Palestinian civil war or renewed national aspirations?

Hamas supporters rally in opposition to the speech of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas calling for early elections, in the streets of Gaza City, December 16, 2006. (MaanImages/Hatem Omar)

The international community inflicted new suffering on the Palestinians this week. Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu commented on the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza just days before the international community sank to new depths in efforts that seemingly seek to ensure further wretchedness in Gaza. His economic concerns were expressed while noting that Israeli officials have foiled the entry of the fact-finding mission he was leading on behalf of the UN Human Rights Council (a story ignored by both The New York Times and the Washington Post) into the 8 November deaths of 19 Palestinian civilians in Beit Hanoun.

“We are,” Tutu said, “concerned to learn, among other things, that the suspension of aid and the non-payment of border tax revenue, amounting in effect to the imposition of sanctions, has crippled the organs of government to the extent that health services are able to provide only the bare minimum of treatment; that prohibitions on movement are preventing among other things the transfer of seriously ill patients to specialist hospitals elsewhere; that the unemployment figure in this area of 1.5 million people is now 60% of the potentially employable; that the level of basic family income has dropped to an untenable level; and that misery and real hardship are a reality of everyday life for the majority of the people in the area.”

This, then, is no natural disaster. It is far worse as it is the policy of some nations to make the Palestinians suffer in the hope that they will throw off the elected Hamas leadership rather than rally around it.

Lately, however, governing Hamas officials have shown unexpected success in breaking the siege. Life is still miserable in Gaza, but there are indications that Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh’s whirlwind regional trip was meeting with unanticipated success. Funds were promised from Iran, Sudan, and even Qatar.

Israel, in response to the new financial headway made by Hamas, moved on Thursday 14 December to block tangible signs of Haniyeh’s success — some $30-35 million in assistance. Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres claimed the money “won’t go to the hungry Gaza residents. It will go to the tunnel diggers, to the weapons smugglers.” With Palestinian government salaries unpaid for months, his allegation smacked of distortion and propaganda. The harsh on-the-ground reality in Gaza led to Haniyeh’s fundraising effort and necessitates immediate payment of salaries.

Acting in collusion with European Union monitors, Egyptian officials, and even it seems the Palestinian presidential guard, Israel insisted on shutting down the Rafah crossing. European Union officials quite clearly take their lead from Israel. They have been reduced to safeguarding Israel’s new “occupation on the cheap” or “occupation by remote control.”

Indeed, most European nations now appear more intent on squeezing the Palestinians into submission than advancing any positive ideas for their liberation from Israeli occupation. Though mostly resistant to US policy in Iraq, Europe is notably conjoined with the United States in subverting Palestinian democracy — a consequence of voters having cast ballots contrary to European and American desires.

Ha’aretz reported that “Palestinian official Hani Jabour, a coordinator at the Rafah crossing, said Israeli authorities closed the border after Haniyeh told Egyptian authorities he was carrying the money.” This suggests Egyptian officials phoned Israeli counterparts with the news of the cash Haniyeh had with him. In effect, the Egyptian officials were colluding with Israeli officials in the ongoing oppression of the Palestinians.

Finally, the Palestinian presidential guard did not acquit itself well in behaving much like automatons or stooges in siding against efforts to aid the Palestinian people. The guard, which is under the direction of President Mahmoud Abbas, fired on armed members of Hamas attempting to open the crossing and secure desperately needed aid for Palestinians in refugee camps from Rafah north to Jabaliya and perhaps into the West Bank.

Ahmed Yousef, a senior adviser to the Palestinian prime minister, was one of the restraining voices on the scene. He succeeded in convincing many there with Hamas to stand down for the moment. Despite his efforts he was injured later that evening in shooting by Fatah-aligned gunmen apparently attempting to assassinate Haniyeh. The prime minister’s son was injured in the attack and a bodyguard killed.

According to Hamas officials the assassination attempt came on orders of the CIA-connected Mohammed Dahlan who has a long track record of human rights violations against members of Hamas and other critics of government corruption and abuse. Dahlan, whose self-enrichment project in the Oslo years is notorious, sought shortly after the incident to turn the tables on Hamas (humorously were not the situation so fraught) when he accused it of “the stealing of money.” Hamas, for its part, has injected an inflammatory religious critique of Fatah that strays from the clear and strong case it can and has made regarding Fatah’s corruption. Calls for the assassination of Dahlan also serve only to heighten tension and animosity as well as the prospect of Dahlan taking further dangerous steps in turn.

Tensions over the past 10 days were already running very high following an attempt on the life of the Palestinian Interior Minister, Said Siyam of Hamas, and the grisly, though apparently accidental, murder of three Palestinian children of Hamas antagonist Baha Balousha on Monday 11 December. Fatah members squarely assigned responsibility to Hamas for the children’s deaths. The building internal anger is in fact the reason Haniyeh cut short his trip.

While most Hamas gunmen eventually listened to Yousef at the Rafah crossing, they displayed little of the discipline for which Hamas is generally known. This reputation has slipped in recent months. Most distressing for Palestinian civilians caught in the middle is that all parties engaged in hostilities jeopardized the lives of Palestinian civilians at the crossing.

Increasingly, it is clear to Palestinians in Gaza that Fatah has little agenda other than to resist Hamas. This is a pitiful state of affairs for a movement that once was at the forefront of Palestinian liberation efforts. Remarkably, there are signs Fatah-linked officials are working to keep the international pressure on Hamas and even urging American officials to tighten the screws, notwithstanding the economic desperation of their would-be constituents. This pressure seems certain to continue so long as Hamas rejects the demand of the Quartet that it live up to standards many Israeli parties, including those in the governing coalition, have not met.

