The uproar over the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) collaboration with Israel to bury the Goldstone report, calling for trials of Israeli leaders for war crimes in Gaza, is a political earthquake. The whole political order in place since the 1993 Oslo accords were signed is crumbling. As the initial tremors begin to fade, the same old political structures may appear still to be in place, but they are hollowed out. This unprecedented crisis threatens to topple the US-backed PA leader Mahmoud Abbas, but it also leaves Hamas, the main Palestinian resistance faction, struggling with fateful choices.
Abbas, accustomed to being surrounded by corrupt cronies, sycophants and yes-men, badly misjudged the impact of his decision — under Israeli and American instructions — to withdraw PA support for the resolution at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, forwarding the Goldstone report for further action. After all, the PA had actively sabotaged measures supporting Palestinian rights at the UN on at least two occasions in recent years without much reaction.
This time, torrents of protest and outrage flowed from almost every direction. It was as if all the suppressed anger and grief about PA collaboration with Israel during the massacres in Gaza last winter suddenly burst through a dam. “The crime at Geneva cannot pass without all those responsible being held accountable,” the widely-read London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi stated in its lead editorial on 8 October. The newspaper called for the removal of Abbas and his associates who betrayed the victims of Israel’s massacres and “saved Israel from the most serious moral, political and legal crisis it has faced since its establishment.”
Naming collaboration — even treason — for what it is has always been a painful taboo among Palestinians, as for all occupied peoples. It took the French decades after World War II to begin to speak openly about the extent of collaboration that took place with the Nazi-backed Vichy government. Abbas and his militias — who for a long time have been armed and trained by Israel, the United States and so-called “moderate” Arab states to wage war against the Palestinian resistance — have relied on this taboo to carry out their activities with increasing brazenness and brutality. But the taboo no longer affords protection, as calls for Abbas’ removal and even trial issued from Palestinian organizations all over the world.
Hamas too seems to have been taken by surprise at the strength of reaction. Hamas leaders were critical of Abbas’ withdrawal of the Goldstone resolution, but initially this was notably muted. Early on, Khaled Meshal, the movement’s overall leader, insisted that despite the Goldstone fiasco, Hamas would proceed with Egyptian-mediated reconciliation talks with Fatah and smaller factions scheduled for later in the month, stating that reaching a power-sharing deal remained a “national interest.”
As the tremors continued, however, Hamas leaders escalated their rhetoric — seemingly following, not leading, public opinion. Mahmoud Zahar, a prominent Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, labeled Abbas a “traitor” and urged that he be stripped of his Palestinian nationality. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, speaking before a hastily convened session of the Palestinian Legislative Council, said Abbas was personally responsible for the “crime” committed in Geneva, and a senior officer from the Hamas-controlled Gaza police force held a press conference to announce that Abbas and his associates would be subject to arrest if they set foot in Gaza.
All of this puts Hamas in a bind. Before the Goldstone report crisis, Hamas had signaled that it accepted the most recent Egyptian proposals for reconciliation. The Egyptian position paper can be described as technocratic — it deals with mechanisms for elections, release of prisoners, the formation of committees and other matters. It does not resolve core political and philosophical differences over the role of resistance and armed struggle, which Abbas rejects and Hamas defends. Nor does it deal with the problem of PA “security coordination” with Israel which has resulted in the killing and arrest by the PA of numerous Palestinian resistance fighters and the closure of hundreds of Palestinian organizations and charities.
Despite the remaining gulf, Hamas wanted to sign a unity deal. Being part of a Western-recognized PA would be Hamas’ ticket to the “peace process” — something Meshal has made no secret that Hamas seeks, although on its own terms. Abbas was less keen on a unity deal, as he and his cronies still resist dealing with Hamas as a political force that has popular legitimacy. But after Goldstone, Abbas needs Hamas.
Hamas now cannot have it both ways: it cannot talk about “unity” and “reconciliation” with people that it — and many Palestinians — view as “traitors.” To seek unity with such people is in effect to say that Hamas wishes to join a government of traitors. For the moment, Hamas is buying time and has asked Egypt to postpone the scheduled Cairo meeting later this month.
Hamas’ long-term strategy of trying to join the slowly crumbling edifice of the Palestinian Authority now makes no sense. It now seems more likely that the deal will not go ahead, although Hamas is maneuvering to avoid blame, and to maintain its lifeline to Egypt, which backs Fatah. Perhaps the more likely outcome, at least in the short term, is a continued stalemate, where Abbas, now entirely dependent on Israeli and American forces to remain in power, limps on even though he has no legitimacy or credibility, and is widely despised.
The more difficult question for Hamas will be, what comes next? Will it try to muddle through as it has, or will it rally the Palestinian public to oppose and resist Abbas until the collaborationist PA is dissolved? This would be an enormous strategic shift — Hamas would likely have to drop the trappings of “government” it has taken up since it won the 2006 legislative elections and return to its roots as a social movement and a clandestine organization.
It will not have much time to decide where it is going. The hopes raised by the Obama Administration’s initial foray into peacemaking have been dashed in the wake of Obama’s surrender to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over settlements, even though US Middle East envoy George Mitchell continues with utterly sterile “diplomacy” aimed at bringing the rejectionist Israeli government face to face in “negotiations” with the political corpse of Abbas. As Israel accelerates its colonization of the West Bank and its ethnic cleansing of Jerusalem, there is increasing talk of a new intifada.
The political collapse underway offers all Palestinians — including Hamas — a new opportunity: to build a broad-based, internationally legitimate popular resistance movement that mobilizes all of Palestinian society as the first intifada did, and to reconnect with Palestinians inside Israel who face an existential threat from escalating Israeli racism. This movement must work with and enhance the global solidarity campaign to put maximum pressure on Israel — and its collaborators — to end their repression, racism and violence, and hasten the emancipation of all the people of Palestine.
Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, Ali Abunimah is author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse.