After months of anticipation, Palestinian Authority (PA) chairman Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah faction finally launched their attempted coup against the democratically-elected cabinet headed by the Hamas party and prime minister Ismail Haniyeh.
Days of interfactional violence, following Abbas’ speech in which he threatened to call new elections (something most legal experts agree he does not have the authority to do), claimed at least seven lives. A shaky truce continued to be violated, and the events of the past week have provided a terrifying glimpse of what may yet await Palestinians if Abbas decides to continue on his disastrous path.
Since Hamas won the PA legislative election last January, the Fatah leadership has colluded with the Western-backed Israeli siege. They intended to force Hamas from office or to force its capitulation to Israeli demands that Palestinians relinquish the right to resist in any form against Israeli colonialism and occupation, and to recognize an Israel that is a racist sectarian state, that has no fixed borders and that has refused to say whether such recognition will change anything.
Abbas claims that a crisis exists necessitating elections because Palestinians voted for two programs (his, by electing him chairman of the PA in January 2005), and that of Hamas (which won the legislative election a year later). But this is disingenuous. Abbas was elected following the death of Arafat, after a massive campaign by the “international community” claiming that Arafat had been the “obstacle to peace,” and Abbas would be the Palestinians’ salvation. Although fewer than half of eligible voters turned out for the 2005 election, most of those who did dutifully voted for Abbas, hoping that international promises would be kept. For a full year, Abbas was powerless as Israel continued its violence against Palestinians, including the massive confiscation of land, and accelerated construction of the apartheid wall, while the world stood by and watched.
At the first opportunity, in January 2006, Palestinians under occupation (this time over 80 percent turned out) gave Hamas an overwhelming majority. They delivered the same message of rejection to Abbas and his “program” that Americans sent to Bush in the recent congressional election.
If Fatah leaders are trying to dress a blatant power grab in the legitimacy of new elections, Hamas has perhaps exercised its best option by declaring it will boycott them if they even take place. After all, why should the movement participate in elections since the results will only be respected if Palestinians submit to blackmail and make the “right” choice? In such a situation, the only way to win is not to play the game.
It remains unclear whether Abbas’ ploy will succeed. All other Palestinian factions immediately rejected new elections. Last July, Abbas announced a referendum, also an attempt to override Hamas’ victory, but he did not have the strength to bring it about against the will of other Palestinians.
By contrast, Israel, the US and the UK rushed to endorse it. And only a day before Abbas’ speech US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she would ask Congress for tens of millions of dollars to provide additional arms and training to Abbas’ militias. These facts underscore for many Palestinians that Abbas’ only significant bases of support are foreign powers widely regarded as implacably hostile to Palestinian rights, and which have tried, as in Palestine, to impose governments that serve their agendas in Iraq and Lebanon (precipitating civil war in the former, and threatening it in the latter).
Although Abbas’ move was no surprise, the less than decisive results indicate that he may have felt forced to act before he was ready. Two factors might have contributed to this haste. First despite months of Fatah-organized strikes and protests over wages unpaid due to the siege, Hamas’ efforts to break the siege without political capitulation were beginning to bear fruit. Ismail Haniyeh had secured pledges from several countries to pay the wages of tens of thousands of public servants.
Second, in late November, Israel, for the first time ever, publicly accepted a Hamas truce offer to halt the massive Israeli bombardment of Gaza in exchange for a halt to rocket fire by Palestinian resistance groups into Israel. This truce clearly suited both parties, but it may have worried the Abbas camp that one day Israel might no longer need them to play their traditional role as brokers between Israel and the resistance groups.
There are a number of parallels to the confrontations between Hamas and Fatah in earlier anti-colonial struggles. There are strong echoes of the Irish civil war in the 1920s. A more recent analogy can perhaps be seen in the latter days of the South African apartheid regime, when supporters of the African National Congress (ANC) on the one hand, and the Inkatha Freedom Party on the other engaged in bloody battles. This violence was marketed by the apartheid regime as “black on black violence” supposedly demonstrating how unfit blacks were to govern. ANC supporters saw Inkatha as colluding with the apartheid regime, and indeed foreign backers of apartheid hoped to foster an alternative black leadership that could accomodate itself to white rule.
Palestinians seem to have reached a bleak pass, but they are not condemned to repeat history. Abbas and his faction should not be permitted to drag Palestinians into civil war. The worst miscalculation Hamas could make is to confuse the Abbas camp’s zeal for the prize with evidence of its value. It is clear that the Palestinian Authority cannot be a vehicle for Palestinian liberation. It is better to withdraw all recognition from it, let it collapse, or let those who want it inherit its empty shell, than spill a single drop of blood trying to preserve it. In the eyes of its supporters, Hamas’ legitimacy, which has grown despite the international boycott, does not stem from its formal position within the PA, but from its steadfastness in the face of the occupation.
Hamas and all other factions committed to resisting occupation should focus on intensified civil struggle and solidarity. This is the best way to isolate those who would push for civil war in order to retain their privileges and power. Recent acts of civil resistance in which thousands of unarmed Palestinians intervened to prevent Israeli assassinations and air raids in Gaza demonstrated the immense potential for creative nonviolence that could make Israel’s apartheid system powerless.
Hasan Abu Nimah is a regular contributor to and Ali Abunimah is a co-founder of EI. Ali Abunimah is author of “One Country: A Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse” (Metropolitan Books, 2006).