Undoubtedly, the Hamas Charter’s reference to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is repugnant, but the outcry over this is striking in comparison with the American silence on the racism of Israel’s own deputy prime minister, Avigdor Lieberman. Vile rhetoric from friends and adversaries alike merits condemnation, but for the Quartet all that matters now is the noxious rhetoric of the subjugated party.

Perhaps most remarkable of all is the speed with which Gaza has devolved into chaos since the Israelis pulled out last September and essentially threw away the key. The Gaza prison and pressure cooker has turned Palestinian against Palestinian in a way Palestinians have argued for years would never happen. Pushed far down in the internal Palestinian strife is the common cause Hamas and Fatah have in overturning their subjugation by Israel.

Hamas political chief Khaled Meshal stated what was once obvious in a Friday 15 December radio interview from Damascus: “Our battle is against the occupation, and we will not be dragged into a civil war.” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack for his part noted this past week that the Bush administration is trying to work in conjunction with Congress to provide support to security services loyal to Abbas. He did not mention any substantive effort to ease internal Palestinian tension and, in fact, highlighted the role of the presidential guard and Palestinian law in stopping Haniyeh’s entry to Gaza. His language very nearly suggested American satisfaction with Hamas and Fatah colliding with each other in Rafah.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also noted on 16 December that she will attempt to convince Congress to back the security forces of Abbas with additional funding. Many Palestinians will likely conclude from this that Abbas is not an authentic Palestinian leader, but a disconnected puppet doing the bidding of Israel’s strongest ally.

Surely many Palestinians will also recognize that Israel benefits from the internal Palestinian crisis as it allows illegal Israeli settlement and barrier work to progress more easily while Palestinian national interests implode in a masochistic bout of internal recrimination and violence. Many of the Palestinian leaders who would once have surmounted this self-defeating fiasco — through either the creation of a unity government or insistence that President Abbas not exercise a legal authority to call new elections that he does not actually possess — are either dead or imprisoned. A critical moment is before younger community leaders to determine whether the worst fears of civil war develop or Palestinians will rise to the occasion and reunite over the shared goal to end Israeli domination.

Also in play are growing fracture lines between Palestinians in the West Bank and those in the Gaza Strip. There is, additionally, the need to grapple with the possibility that the very militarization of this second intifada has played a part in so arming Palestinian society that internal conflict became more likely. (Odd then that just weeks ago the nonviolent popular action of Palestinians to resist Israeli home demolitions led to a rare Palestinian success and yet to Human Rights Watch suggesting that the call for protective action by human shields in targeted houses was a war crime. The Human Rights Watch statement seemingly leaves Palestinians no legitimate means by which to address the clear violation of their rights embodied in the Israeli occupation.)

The American policy on Hamas is currently being proved to be the failure predicted months ago. Fears were raised early in the year that a siege on the Hamas leadership would drive it into the arms of Iran. This is precisely what is playing out at the moment. Any novice could see this as a probable result. And yet the Bush administration either did not see coming the forced embrace of Iran by Hamas or did not find it worrisome. Radically different groups can all simply be dismissed under the rubric of terrorism. Meanwhile, America’s standing in the region continues to decline, and Sunnis and Shiites, despite their growing mutual antipathy in Iraq and Lebanon, can still agree on the damaging role played by the United States in the region.

The track record of the Bush administration in the region is abysmal — from Israel/Palestine to Lebanon to Iraq and Iran. It is unnerving to think that the Bush foreign policy team takes any satisfaction in the ad hoc alliance formed this week by Israel, Egypt, the European Union, and the Palestinian presidential guard. They are certainly succeeding in further diminishing the Palestinian standard of living, though there is no solid evidence Palestinians are prepared to rush back into the corrupt clutches of Fatah if new presidential and parliamentary elections are held as Abbas declared they would be in a speech on 16 December. A cease-fire was announced by the parties the following evening, but seems to be off to a shaky start.

Certainly aspects of Hamas are deeply troubling, including its frequent use in the course of this intifada of suicide bombings against Israeli civilian targets, but to Palestinians Hamas appears in a favorable light compared to Fatah when Hamas’s efforts to secure aid for Palestinians are blocked at nearly every turn by those willing to reduce Palestinians to abject poverty in the hope of securing political concessions. The incident in Rafah will serve mainly to reinforce the internal view within Gaza that Hamas is acting in the interests of the Palestinians while Fatah is playing politics at the expense of the people.

And the Palestinian people may well look to the Rafah incident as well as to both Fatah and Hamas and wonder how it came to infighting while the Israeli occupation still held sway over their lives, land, and liberty. Many of them are sure to insist that no matter how deep the internal grievances that they be expeditiously resolved in order to address larger national interests. These voices may still be heeded, but the Palestinians are perilously close to exchanging steadfast opposition to occupation for self-defeating internecine conflict. If so, Israel will be free to secure its domination over East Jerusalem and still more of the West Bank.

Israel and the United States have tipped Palestinians in the direction of internal conflict and many appear poised to take the fearful plunge, but the decision to avert this madness still lies with Palestinians. As the decision does rest with Palestinians, there is reason to think shared national aspirations may yet trump the calamity of brother killing brother, neighbor killing neighbor, and Palestinian killing Palestinian. A fateful hour is here.

Michael F. Brown is a fellow at the Palestine Center. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Palestine Center. Previously, he was the executive director of Partners for Peace and Washington correspondent for Middle East International. He is on the Board of Interfaith Peace-Builders.

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