As a new American administration takes office promising renewal of the Middle East ‘peace process,’ and Israel looks to national elections in February 2009, the Palestinians have no real government at all. Bitterly divided between their internal factions, Hamas and Fatah, they maul each other with a savagery that mocks the world’s hopes for a Palestinian unity government-even as that outside world barely knows there is fitna in Palestine.
Set against the backdrop of thoroughly unrealistic expectations for the birth of a unified Palestinian state, Jonathan Schanzer’s Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine lays bare the raw facts of an internecine conflict rooted deeply in a battle for the identity of the Palestinian Arabs. Although the origins of this conflict date to the foundation of Hamas in the crucible of the 1987 Intifada, its existence has been mostly ignored, deliberately glossed over by an Arab world intent on perpetuating the fiction of Palestinian unity and readily dismissed by an international media only too willing to serve as an Arab echo chamber.
Schanzer writes in a lucid style undergirded by extensive regional travel and research that firmly establishes his mastery of the complicated issues driving Palestinian dysfunctionality. He describes the history of the relationship between Fatah, the secular nationalist party of Yasser Arafat and the PLO, and Hamas, a Muslim Brotherhood off-shoot motivated since its inception by the Islamic doctrine of jihad. Tracing the discord between them that flared into outright civil war with Hamas’ 2007 putsch in Gaza, Schanzer’s account explains how years of forced exile, misrule, and the crass corruption of its leadership eroded Fatah’s credentials on the street while its negotiations with Israel during the Oslo process provided the perfect opening for an empowered and violently radical Hamas to alter the fundamental nature of the face-off with Israel. The sharply different historical influences of Egypt and Jordan in Gaza and the West Bank, respectively, also come into stark relief under Schanzer’s keen focus.
Successive U.S. administrations focused with the determined stare of tunnel vision on the electoral and legislative process of Palestinian governance, apparently oblivious to the disaster in the making as the Palestinians themselves lurched through a series of divisive crises leading inexorably to internal strife. Schanzer handles the ideological imperatives of the Hamas drive to power rather gingerly, much as did both the Clinton and GW Bush White Houses-which is exactly why the U.S. was so surprised when Hamas first won Palestinian Authority (PA) legislative elections in January 2006 and then turned viciously on its Fatah rivals in the June 2007 Gaza coup d’etat. By fixating on the mechanics of the democratic process, and insisting over Israeli protests that Hamas be allowed to participate in the 2006 elections, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice ensured the U.S. would be blind to the Islamist agenda that was fast converting the Arab-Israeli conflict into a jihadist battlefield.
Sidestepping the Hamas Covenant’s sacred pledge to jihad that virtually commands Hamas to violence, Schanzer’s narrative nevertheless captures the calculated escalation in street fighting that marked Hamas’ increasingly brazen confrontation of forces loyal to Fatah and the PA in both Gaza and on the West Bank through 2006 and into 2007. Schanzer clearly recognizes the Islamic supremacist nature of the Hamas regime in Gaza and compares its eventual takeover there to the “Talibanization” of Afghanistan. Schanzer describes an atmosphere of fear that began to permeate Gazan communities both Muslim and non-Muslim as Hamas rule came to be characterized by “violence, authoritarianism, and Islamism,” a characterization that proved prescient in view of Hamas’ December 2008 decision to implement Shari’a hudud punishments such as amputations, floggings, and crucifixion.
Even-handedly throughout, Schanzer also logs Fatah’s trail of missteps and reflects the pessimism of most Middle East observers regarding Fatah’s dismal long-term prospects for viability. As Schanzer notes, the decision by the U.S. to boost Fatah’s capability to hold onto the West Bank followed the grim assessment of senior defense officials in both Washington and Tel Aviv that “Hamas would take over the institutions and apparatuses of the Palestinian Authority within days” without an infusion of aid to prop up the “decimated Fatah organization.” The incongruity of a multi-million dollar joint U.S.-Israeli effort to fund, equip, and train Fatah fighters, however, is not lost on Schanzer who recognizes the desperation-and hope for eventual leverage over Fatah-that was driving their calculus.
Schanzer’s book could not have been timelier, coming out just months before Israel launched Operation Cast Lead, a punishing incursion into Gaza to halt incessant Hamas rocket fire aimed at Israeli towns and cities. The future of Gaza as much as that of the West Bank or of the Palestinian people themselves hangs in the balance as Schanzer concludes this historical overview of the Hamas/Fatah relationship with a trenchant look at what lies ahead. An entire chapter devoted to “The Threat of Al-Qaeda in Gaza” underscores the gravity of the stakes while the consistent leit-motif of Iranian support to Hamas runs through the book like the nerve-wracking soundtrack to Jaws. Through the lens of Schanzer’s sharp insights, it is obvious that the split that has opened between Gaza and the West Bank is a deep and complex one that will not lend itself to ready resolution. The Hamas offensive jolted U.S. and Israeli concepts about the potential for a unified Palestinian state based on the now-defunct “Roadmap for Peace” and should give the Obama administration pause as it faces choices about confronting Hamas terrorism or trying to shore up the West Bank as a political alternative to Hamas’ jihadist vision.
Schanzer acknowledges the dim prospects for a happy ending to this story by noting that “‘the other struggle for Palestine’ will remain a bloody subplot to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict for years to come.” Knowing the possibility is vanishingly small that either Hamas or the Gazan clans will ever recognize Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ fast-fading claim to authority, and painfully aware that the ‘drumbeat of war’ is drowning out the voices of any moderates who may yet exist, he regretfully concludes that the elusive quest for a Palestinian state likely will remain unfulfilled until the rivalry between Hamas and Fatah is settled, one way or another. With our understanding of that rivalry greatly enhanced thanks to Schanzer’s careful scholarship also comes the realization that the scope of the Hamas/Fatah struggle involves consequences of critical importance for U.S. security policy across the entire Middle East.
Clare M. Lopez is the Vice President of the Intelligence Summit and a Professor at the Centre for Counterintelligence and Security Studies. She speaks and writes widely on Middle East issues.