put Hamas into power, a result unfavorable to the United States and Israel, even though it was “probably the freest and fairest election in the history of the Middle East,” Schanzer said.
As a result, the United States and Israel advised Fatah to distance itself from Hamas, which has led to continued violence ranging from “fighting in the streets” to “trading barbs in the press,” Schanzer said.
In light of this continued internecine conflict, Schanzer posed the question, “How likely is peace when you have two non-states, two non-governments and two sides that are fighting each other over the right to destroy Israel?”
Posing possible end goals that include a three-state solution rather than the conventional two-state approach, Schanzer said the Palestinians must be willing to break new ground.
“Until the Palestinians come up with a forward-looking plan for statehood, they will continue to fight each other and to fight Israel,” he said.
The talk was co-sponsored by the Jewish Policy Center, a nonprofit organization that analyzes the impact of U.S. foreign and domestic policy on American Jews, and Tufts’ Friends of Israel.