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Hamas vs. Fatah

A FrontPage Interview

Jamie Glazov
SOURCEFrontPage Magazine

Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Jonathan Schanzer, director of policy at the Jewish Policy Center. He has served as a counterterrorism analyst at the U.S. Department of Treasury and as a research fellow at Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is the author of the new book, Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle For Palestine. Daniel Pipes wrote the foreword to the book and some of the research was undertaken at Pipes’ Middle East Forum.

FP: Jonathan Schanzer, welcome to Frontpage Interview.

Schanzer: Great to be with you again, Jamie.

FP: What inspired you to write this book?

During the violent Hamas conquest of Gaza in the summer of 2007, during which hundreds of Palestinians were killed by their own, I was struck by how little attention the mainstream media gave these shocking events. Similarly, I noted that Middle Eastern studies professors stayed far away from the subject. It was as if observers of the Middle East were only interested in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which is tired and well-worn ground. I quickly realized that there was an important book to be written.

FP: Why do you think the mainstream media and Middle Eastern studies professors stayed away from the Hamas conquest and Palestinians killing their own?

Schanzer: I believe the media steered clear of the Palestinian internecine violence for several reasons. First, this is a very nuanced conflict. Such stories are difficult to report, and even more difficult to sell to editors. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a much easier sell. So, that’s where most of the media attention remained.

Second, reporting on this story is dangerous. The Palestinians generally wish to keep this very ugly story hidden from the public eye. In reporting on it, journalists risk invoking the ire of two violent organizations. Both Hamas and Fatah have threatened some of the journalists covering the story with violence. At minimum, these two groups restrict journalists’ access if they are dissatisfied with previous reporting.

Another problem stems from visiting Western journalists’ reliance on fixers. Fixers are individuals with local knowledge and good political connections who are paid to help our news reporters who don’t know Arabic or how to gain interviews. It is my observation that the majority of Palestinian fixers whitewash the Palestinian civil war, and instead steer our journalists toward the same, tired stories about Palestinian suffering in the West Bank and Gaza.

As for the academy, this conflict has made it even clearer to me that Middle Eastern studies is a corrupted field. By not addressing this issue, professors of Palestinian history have shown that they are more interested in sniping at Israel and America than analyzing a significant problem that requires serious scholarship if peace is ever to be achieved in the Middle East. This bodes poorly for the future of a critical field.

FP: What is new about your book and what is its main argument?

Schanzer: I believe the book is unique because it challenges the very notion of Palestinian unity. The Palestinians are always described as one united people with one goal: statehood. My book debunks this. It explains that there is no coherent vision for a Palestinian future. Rather, the Hamas organization and the Fatah organization are locked in a bitter struggle for power that has paralyzed the Palestinians.

What is surprising to some people is that this conflict did not simply begin with the Hamas landslide electoral victory in January 2006. Rather, this struggle is two decades old, dating back to the outbreak of the first intifada of 1987. The book explains in detail how the two factions’ Machiavellian designs on the territories have repeatedly led to regular bouts of violence.

In the end I conclude that, so long as this bitter conflict continues, it should be clear to policy makers that the Palestinians are not ready to rule themselves. Indeed, how can they? There are currently two separate Palestinian governments in two separate territories that are at war with each other.

It can even be argued that it is the Palestinian conflict – not the Palestinian-Israeli conflict – that represents the largest obstacle to regional peace.

FP: How are the platforms of Hamas and Fatah different? How are they the same?

Schanzer: While Hamas is an ascetic Islamist organization and Fatah is more secular, the two groups are more similar than one might think.

Both groups were founded by members of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that seeks world Islamist domination. Indeed, Fatah is known as the Palestinian Liberation Movement, or Harakat al-Tahrir al-Falastiniya. Accordingly, the group’s acronym should be HATAF. However, the founders reversed the order of the letters to Fatah, which has Quranic meaning (conquest).

It is also important to note that both organizations clearly state in their charters that they seek the destruction of the state of Israel.

