Home inFocus A Year of Arab Upheaval (Winter 2011) The Palestinian ‘Spring’ and Prospects for Peace

The Palestinian ‘Spring’ and Prospects for Peace

Asaf Romirowsky Winter 2011

It has been one year since the “Arab Spring” spread like wildfire throughout the Arab Muslim World under the banner of change and supposed reform for a better future.

In Tunisia, after 23 years of power, the corrupt Zine el Abidine Ben Ali regime was overturned, the protests against him sparked by a fed-up Tunisian man setting himself on fire. And then in Egypt, the world watched as thousands of people streamed into Tahrir Square, eventually bursting through a human chain of officers to seize the Square under the same slogan of change. The crescendo came about when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned in February after a mere 18 days of protests. Since then, “Arab Spring” demonstrations spread to Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, and now Syria, where the Bashar al-Asad regime has murdered thousands of innocent civilians in an effort to keep its hold on power.

The Arab uprisings are affecting the Palestinian people, too, though they staged few protests. Specifically, the uprisings removed international focus from the Palestinian “cause” against Israel and put pressure on the leadership in numerous ways. The result is a changing Palestinian situation only surpassed by the signing of the Oslo Accords nearly two decades ago. Unlike the Oslo Accords, however, the prospect for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations to occur in light of these changes is slim to none.

Maintaining Centrality

Throughout his career as leader of the Palestinian people, Yasser Arafat’s ultimate goal was to make the Palestinian issue the flagship cause of the Arab World at large. The Arab World should not rest, Arafat argued, until the Palestinians receive the justice they are divinely owed. Arafat was largely successful in this regard, as the Palestinian cause is often referred to as the glue that binds the Arab World. Although not necessarily to the benefit of the Palestinian people, the Palestinians over the years have been used by many Arab regimes and Islamist groups as a tool to galvanize support for their respective causes.

The recent changes in the region, perhaps for the first time in three decades, took away from the constant focus and attraction that the Palestinians carry. As Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Salam Fayyad noted in January 2012, “Our cause has been marginalized to an extent unsurpassed for decades.” This decrease in the amount of attention forced Palestinians and pro-Palestinian activists to rethink their role and influence. If the Palestinians were to remain the victim, they would have to remind the rest of the Arab world that the Palestinian intifada was the first of the “Springs.”

The Arabic term intifada connotes an awakening or uprising. It was first used during the 1987 Palestinian uprising against Israel and then again during the second uprising known as the Al-Aqsa Intifada. It is also used in the Palestinian narrative in the sense of “to shake up or wake up” the world and Israel to all the wrong that was allegedly done to the Palestinians as a result of the Israeli “occupation.”

Fast forward to the Arab uprisings. The demonstrations are indeed an effort by populations to “shake” or “wake up” the world to wrongs done to them by their regimes. The uprisings differ greatly from Palestinian intifadas, however. First, the populations currently rising against their regimes are citizens of the state whose rights have been trampled on for decades. In the Palestinians’ case, most are not Israeli citizens, and therefore most are not afforded the rights given to citizens, including Israel’s Arabs, which hold equal rights with Israeli Jews under the law. In order to truly equate the current uprisings with the intifada, the Palestinian intifada would had to have been an uprising against the Palestinian leadership in the Gaza Strip and West Bank—which do suppress freedoms and rights. The leaders, however, have thus far been spared from such an uprising if only because of their ability to blame Israel for all Palestinian problems. Moreover, while Israel has always, and continues to, minimize Palestinian civilian causalities as much as possible when staging an attack—most often defensive—against terrorists, the Arab regimes facing demonstrations are slaughtering unarmed civilians by the hundreds with little regard for life or property. For them, innocent civilians are the target.

In particular for Hamas—the terrorist group based in Gaza—equating the “Arab Spring” uprisings with the Palestinian intifada is useful as it validates Hamas’s ongoing, violent intifada against Israel. In January 2011, shortly after the Ben Ali regime was overturned, Hamas congratulated Tunisians for their intifada. Hamas praised Tunisia, calling it a “milestone in contemporary Arab history” and asserting that injustice could only be countered with sacrifice—something Hamas does all too well in towns and cities in Israel. “What occurred in Tunisia confirms that the path of dignity and confronting injustice, aggression and tyranny is not by solicitation, but by sacrifices and paying the price of pride and dignity. The Tunisians, who offered dozens [of] martyrs and hundreds of wounded, deserve this great achievement,” Hamas said. Moreover, Hamas reminded Tunisia of its struggle against French colonialism in the mid-1900s and the support Tunis has provided to the Palestinians in their “resistance” of the so-called Israeli occupation.

Palestinian Unity

Equating the Arab uprisings with the intifada wouldn’t be enough, however, to maintain centrality. With uprisings spreading, the Palestinian “cause” was losing its luster as the main crisis in the region to be solved. To bring the Palestinian issue back to the center of attention, as well as to appease Palestinian protesters and ward off the chance that the protests would explode in number, Hamas and Fatah answered the call from Palestinians to unite.

