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The Misery of Palestinian Unity

Thursday 18 September 2014, by Tariq Dana

Contrary to some optimistic expectations about positive internal political changes stemming from the recent Israeli war on Gaza, intra-Palestinian division continues to define and fragment the Palestinian political spectrum.

Shortly after its assault on Gaza, Israel confiscated 4,000 dunums of Palestinian land near Bethlehem in the West Bank. While the Israeli Peace Now movement described the move as “unprecedented in its scope since the 1980s”, it was reported on the margins of Palestinian news agencies and websites and, as usual, the Palestinian Authority (PA) failed to confront it entirely. In addition to this, the clearly exhausted and distracted Palestinian public received the news with apathy.

Instead, the reality of Palestinian political life is again, boringly and provocatively, dominated by intensified rivalry between Fatah and Hamas, which could very likely lead to collapse of the fragile unity government. Verbal clashes and mutual accusations have marginalized the Gaza tragedy and concealed Israel’s ongoing colonization of the West Bank. This new round of internal conflict is undoubtedly deliberate; it is a fabricated war over a hollow authority. The fact that Palestinians are deeply divided remains a defining feature of our time.

The crisis began with Mahmoud Abbas accusing Hamas of running a “shadow government” in Gaza. In response, Hamas accused Abbas of trying to sabotage a fragile reconciliation agreement. Waves of mutual accusations were then unleashed. Since Hamas expelled Fatah from the Gaza Strip in 2007, and the subsequent division, the Palestinian public has blamed both parties for inflicting political misery that paralyzed Palestinian political life. This time, however, one should be frank: both parties are not equally to blame. In fact, the Ramallah-based PA bears major responsibility for the deepening crisis between Fatah and Hamas.

Gaza’s resistance and steadfastness during the Israeli war has significantly increased Hamas popularity. According to a recent opinion poll, if a presidential election were held now, Hamas’ former Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh would win 61 percent of the votes, compared with 32 percent for Abbas. There is no doubt that such a scenario has created a lot of fears for Fatah leadership, which before the war on Gaza was confident about achieving victory in any upcoming elections due to Hamas’ deepening crisis of governing the Gaza Strip.

What many Palestinians perceive as a Gazan victory has resulted in a further erosion of PA legitimacy in the West Bank and increasing distrust in its political approach, which is based solely on unbalanced negotiations. Indeed, the Fatah-PA leadership plays an important role in further damaging its own legitimacy because of its inability and unwillingness to meet its promises and hold Israel accountable through international diplomacy. Mahmoud Abbas, who repeatedly promised to take Israel to the International Criminal Court (ICC), has now ultimately refused to sign the Rome Statute that would facilitate prosecution of Israel’s leaders and military officers involved in war crimes. The Fatah leadership justifies Abbas’ refusal to sign the document as a means of preventing Israel’s exploitation of the ICC. In other words, Israel could use it to prosecute Palestinians accused of ‘war crimes’, including Hamas leadership and fighters. Meanwhile, Hamas continues to insist that Abbas go to the court. Abbas’ persistent failure in this regard stems from Israeli and US pressures that ultimately result in blackmailing the PA with the threat of halting international aid and even with punishment of Abbas himself.

Another fundamental problem that makes a real Palestinian unity agreement impossible lies with the PA’s assertion on monopolizing the means of violence in Gaza. This is simply another way to disarm resistance forces in Gaza and replace them with Western trained security forces, similar to those active in the West Bank. Neither Hamas nor any other military wing in Gaza would accept such a demand under whatever circumstances.

Above all, Hamas and Fatah’s main difference lies in their competing visions, and perhaps in their contradictory projects. The wasting of a historical chance to produce a unified Palestinian front in a post-Gaza war period indicates that Palestinian unity has been pushed even further away. Given the growing chasm between the two groups, optimism of potential unity, an authentic one, is baseless at best, mythical at worst.