The Hamas-Fatah Conflict: Shallow but Wide

Article excerpt

International attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict tends to highlight major diplomatic initiatives and dramatic events while neglecting concrete developments, subtle trends, and grinding practical realities. Emphasis on the "peace process" has created an illusion that the two identifiable antagonists could come to a clear agreement on a two-state solution. But the widening division in the Palestinian ranks-between Hamas and Fatah, and between the West Bank and Gaza-remains unaddressed.

The international community, and particularly Israel, seems to hope that punishing economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation will simply make Hamas disappear and render Gaza more pliable or even irrelevant. The Palestinian division, however, prevents the Palestinians from speaking with one voice, much less acting in a coherent manner. This rift would vitiate any diplomatic breakthrough that might occur between Israel and the Palestinians in resolving, or even managing, the conflict.

When Hamas and Fatah fought their brief but bitter civil war in June 2007, the outcome was short of Solomonic: the object of contention, the Palestinian Authority (PA), was actually split in two. The grim reality is that the Palestinians now have two political systems that are moving further away from each other, and neither seems to have a viable strategy for realizing its vision or building a better future for the people it purports to lead.

International diplomatic initiatives have proved ephemeral and dismissive of the widening chasm, which is profoundly distressing to most Palestinians. Bowing to public opinion, the two PAs have denied that the schism is a natural state of affairs and have dutifully reported to various reconciliation summons. But those efforts, now spearheaded by Egypt, appear to have run out of steam. Other attempts by the international community to help-led by the United States-have entrenched the division even more, alternately by neglect and by design.

Palestinian politics is littered with makeshift, temporary, and ad hoc structures and arrangements (including, the PA itself) including fixtures that function as well or as poorly as prevailing political conditions permit. Despite their protests, the leadership of each PA faction shows every sign of doggedly digging itself in and making the current division permanent. The Ramallah PA acts as if no division had occurred, pretending that it can continue operating internally and negotiating internationally as it has since 1994. The Gaza PA busies itself with welding governance structures firmly to the Hamas movement, creating a party-state that is uncannily similar to Fatah's 1990s construction. Each side displays a determination to continue indefinitely, smugly convinced that its rival cannot do the same.

THE WEST BANK: A ROAD MAP TO A CUL-DE-SAC

Conditions in the West Bank have prompted giddy press coverage about security and prosperity.1 Giving credit to Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, Thomas Friedman has even suggested that the perceived success is based on a new model and may augur a change in Arab politics: "Something quite new is happening here. And given the centrality of the Palestinian cause in Arab eyes, if Fayyadism works, maybe it could start a trend in this part of the world-one that would do the most to improve Arab human security-good, accountable government."2

Is Fayyadism New?

Certainly, there are improvements in both the economy and in public order. But what is far less clear is the sustainability of these improvements, which in Palestinian eyes have come at a very high cost. Each step toward prosperity and security on the West Bank is predicated on widening divisions between the two Authorities and, implicitly, on the unlikely hope that the Gaza-based PA will eventually simply wither away or surrender.

What has actually occurred on the West Bank? In June 2007, immediately after the split with Gaza, PA President Mahmoud Abbas appointed a technocratic cabinet headed by Salam Fayyad. …