Since their civil war in 2007, the two main Palestinian factions have maintained separate governing bodies inside their respective Palestinian enclaves—Hamas in the Gaza Strip on Israel’s west side, and Fatah in the West Bank on Israel’s east. Hamas technically holds a majority block in the Palestinian Authority legislative body as a result of the 2006 Palestinian elections, but the two groups could never form a workable unity government, leaving both to control their regions as two separate entities for the past four years. American foreign policy towards the Palestinians since Hamas ousted Fatah from Gaza in 2007 and built a mini-state there was to try to improve the quality of life in the West Bank and support its leadership politically as well as financially, as it seemed more willing to compromise than Hamas.

And yet, after years of funding and support, as Arab uprisings swept the region, PA President and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas turned his back on the U.S. In May 2011 Abbas and Khaled Mashaal, Hamas’s chief outside of Gaza, met in Cairo and agreed to create an interim Palestinian government that would pave the way for Palestinian elections in May 2012.

Though the plan was to show “one Palestinian” voice to the people and the world, the two sides continued to criticize one another. Notably, in September 2011 Abbas asked the United Nations to recognize an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem—a move denounced by Hamas. But with May 2012 fast approaching and little done to unite or ready for elections, in February Abbas and Mashaal again signed an agreement, this time naming Abbas as the prime minister of this to-be-created interim government. He will also keep his title as president, once again combining the two powers into one as the Palestinian governing structure was for most of Yasser Arafat’s tenure. Putting complete power into one person’s hands is a dangerous move in the Palestinian arena.

Abbas is not treading carefully here. He has made a strategic decision to discuss reconciling with Hamas without Hamas’s acceptance of Israel or agreement to lay down its weapons. That move sends a clear message to the United States: Abbas no longer seeks American approval of his actions. That message remains the same whether or not this interim government that sees Abbas take power as prime minister and president ever comes to fruition.

The Obama administration’s response to the Arab uprisings that unseated American allies in the region and empowered previous parties blacklisted by the U.S. has much to do with Abbas’s decision. If the administration is openly meeting with Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist political groups, as it is, then maybe meetings with Hamas, a Hamas-affiliated political group, or a Hamas-affiliated Palestinian government is just around the corner. In that scenario, reconciling with Hamas would be a win-win for Abbas and the Fatah party. It would boost Fatah’s standing on the Palestinian street without jeopardizing its relations with the U.S.

A Victory for Hamas?

In this way, Hamas is emerging victorious. The “Arab Spring” has empowered Islamists across the region and the Obama administration has chosen to handle their emergence with engagement. The uprisings also validate that violence works—which is what Hamas has advocated all along. However, this is not to say that Hamas, like most regimes in the region, isn’t struggling.

Hamas is in the midst of an intense internal debate over whether it should temporarily abandon armed struggle. Its leadership in exile reportedly favors doing so while its Gaza-based leadership wants to continue the tactics that have brought it success—namely, violent “resistance.” It certainly wants to maintain its monopoly in Gaza. If Palestinian elections do come to pass this year, Hamas hopes to win. This explains why Hamas is not carrying out serious violent attacks at the moment that would attract an unpopular Israeli military reaction. It is not clear, however, that Hamas will relinquish power over the Gaza Strip if it does not come out victorious. In such a scenario, Hamas may employ the “Hezbollah model” and ensure any formed coalition government includes enough Hamas supporters to collapse the cabinet if they pull out.

In addition to its internal disagreements, Hamas has a financial problem. Iran reportedly halted its funding to the movement last year after Hamas refused to support Bashar al-Asad’s brutal suppression of his people. Until recently, Hamas’s external leadership was based in Damascus, and while a small number of Hamas members still remain, the most prominent leaders have left Syria and are now shopping for a new home, potentially weakening their ability to rule with strength. If the external leadership truly is the section of Hamas interested in accepting non-violence, as some analysts argue, then its weakening would be a negative development.

Narrowing Prospect for Peace

The impacts of the “Arab Spring” on the Palestinian population and leadership continue to unfold. While there’s no doubt that Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations have seen better days, the situation created by the uprisings certainly hasn’t improved them. If Fatah and Hamas reconcile without Hamas accepting Israel’s existence, the peace process will officially be over. It is hard to imagine Israel even considering sitting down at a table with a Palestinian Authority comprised of Hamas affiliates, as it most recently did in January 2012 with Fatah, to hold preliminary peace discussions.

It’s not too late for the Obama administration to pressure Mahmoud Abbas into going back to the negotiating table, or at the very least, into agreeing that he will not reconcile with Hamas without Hamas’s acceptance of Israel and relinquishing of its arms. But at this point, why would Abbas listen?

Asaf Romirowsky is a Philadelphia-based Middle East analyst and an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Forum.