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Hamas-Fatah Civil War Prologue to Cast Lead

Former U.S. counterterrorism analyst Schanzer puts Gaza war in context

Seth Mandel

Hamas “has painted itself into a corner” with its dedication to being Fatah’s more violent, Islamist alternative and its political intransigence, ratcheting up a military conflict seemingly without a diplomatic exit, according to a leading expert of the Hamas-Fatah rif

“This ceasefire would need to be negotiated — Israel would need to be present at a negotiating table, I believe, in order to truly reach an understanding, and that’s not something that Hamas is willing to do,” Jonathan Schanzer, author of “Hamas vs. Fatah: The struggle for Palestine,” told The Jewish State in a phone interview shortly after Israel’s ground invasion of the Gaza Strip commenced. “Hamas’ stated goal is the destruction of the ‘Zionist entity’ as they call it, and it will be very interesting to see how Hamas tries to get itself out of this, particularly if Israel … gets closer to eliminating the organization’s leadership.”

Schanzer spoke with The Jewish State about the internecine conflict between Fatah — which rules the West Bank and is led by Yasser Arafat’s deputy, Mahmoud Abbas — and Hamas — which rules the Gaza Strip and is led locally by Ismail Haniyeh and abroad by the Damascus-based Khaled Meshaal — and how that rivalry has shaped the geopolitical prelude to Israel’s current military confrontation with Hamas in Gaza.

Schanzer, currently the deputy executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Jewish Policy Center and past counterterrorism analyst for the Treasury Department’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis, said that Hamas’ popularity and success at the expense of Fatah has always been based in large part on its obstructionist tactics vis-a-vis the peace process, often played out through a carefully cultivated reputation as the more religious group and, therefore, the practitioners of “true” Islam.

But in this current conflict, Hamas is no longer playing the role of spoiler, Schanzer said; Hamas already controls its own territory.

“It’s not disrupting a peace process, and it’s certainly not getting any closer to destroying the state of Israel,” Schanzer said. “It is simply engaging in violence. There really does not seem to be a goal this time around, as perhaps there has been in the past.”

In fact, Hamas has pushed so hard for a military confrontation with Israel that it cannot claim to represent all the Palestinians, Schanzer said. The split — geographically and philosophically — between Hamas and Fatah has rendered it almost two separate peoples.

“In the past, intifadas, or uprisings, low-level wars between Israel and the Palestinians, have been Israel versus the entire Palestinian people or the Palestinian movement,” Schanzer said.

But this current conflict doesn’t fit that mold, he said. There is almost no activity in the West Bank, and far from supporting Hamas, Abbas has gone on-record blaming the conflict on Hamas. Schanzer added that while many nations are pressuring Israel into removing its troops from Gaza, there is very little diplomatic support for Hamas.

“Most of these countries who are condemning Israel want to just see the end of the ground offensive,” he said, “but they are not necessarily defending Hamas as the cornerstone of the Palestinian movement, as perhaps they have in the past with the Palestinian Authority.”

Sources have revealed that Fatah has provided the IDF with the coordinates of its old buildings in Gaza, which are now occupied by the Hamas leadership. But Schanzer warned against reinstalling Fatah as the de facto government in Gaza; Fatah and the Palestinian Authority have shown an inability to govern effectively, and because Hamas was elected by the Palestinian public, Fatah may not be accepted by Gazan Arabs.

“I would probably say that it would be something along the lines of an artificial heart, and you’d have about a 50-percent chance of it being rejected,” Schanzer said.

Leaving Hamas in power, but in disarray, raises a question: Would the Palestinians in Gaza be convinced that Fatah, which claims to govern, is a better option than Hamas, which makes no pretense toward classic, nation-state governance?

This, Schanzer said, is the crux of the Palestinian problem — the reason for the Palestinian civil war is that the Palestinians “have always embraced ideologies of destruction, rather than creation. In other words, they continue to embrace organizations that seek to destroy Israel rather than promise the Palestinian people hope for the building of a new society or a brighter future.”

Schanzer said that while Hamas’ ideology is one based on destruction, Fatah isn’t much better. Its charter also calls for Israel’s destruction, and it maintains factions that carry out terrorist attacks against Israel.

“So Fatah is a house divided; Hamas is unified” in its message: Israel must be destroyed.

Schanzer believes the Palestinians are suffering from a leadership vacuum. What they need, he said, is a nonviolent leader in the tradition of a Gandhi or Martin Luther King who seeks the creation of a state instead of the destruction of a state.

That lack of leadership does not, however, mean the status quo will remain, according to Schanzer. The situation could get much more hazardous for Israel if both Hamas and Fatah are discredited, and the Palestinians react by resurrecting classic Arabic tribal culture, which opts not for broad government but for organic familial cliques and gangs.

“This is a dangerous thing, because these are not accountable governments,” Schanzer said. “These are local makeshift governments at a very micro level, and that’s the risk that we run right now in completely flattening Hamas.”

One more aspect of the Hamas-Fatah battle is their perception as quasi-governmental proxies for regional powers. Hamas is funded and supplied by Iran, whereas Fatah is the preferred group of the heads of Sunni Arab states such as Egypt. (Iran is a Shiite state, but has for decades aligned itself with Sunni terrorist groups such as Hamas. Iran is in a power struggle with regional Sunni states, but often enlists Sunni terrorist groups to destabilize their respective states.)

Schanzer said Egypt and Saudi Arabia, among others, fear the rise of a Hamas state controlled by Iran.

“And I think that there’s pretty good evidence at this point that that’s already happening,” he said. “So to try to roll that back, the idea would be to support Fatah.”

Going forward, Schanzer said, the lesson the incoming administration of Barack Obama must learn quickly is that peace between Israel and the Palestinians is virtually impossible without peace among the Palestinians.

“Right now I believe the Palestinian conflict overshadows even the Arab-Israeli conflict as a first step toward achieving peace, and this needs to be [dealt with] publicly,” Schanzer said.

He said you cannot make one deal with Gaza and not with the West Bank, so Obama’s administration must first answer the question: Who is the interlocutor that represents the Palestinians in this discussion?

“Wars are always an opportunity to negotiate peace,” Schanzer said. “But in this case, there are two different states — or non-states we could call them — governed by two non-governments of people that continue to struggle for their own recognition.”