A re-run of the Lebanon war in Palestine?

While Gaza starves, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice shakes hands with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as they attend a joint press conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah, 4 October 2006. (MaanImages/Fadi Arouri)


There are ominous signs that the long-contemplated plan to overthrow the democratically-elected Hamas-led Palestinian Authority cabinet is about to enter its most dangerous phase: a political coup, supported by local militias, with foreign and regional backing. This could ignite serious intra-Palestinian violence. With Iraq providing a dreadful warning of how foreign occupation can foster civil bloodshed, everything must be done to expose and thwart this dangerous conspiracy.

The head of Palestinian Authority intelligence, and Fatah militia leader, Tawfiq Tirawi, said in an interview with the Sunday Times on 8 October, “We are already at the beginning of a civil war, no doubt about it. They (Hamas) are accumulating weapons and a full-scale civil war can break out at any moment.” The paper cited Palestinian sources saying that Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas “has notified the US, Jordan and Egypt that he is preparing to take action against Hamas.” And, asserting that Hamas “are preparing for a war against us,” Tirawi “forecasts that the violence would begin in Gaza and spread to the West Bank.” Hamas leaders, including prime minister Ismail Haniyeh, have issued strenuous reassurances that they will never allow civil war, even as a Fatah-affiliated militia recently released a statement explicitly threatening to assassinate them.

Let us recall that in last January’s legislative council elections the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, resoundingly defeated Fatah, the nominally nationalist and secular faction founded by Yasir Arafat and which has dominated the institutionalized Palestinian movement since the 1960s. Fatah, led now by Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas, was widely rejected for its corruption and mismanagement of the Palestinian Authority which was founded under the Oslo Accords in 1994.

Coming a week after more than a dozen Palestinians were killed in fighting between Hamas and Fatah followers, Tirawi’s latest comments could be seen as laying the groundwork for a full-scale and premeditated confrontation. A senior Fatah “security source,” probably also Tirawi, had already told the same Sunday Times journalist last May that “[c]ivil war is inevitable” and that “Time is running out for Hamas.” He warned that “We’ll choose the right time and place for the military showdown. But after that there will be no more of Hamas’s militias.”

Is that time approaching? Abbas is being encouraged by his sponsors outside the country to take on Hamas. Tirawi’s warnings followed US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s visit to the region which included a warm public embrace of Abbas. On October 5, Reuters reported that militias loyal to Abbas are receiving arms and training from the United States. “Expanding the size of the presidential guard,” Abbas’ personal militia, “by up to 70 percent under a U.S. plan,” the report stated, “has become a central part of American policy since [Hamas] beat Abbas’s Fatah in elections and took over the government.” This apparent encouragement to resort to the bullet when use of the ballot failed to produce the desired results is a direct contradiction of the simplest principles of democracy, apart from its sheer immorality. This sounds bad enough, but it also looks like a repeat of the strategy in Lebanon where western powers apparently thought that Israel, as a local client state, could be used to strike a lethal blow at Hizbullah. The human and political results of that adventure, last summer’s systematic Israeli destruction of Lebanon, speak for themselves. This time, Abbas and his forces would fill the role of local US client, and Hamas would be cast as Hizbullah.

The only outcome of such a confrontation will be another orgy of bloody violence. And almost certainly, support for Hamas would be strengthened, but among the Palestinian people there would be only losers.

There is good reason to fear that the moment is coming when this conspiracy will turn to the naked use of armed force, as the campaign to overthrow Hamas has escalated in stages. Just weeks after the January election, The New York Times reported that US and Israeli officials met at the “highest level” to plot the downfall of Hamas by “starving” the Palestinian Authority. It started with the US-EU aid cutoff, ostensibly to force Hamas to “recognize Israel” and “abandon violence.” (When it was elected Hamas had already observed a year-long unilateral suspension of attacks on Israel, and its leaders strongly indicated a willingness to reach a “long-term agreement”). Israel escalated its military attacks on Gaza, killing and maiming thousands of civilians, and destroying civilian infrastructure including the only power station. Most Palestinians now face difficulties feeding their families. Israel kidnapped eight Hamas cabinet ministers and a quarter of the elected members of the legislative council, while Fatah leaders have continually agitated against Hamas, including organizing strikes and protests by Fatah loyalists among Palestinian Authority civil servants who have been deprived of salaries by the very international siege that Fatah leaders have winked at and even encouraged.

Efforts to bridge the political impasse by forming a “national unity government” have also failed because the Fatah election losers, backed by foreign powers, are demanding that Hamas, the election winners, abandon their policies and principles and endorse those of the defeated party. But none of this has worked. Despite the punishment, Palestinians under occupation are no more willing than ever to submit to Israeli tyranny: 67 percent “do not believe Hamas should recognize the state of Israel in order to meet international donor demands” even though “63 percent would support a Palestinian recognition of Israel as a state for the Jewish people after a peace agreement is reached and a Palestinian state is established,” a September poll by the Palestinian Center for Survey Research found.

As violent incidents and provocations by followers of both factions mount, Abbas is considering other coercive means amounting to a coup: dismissing the Hamas cabinet, forming an “emergency” administration, and dissolving the Hamas-dominated legislative council to make way for new general elections which can be postponed indefinitely or at least until a Fatah victory can be engineered.

The danger facing Palestinians is acute. But let us be clear: it is not a threat of civil war. Among millions of ordinary Palestinians, whether under Israel’s brutal occupation, living as second class citizens within the “Jewish state,” or in forced exile, there is no disagreement remotely great enough that could get them to turn brother against brother and family against family in a civil war. On the contrary, Palestinians are united in their understanding of what afflicts them — Israeli colonialism armed, backed and bankrolled by western powers. The danger is of an armed coup staged on behalf of these powers by a small minority, but which could drag more Palestinians into internecine fighting whose consequences are awful to contemplate.

Perhaps the most serious miscalculation Hamas has made is to underestimate the determination with which the results of democratic elections will be undermined and opposed if they do not suit the interests of Israel and other world powers. The reality is that the Palestinian Authority is not and has never been a government for the Palestinian people. The Palestinian Authority receives western backing only to the extent that it directly and exclusively serves their own and Israeli interests. It was designed to protect the Israeli occupation against its victims; no one will be permitted to turn it into a representative body that fights for the rights and interests of Palestinians. To avoid the lethal trap that is being set for them and the Palestinian people, Hamas will either have to sell out or get out.

Hamas has done the right thing by abandoning its campaign of suicide attacks on Israeli civilians, observing an ongoing voluntary truce and embracing politics. It should now abandon the effort to hold on to the wreckage of the powerless and discredited Oslo institutions. Instead, it should turn its considerable popularity, organizational skills and increased legitimacy into a full fledged campaign of civil resistance, mobilizing together with other sectors of Palestinian and global civil society against every aspect of Israeli colonialism and racism. This is the only thing it has not yet tried, and it holds out the best hope for a way out of the dark tunnel.

EI contributor Hasan Abu Nimah was Jordanian Ambassador in several European Union countries and at the United Nations in New York. Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of One Country, A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse (Metropolitan Books, 2006)