The current retaliatory bombing of Gaza by Israeli warplanes once more focuses the world’s attention on this tiny strip of land. The enmity between Hamas and Israel is well-known, but Jonathan Schanzer probes below the surface to give us a history of a much-less-publicized conflict in his book “Hamas vs. Fatah.”
Part of the reason for this lack of publicity is that the Palestinians want their internal conflicts given the least possible amount of attention. They like to maintain that they have what Rashid Khalidi, a professor at Columbia University, calls “a uniform Palestinian identity.” Other American academics tend to view the Palestinians only in relation to their conflict with Israel and thus ignore what the Palestinians are doing to one another.
All societies have internal conflicts and competing factions. Very few, however, descend to the bloodshed that characterizes events in today’s Palestine.
The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), of which Fatah is the armed element, follows the tradition of secular nationalism exemplified by the still revered former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. It pays homage to Islam in all its activities but recognizes Palestinian Christians as respected members of the community.
Yasser Arafat, for example, tried to visit Bethlehem during Christmas some years back; though clearly a public relations ploy, it was an effort to include minorities. Hamas, on the other hand, though adroit in public relations, views everything through a strict Muslim prism. Its members talk of imposing Sharia, Muslim religious law, with its Taliban-like features.
The author details various abuses to which the Palestinian Christians have been subjected, including unsolved murders, and the Christian community continues to dwindle in numbers through emigration.
Hamas, like the Taliban in Afghanistan before it, gained its early popularity through a network of social welfare programs free of corruption – in marked contrast to the nepotism, cronyism and ingrained corruption of the Palestinian Authority. One can hardly be surprised, then – though many were – that in the January 2006 election, Hamas won a majority of seats in the Parliament. Hamas went even further 18 months later when it seized military control of the entire Gaza Strip and ejected all competing forces. Total casualties in that six-day conflict amounted to 161 dead and more than 700 wounded. Today, then, there are two Palestines: the West Bank governed by the Palestinian Authority (PLO-Fatah) and the Gaza Strip governed by Hamas.
Like most revolutionary movements, Hamas found it much easier to give rabble-rousing speeches than actually govern. For example, it provided new pipes to help repair Gaza’s ancient and decaying sewage system, but those pipes were diverted to building bunkers for Qassam rockets. As a result, there were a number of sewage “tsunamis” from burst old pipes that flooded homes and businesses with rivers of waste.
Economically, Gaza is a disaster area. Outside of agriculture, there is little production of anything. Work and paychecks are provided by the government, and the inhabitants of the refugee camps, which are far more numerous in the Gaza Strip than the West Bank (and by now comprise three generations) live on handouts from international organizations.
In this sea of misery, Hamas’ popularity has waned, although it continues to dominate politically.
While the Palestinian Authority ruling the West Bank is no longer as dormant and inept as it once was, the hope is that with some economic progress all Palestinians will vote the way their stomachs tell them.
One can never be sure. Because almost everything Gaza receives comes from Israel, even Hamas’ governing body has to talk to Israeli officials and occasionally make deals with them simply to exist. This, of course, makes them vulnerable to charges of collaboration, as irrational as that may seem.
Rationality does not seem to have a role in the Palestine equation. How can one applaud the rocketing of one’s neighbor when all it brings are countermeasures that hurt? For years, pundits have told us there can be no peace in the Middle East until the Israeli-Palestine conflict is settled. But can there be a Middle East peace if the Palestinians cannot make peace in their own ranks?
Jonathan Schanzer has performed a very useful task in explaining these rifts in the uniform Palestinian identity. It stands to help us, as Americans, have a firmer understanding of the reality of the situation so that in the coming days we may be able to handle both it and ourselves better.
Sol Schindler is a retired Foreign Service officer who writes on international affairs.