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The Hamas-Fatah War & Israeli Security

Eric Bergel

Jonathan Schanzer is the director of policy at the Jewish Policy Center, a Washington think-tank. Prior to joining JPC, he was a counterterrorism analyst for the Office of Intelligence and Analysis at the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Mr. Schanzer also has held positions at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the Middle East Forum. It was during his tenure with the Forum that he undertook initial research into the subject of his new book, Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle For Palestine (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), which was also the topic of Mr. Schanzer’s address to members of the Middle East Forum and the Jewish Federation of Philadelphia on November 3, 2008.

In Hamas vs. Fatah, Schanzer rejects the “constant narrative that the Palestinians are waiting for their state,” an account that depicts the Palestinians as a passive factor in the state formation process. Instead, Schanzer argues that the Palestinians’ troubled path to statehood is a product of their own political divisions. Schanzer believes that the problem had its roots in the outbreak of the first intifada in 1988. At that time, Arafat was exiled from the territories and living in Tunisia, so he and Fatah were unable to take credit for the Palestinian uprising.

Instead, it was Arafat’s rival, Hamas, which “quickly eclipsed Fatah in terms of popularity with Islamists and refugees.” Seeing his political relevance eroding, Arafat announced that he would accept in theory the state of Israel. Schanzer dismissed Arafat’s declaration as merely “a ploy to get him back on the world stage. By simply recognizing the state of Israel,” Schanzer explained, “the entire world [came] rushing to him thinking that perhaps he [could] end the uprising and bring Palestinian-Israeli peace.”

The next seven years were the “Oslo Period.” Although others saw the Accords as offering hope for a sustained peace, Schanzer believes that Arafat came to regret his involvement. By seeking the mantle of a statesman, Arafat found that he created a vacuum in the arena of “military struggle” that Hamas was able to exploit – as evidenced by the fact that during the 1990’s, most terror attacks on Israel were perpetrated by Hamas.

For Hamas, attacks on Israel served a dual purpose. Every act of terrorism perpetrated by Hamas made Fatah look feckless to the outside world and undermined Arafat’s overall strategy. On the other hand, terrorist attacks against Israel further cemented Hamas’ popularity with the Palestinians, who increasingly looked to it as assertive, while Fatah was seen as submissive to the West.

This state of affairs lasted until 2000, when Arafat, seeing the damage that his reconciliation attempt had caused to the political relevance of Fatah, launched the second intifada. Schanzer said that Arafat’s motivation behind this action was to “out-Hamas Hamas.” Arafat promoted the conflict in a much more Islamist way than the first intifada; for example, calling the war the “Al-Aqsa intifada,” after the historic mosque in Islam situated in Jerusalem.

In 2004, Arafat died and Mahmoud Abbas succeeded him as the leader of Fatah. In 2006, however, “in an absolute landslide…of the freest and fairest elections that we have probably seen ever in the Arab world,” the Palestinians rejected Abbas and Fatah, and elected Hamas.

Along with the Hamas victory came what Schanzer declared the “Second Six-Day­-War,” this one between Hamas and Fatah. In it, Palestinians fought each other and engaged in acts of violence such as “we’ve never seen in the Arab-Israeli conflict.” With the election of Hamas – a terrorist organization – and the in-fighting between Hamas and Fatah, diplomacy with Israel came to virtual standstill.

The continued intervention of outside powers, which provide monetary and military support to one side or the other, further complicates the Fatah-Hamas split. Schanzer estimates that Iran provides Hamas with $35 million in annual support. The U.S. government supports Fatah mainly “so [Tehran does not] take over the Palestinian Authority as well.”

Schanzer described the very separate nature of the two Palestinian territories today. The West Bank is “flourishing,” due to the economic influence of Jordan. Meanwhile, Gaza, in which the Egyptians had failed to invest, is “the exact opposite” with people living in “squalor.” Because of the geographic, economic and political differences between the two territories, Schanzer questions the potential for realizing a single Palestinian state.

But there are limits to the conflict between Fatah and Hamas. After all, both of their charters still call for the destruction of the State of Israel. However the conflict between Fatah and Hamas concludes, Schanzer asks, “With whom will the Israelis be able to make peace?”