FP: So what is it exactly that Hamas and Fatah disagree about? They both hate Jews and both want to annihilate Israel. So what’s their problem with each other?

Schanzer: While Fatah is more secular and Hamas is undoubtedly Islamist, these two organizations are not that dissimilar. As you note, they both harbor deep anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist ideologies. Hamas and Fatah are locked in a struggle for control of political and economic power. Both see the potential to gain immense power and wealth if a Palestinian state is ever to be declared. The irony is that as long as they fight each other, and as long as they continue to seek to destroy Israel, that state will never come into existence.

FP: What are the consequences of the battle between Hamas and Fatah?

Schanzer: There are very serious consequences. First, Israel does not have an interlocutor. If it negotiates with Mahmoud Abbas of the Fatah organization, it is only dealing with the ruler of the West Bank (and it is disputable that Abbas even has control of that). If Israel were to negotiate with Hamas, it would be negotiating with a terrorist organization. This will not happen.

Washington is in the same bind. While it continues to work with Fatah, it is understood that Fatah does not necessarily represent the Palestinian people.

It must also be noted that the West Bank-Gaza Strip split is a serious consequence of the Palestinian civil war. These are now two non-states and two non-governments. How can the international community regard them as one political unit?

In short, the Palestinians are in complete disarray. Nothing can be negotiated until this conflict is settled.

FP: How can the Palestinians break their own self-destructive cycle?

Schanzer: The Palestinians need to come to the realization that this civil war is the result of their support for two terrorist factions. Both Hamas and Fatah gained power through terrorist violence and then gravitated toward politics. This is always a prescription for failed governance.

More broadly, the Palestinians need to come to the conclusion that, until now, the dominant ideologies in the territories have been geared toward the destruction of the state of Israel, rather than the creation of a Palestinian state. This is a prescription for more violence – both among Palestinian factions and with Israel.

To be fair, there are a few non-violent Palestinian parties that Palestinians can support. Among them are the “Third Way” party and “Wasstiya.” Unfortunately, they enjoy very little backing at this point. Still, they have non-violent ideologies and seek to build rather than destroy.

If the Palestinians were to reject both Hamas and Fatah and support these new parties, it would be a step toward breaking their self-destructive cycle.

FP: How do you grade American and Israeli policy toward Hamas and Fatah up till now?

Schanzer: Analysts have voiced grave concerns about the Bush administration’s support for Fatah, since its charter still clearly states that it seeks Israel’s destruction. But the administration is likely backing the Fatah organization as a counterweight to Iran, which claims Hamas as one of its proxies.

Analysts also question the wisdom of pushing for peace at this time, primarily because both factions openly seek Israel’s destruction. I believe that until the Palestinians renounce violence and resolve their civil war, peace will be elusive.

FP: So what Israeli and U.S. policy do you support in the near future? Do you think the upcoming Obama administration shows positive or negative sighs of being able to deal with the situation prudently and effectively?

Schanzer: Until now, the incoming Obama administration’s Middle East advisors have shown little understanding of this vexing policy challenge. Indeed, none of them have written about this issue, or have even raised it in a serious way.

It should be clear to them, as it is clear to me, that as long as the Palestinians are warring, there is no Palestinian interlocutor for peace. It is my sincere hope that the next administration grasps this reality. If it does not, there will be yet another failed round of Middle East diplomacy. This is dangerous. As we have seen in the past, failed diplomacy can often lead to renewed conflict.

FP: Jonathan Schanzer, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.

Schanzer: Thank you Jamie.

Jamie Glazov is Frontpage Magazine’s managing editor. He holds a Ph.D. in History with a specialty in U.S. and Canadian foreign policy. He edited and wrote the introduction to David Horowitz’s Left Illusions. He is also the co-editor (with David Horowitz) of The Hate America Left and the author of Canadian Policy Toward Khrushchev’s Soviet Union (McGill-Queens University Press, 2002) and 15 Tips on How to be a Good Leftist. To see his previous symposiums, interviews and articles Click Here. Email him at jglazov@rogers.com.