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It’s The Civil War, Stupid

Daniel Halper

Many friends of Israel have long been concerned about the prospect of a Barack Obama presidency. Despite Obama’s moderate campaign rhetoric, he had been rumored to support the aspirations of radical Palestinians, and a Los Angeles Times article published on April 10, 2008 seemed to confirm the charges. The article describes a reception held in 2003 in honor of Rashid Khalidi, a former spokesman for the Palestine Liberation Organization who was about to take up a position as professor at Columbia University. Obama, then just an Illinois state senator, praised his “many talks with the Khalidis” as “consistent reminders to me of my own blind spots and my own biases.” He said he hoped “for that reason…for many years to come, [that] we continue that conversation—a conversation that is necessary not just around Mona and Rashid’s dinner table.”

Of the many outrageous beliefs Khalidi has espoused—from defending a legal right to “resist” (read: terrorist activity under a faux-legal guise) the so-called Israeli occupation to arguing that Israel stole its land from Arab inhabitants—one in particular catches the attention of Jonathan Schanzer, director of policy at the Jewish Policy Center in Washington, DC: Khalidi’s notion that there is a “uniform Palestinian identity.” Schanzer has devoted his recent book, Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle For Palestine, to dispelling this idea.

What has ravaged the region and erected the main obstacle to peace, says Schanzer, is twenty years of “internecine violence,” “interfactional tensions,” and the “internal… power struggle” between the ruling Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah. Indeed, the deadly Palestinian political situation has arguably damaged the Palestinian people much more than it has their sworn enemy, the Israelis.

In Schanzer’s own words, “Hamas is a violent totalitarian organization that has taken the lives of hundreds of Israelis and Palestinians over the years and vows to continue down that same path.” In short, “The driving ideological force behind Hamas… is radical Islam.” To Americans, Hamas is perhaps most famous for its terrorist activities—homicide bombings, car bombings, kidnappings, rocket attacks, etc.—and its pledge to destroy the Jewish state in the land of Israel.

So what, then, does Hamas’s primary political foe, Fatah, stand for? Foremost, it supports “Palestinian nationalism.” That’s why Khalidi’s views about national identity are merely one-sided political propaganda. But this ideology has been altered to adapt to the varied sentiments of the Palestinians—all in an attempt to maintain power over its people. It maintains a “dream… to one day defeat Israel by force and raise a Palestinian flag over the land that had been conquered in 1948.” Additionally, Fatah also “was undoubtedly influenced by Islamism,” but, unlike Hamas, it “stood for the establishment of a secular state after the destruction of Israel.”

Ideology, therefore, cannot be considered the primary source for the entrenched division between Hamas and Fatah. Considered independently, their missions are not necessarily antithetical to one another. Rather, “Both groups are engaged in a struggle whereby neither is ashamed to adopt the rhetoric or tactics of the other to gain an edge. Both factions know that Palestinian nationalism and Islamism are equally useful tools that can be wielded to generate support from the Palestinian street, depending on the political circumstances.”

Schanzer, at one point, invokes a Lincolnian consideration of political governance when he suggests that “the outbreak of the [first] intifada [in 1987]” signified “a house divided.” However, unlike Lincoln’s divided America, in which the victorious North was able to reunite the splintered Union, a tenable peace plan between Israelis and Palestinians requires both sides to lose. A “house divided against itself cannot stand,” is the Lincolnian phrase Schanzer alludes to, but he also argues that a unified Palestinian house ruled by either Hamas or Fatah would be yet another obstacle to lasting peace.

In an attempt to inject stylistic flare into his writing, Schanzer integrates current events with detailed, descriptive accounts of activities ranging from terrorist bombings to secretive meetings between agents of Hamas or Fatah. Such episodes could have provided appropriate lead-ins to the complexities of the history Schanzer is considering, but the similarities between Hamas and Fatah—the overlapping yet diverging ideologies and histories—at times become muddled.

Thus, Schanzer’s work lacks the clarity he could have achieved with separate chronological accounts of the subjects and historical events. The primary message of the book was to make the case that those who associate with Hamas and Fatah are members of separate Palestinian factions; clarity, not style, should have been the author’s primary focus.

In terms of the quality of his analysis, however, Schanzer has done his readers a great service. His claim that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has been blocked by in-fighting between Fatah and Hamas rings true. Although it is perhaps not a radical revelation to those who have closely followed the events in Israel over the last twenty years, it is a useful corrective to the typical analysis of the issue: Academics and journalists, especially, tend to overlook the Hamas vs. Fatah civil war, choosing instead to over-report violence and rancor between Israelis and Palestinians. One hopes that Schanzer’s corrective analysis will serve as a starting point, not the final word, for the next wave of thinking on this issue, for it explains the utter failure of the Oslo peace accords (America and Israel negotiated with the Fatah-infused Palestinian Authority without fully considering the powerful Hamas), the failure of Israel’s responses to the Palestinian intifadas, and the utter disarray that the region has been in for at least the last twenty years.

The Obama for America website “Fight the Smears” attempted to trivialize Obama’s associations with Khalidi by saying, “Smears, insults, and innuendo about the nature of Barack’s relationship with Khalidi are completely unfounded. Guilt-by-association is always a questionable tactic.” And with the election now completed, Obama’s harshest opponents have begun to relax. Most are rejoicing about the announcements of his intended cabinet appointments and staff—a Clinton presidency redux. But will President Obama be able to comprehend fully the enormous complexities facing the warring Palestinian factions, a finer point that was undoubtedly overlooked during the conservations that took place at “Mona and Rashid’s dinner table”? Serious scholars of Israel’s history like Jonathan Schanzer are no doubt eagerly awaiting the answer.

Daniel Halper regularly writes on politics, foreign policy, and the Middle East at Commentary’s blog Contentions.