Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine
by Jonathan Schanzer.
New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. 196 pp. $26.95.
In life, timing is everything. So, the publication of Hamas vs. Fatah in November, six weeks prior to the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war, should get the publishers some sort of prize for prescience — or just plain good luck. But for anyone wanting to understand the background to this war and the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this book is must reading.
This short history of the underreported, violent conflict between the uncompromising Palestinian nationalism of Fatah and the Muslim fundamentalism of the Iranian-backed Hamas movement demonstrates clearly that although peace would be very difficult to achieve with a united Palestinian leadership, it is next to impossible as long as Fatah runs the West Bank and Hamas rules the Gaza Strip — and their struggle for supremacy continues.
Actually, Hamas’ takeover of Gaza in June 2007 in some ways reflected the division between Arabs living in those jurisdictions, writes author Jonathan Schanzer, director of policy at the Jewish Policy Center, a District think tank affiliated with the Republican Jewish Coalition. Whether it’s social (each area has its own powerful clans and there is little intermarriage between people in the two areas); language (West Bankers speak a Jordanian dialect of Arabic, Gazans an Egyptian dialect); percentage of residents who are refugees (34 percent in Gaza compared to 19 percent in West Bank); or standard of living (higher rates of unemployment and poverty in Gaza), there are big differences between the two groups of Palestinians.
Those economic and cultural distinctions led to “a quiet animosity” between the two areas, “a psychological barrier” and “mutual suspicion,” in the words of Palestinian sociologist Khalil Shiqaqi quoted in the book.
Those differences tended to be exacerbated when Hamas conquered Gaza, “destroy[ing] the vestiges of political ties that bound the two territories,” according to Schanzer. And that split could become permanent, he says, pointing to the example of Bangladesh, which permanently broke away from Pakistan in 1971.
But whatever the future of the two territories, the culture of violence in both areas — and embedded in both Fatah and Hamas — would seem to doom any efforts to achieve peace.
And, as the author points out, any time either seems to be moving from resistance fighter against Israel to peacemaker, the group pays a big price politically.
Hamas came into being at the beginning of the first Intifada. While violence raged in the territories, PLO leader Yasser Arafat, looking for a way to make himself relevant in the new reality of the uprising, accepted U.N. General Assembly Resolution 181 from 1947 that called for a partition of Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state, thus, in effect, recognizing Israel.
While the PLO (Fatah is its largest faction) entered into negotiations, Hamas began to gain new adherents from among the “many” Palestinians who were losing confidence in Arafat. They saw his “recognition of Israel as a sign of weakness or even unwillingness to fight,” Schanzer writes.
“Hamas leaders understood that their campaign of violence and their ardent rejection of Israel was the best path to winning the support of the Palestinian people, who were still riding a wave of anger, violence and protest from the intifada,” according to the author.
So, the PLO lost support by appearing to be soft on Israel. In a similar way, Schanzer notes that were Hamas to begin to cooperate with Israel “quietly and below the radar” in an effort to improve the lives of the Palestinians under its jurisdiction in Gaza, a new Islamist group might appear to challenge its legitimacy.
In 2007, as Hamas and Fatah battled, a new group, Hizb ut-Tahrir (Liberation Party), organized demonstrations in the West Bank against the Annapolis peace talks.
So the fatal “third rail” of Palestinian politics continues to be a willingness to live in peace with Israel.
In any case, the author reminds us: “Dating back to the British mandate (1923-1948), Palestinian nationalism has been based more destruction (of a Jewish state) than creation (of its own state).”
Not a very hopeful reality, but one that Israel and its supporters need to come to grips with.