The Palestinian Question: What Now?
In “Gaza: Another Mess Made in U.S.,” Rootless Cosmopolitan’s Tony Karon likens the defeat of Mohammad Dahlan’s U.S.-backed Preventive Security Services to an earlier American intervention from decades ago: the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco. His analysis is brilliant, but in truth Karon may have understated the breadth of the defeat — if that’s possible.
Fatah, once the Palestinian national movement’s most prestigious political current — the birthplace of its greatest leaders — has been shattered. But the defeat in Gaza did not mark the end of Fatah — it was simply the coda for what has been happening to the movement over the last two years. The bloody fight that ended last week was not, as widely reported, a civil war between Hamas and Fatah. It was a showdown between the paid militia of a highly unpopular Fatah commander and the forces of a united and popular movement that had already overwhelmingly defeated Fatah through free and fair elections in January of 2006.
Hamas is not without its faults, but despite breathless accounts in the American press suggesting that Gaza has now been taken over by “terrorists,” Hamas has in fact retained its popularity while Fatah is riven by divisions. In Gaza, as Charles Levinson who covers the Middle East for London’s Sunday Telegraph wrote on Friday in his blog, Conflict Blotter, “Compared to the past week things now feel blissfully peaceful. It seems many who write me think we should fear Hamas now that it is in control, but the reality is that the big threat to foreigners and journalists down here is not and never was Hamas.”
Even in the West Bank, where Fatah is strongest, there were, have been, and still are deep disagreements over Abu Mazen’s decision to arm a separate Fatah-led militia, to appoint Mohammad Dahlan its head, to agree with its deployment to Gaza, and to support its face-off with Hamas. The differences have led to vehement arguments inside Fatah’s Central Committee, the most recent being on Saturday. The arrest of Hamas leaders in the West Bank this week in the wake of the Gaza events only deepens those rifts.
The view from Washington is altogether different. For instance, in his Washington Post op-ed appearing last Friday, it should be understood that what Martin Indyk refers to as “Hamastan” and “Fatahstine” (a split portrayed in similar terms by several other observers) describes what some see as a desired end-state rather than a de facto condition in the Palestinian territories. As Daniel Levy writes, “The emerging plan is known variously as promoting Fatahland, while punishing Hamastan, or West Bank first, or feed the West Bank/starve Gaza.” More than anything, this is an expression of wishful thinking on the part of those who are apparently eager to herald the collapse of the Palestinian national movement.
Last week, many Fatah members in Gaza stood aside, aghast and angry as their American-trained cohorts marched into the Strip (only to just as quickly flee) — and these Fatah loyalists who are not supporters of Dahlan continue to work with their counterparts in Hamas. A Fatah militia has been defeated, but rank and file Fatah members are not being lined up against walls, or herded into camps. Newspapers are not being closed or businesses shuttered. Schools are not being told what to teach and there is no purge. This is not an Islamic revolution but simply a political party attempting to defend itself against the militia of an unelected warlord backed by foreign powers. Not only is life returning to normal, people are now breathing much easier. The instability and violence that marked life in Gaza over the last few months is gone, in large part because the soldiers of the Preventive Security Services are gone.
Meanwhile, “Fatahstine” is at this time, nothing more than a figment of Martin Indyk’s imagination. Last year, Hamas polled majorites — sometimes large majorities — in the West Bank’s major cities during the parliamentary elections. They still retain their rooted strength in those cities. Nor will the arrest of large numbers of Hamas activists in the West Bank, ordered just two days ago by Abu Mazen, convince Palestinians that what really happened in Gaza was a “Hamas coup” — as the White House would have it. The argument that Hamas is making to the Palestinian people — that only Israelis and those answerable to the Americans put Palestinians in jail — is having an impact among the people on the street. These aren’t the Palestinians that the Western media pays much attention to but these are the people who count.
While Hamas activists in the West Bank are busy making their views known, they are not alone. Dissenters inside Fatah, anxious to distance themselves from Abu Mazen, are also expressing a more independent line: “The American program is not a program aimed at creating a Palestinian state, or promoting democracy — it is there for one reason and one reason only and that is to defend Israel,” one such activist said at a public meeting in Ramallah on June 15. “Those inside the Palestinian leadership who agree are called ‘moderates’ and ‘men of peace’ and those who don’t are called ‘terrorists’ and ‘allies of Iran’ by the Americans. This is a lie.”
Even mainstream Fatah activists, embittered by the ways of their well-heeled leaders, see that America’s affection for those Fatah “moderates” who promote peace and recognize Israel has yielded no tangible benefit. As a Fatah activist, now retired, reflected, “What has recognizing Israel gotten us, when every day we look up and there is a new settlement and our leaders do nothing about it.”
What is so shocking about the recent events in Gaza is not the bloodletting — though that was shocking enough — or even the decisive victory of Hamas (which should have been predicted), but the total lack of embarrassment inside the White House. The only exception seems to be Lt. General Keith Dayton, U.S. Security Coordinator in the West Bank and Gaza — he has consistently refused to take reporters calls since the events in Gaza wound down to their inevitable end. And he certainly should be embarrassed, as he recently described his task as “an attempt to reestablish law and order.” Nor does it appear that Elliott Abrams or any other members of the National Security Council staff are even vaguely perturbed. On the contrary, the events in Gaza show that the way forward is to provide more of the same. “They live in a parallel universe over there,” a Washington colleague says. “They’re in their own bubble. They probably think they’ve won a great victory.”
Abu Mazen may have dissolved the Palestinian unity government, but he remains ill at ease with the turn of events in Gaza. He is neither convinced that Hamas attempted a coup, nor that the future of Palestine should be allowed to hinge on American promises. The United States has said that it will support him. It has said that with Salam Fayyad at the helm of a Hamas-free government, the U.S. and the E.U. will open up a steady flow of economic support, rebuilding infrastructure, promoting business and allowing “Fatahstine” to become a prosperous land governed by Palestinians who are dedicated to living in peace with their neighbors. In return — the U.S. promises — Israel will be pressured to dismantle their outposts, to remove the checkpoints and barricades that are a daily humiliation for millions of Palestinians. Will Israel do it? They say they will — and no one believes it.
So here is what will happen. The United States will fail to deliver. Some money will trickle in, but not nearly enough. The little that does trickle in will be spent unwisely. Israeli may remove some outposts, but only a few, and the settlements will continue to expand and settler roads will continue to be built and Palestinians will continue to die. Israelis will die too. A Palestinian security guard will be trained and it will march smartly through the streets of Ramallah. If it should exchange fire with a militia led by Hamas it will just as smartly be defeated. And if there is an election in “Fatahstine,” Hamas will win, while at the White House, Tony Snow will talk about how the outcome was engineered in Tehran. And nineteen months from now, in the waning days of the Bush Administration — with American foreign policy in tatters — Elliott Abrams and Keith Dayton will proudly stand alongside a smiling President Bush as he honors them, the newest recipients of the Medal of Freedom.