Here is how democracy works in the Alice in Wonderland world of Palestinian politics under the tutelage of the US and international community. After years of being hectored to hold elections and adopt democratic norms, a year and a half ago Palestinians duly elected Hamas with 44 per cent of the vote, ahead of Fatah on 41 per cent.
It was a good election, as former US President Jimmy Carter observed at the time, a free, fair and accurate expression of the desires of a Palestinian people sick of the uselessness, corruption and gangsterism of Fatah. The problem was that it didn’t quite reflect the wishes of Washington and the international community.
And while there can be no denying that Hamas, which refutes the existence of Israel and has backed suicide bombings, is a threatening organisation, there was no attempt at engagement, in the way that Fatah, whose militants have perpetrated scores of attacks, has been engaged with for years.
Now, after the months of financial embargo of the Hamas-led government by the US and Europe, after the funding and propping up of Fatah’s President Mahmoud Abbas, after the slow, crushing squeeze on Palestinian society that encouraged its social disintegration, what have we got? Virtual civil war in Gaza, the polarisation of Palestinian society, a government dissolved by decree, and a new Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, appointed with the explicit blessing of the US.
Let us remind ourselves of the democratic credentials of Fayyad, an intelligent and impressive economist, generally regarded as untouched by corruption. In any other circumstances he might be ideal. But in last year’s elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council - the election Hamas won - Fayyad’s list secured just 2.4 per cent of votes. Not exactly a popular guy to lead a society in collapse. That is not his only problem. Analysts of the Palestinian political scene don’t rate Fayyad’s lack of democratic credentials simply on his feeble showing in the elections.
They’ll tell you he is largely unknown to most Palestinians; that he has no party machinery to support him; and that his running mate Hanan Ashrawi is unpopular with many Palestinians.
The reality is that the only people who are really behind Salam Fayyad are the European and US diplomats who have long sung his praises behind the scenes to any journalist prepared to listen. So yesterday President Bush and the other members of the Quartet got what they wanted. Abbas trooped dutifully in to see the US consul-general in Jerusalem with Mohammed Dahlan, the man widely credited with beginning the cycle of violence in Gaza, in tow. And when they emerged, the boycott of US monies to the Palestinian government had been lifted.
It is hard not to be cynical. Palestinian society was squeezed until it hurt - punished as a whole for voting for the wrong party. And when the inevitable explosion occurred last week, Abbas finally fired Hamas, as the US has been encouraging him to do amid his months of dithering.
So which was the real coup? Hamas’s bloody attack on the violent gangsters allied to Fatah who have terrorised Gaza for a year? Or Abbas’s unconstitutional moves yesterday with America’s backing?
Either way, once again it is Palestinians who will suffer.
The writer is the foreign affairs editor of the Observer (www.guardian.co.uk – June 17, 2007)