Trouble in Palestine; the Implications of the Arab Spring

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NOTE: In light of recent developments in the Middle East, the following article has been revised. Please review the most updated version at the Harvard International Review website, www.hir.harvard.edu

The revolutions that have swept across the Middle East and North Africa to create the "Arab Spring" of 2011 have left virtually no corner of the region untouched. From Qatar and Algeria to Syria and Tunisia, a surge of newfound pride and energy has fundamentally reshaped the political environment of the Middle East and forever altered the course of the region's history. It is hardly surprising, then, that the dynamic of the region's omnipresent issue--the question of Palestine--has also been affected. But just what the Arab Spring will bring for Palestine remains to be seen: the Arab Spring may herald a new trend of non-violence on the tentative path toward peace; just as likely, it may portend a summer of resurgent violence and misery.

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A House Divided

Just days after the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak following massive popular protests, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority sought to demonstrate that he is aware of the changes sweeping the Middle East and the ramifications they could have for the legitimacy of his own leadership. Abbas announced that he was accepting the resignations of all of the members of the Palestinian cabinet and instructing Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to quickly assemble a new cabinet. At the same time, Abbas called for new elections for the Palestinian National Authority to take place by September. The elections are currently scheduled for July 9.

Unsurprisingly, Hamas immediately announced that it would not participate in the elections. Hamas claims that Abbas has no legitimacy to call elections and refuses to lend legitimacy to the vote by participating. According to Jon Donnison, the BBC News correspondent in Ramallah, West Bank, Abbas' bold response to the fall of his longtime ally Mubarak may be more an example of cosmetic changes and political gamesmanship than genuine concern for responding to the needs of the people: many of the Palestinian ministers who resigned are expected to be reshuffled within the Cabinet or even return to their old positions. Likewise, by calling for new elections and forcing Hamas to preemptively reject the proposal, Abbas makes it look as if Hamas is the faction not holding back democracy in Palestine. Elections were already cancelled in 2010 because of the continuing rift between Hamas and Abbas' Western-backed Fatah faction. The Palestinian parliament has not been able to sit for four years, which has put "democracy on hold," says Donnison.

The Fatah-Hamas conflict has been the single most important factor influencing Palestinian politics since the split began in 2006 with Hamas' legislative victories in national elections. The feud came to a head in July 2007 with the Battle of Gaza, a brief military conflict between Fatah and Hamas that led to a Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip and the removal of Fatah officials. Since then, Palestine has been divided, with Fatah ruling the West Bank and Hamas the Gaza Strip.

Reconciliation talks between the two factions have progressed little since 2007. Indeed, the gulf between the two sides on key negotiating points is so wide that compromise is hard to imagine. According to Al Jazeera, Fatah insists that Hamas recognize Israel, renounce violence, and accept existing agreements between Israel and the Palestinians. Hamas has made no indication that it will agree to any of these conditions. While Fatah has tried, unsuccessfully and to the frustration of many Palestinians, to reach an agreement with Israel, Hamas has publicly reserved the right to use force in response to Israeli aggression and has refused to recognize the legitimacy of Israel as a state.

Some analysts saw a silver living in Hamas' 2006 election victory: Hamas, which is classified as a terrorist organization by the US government, would be forced to replace agitation and loud rhetoric with practical services and effective governance. …