Fatah, Hamas, and the Future of Palestine

(This article was written in collaboration with Aziz Abu Sarah, Co-Executive Director of The Center for World Religions Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution.)

Ever since the disastrous split in Palestinian leadership of several years ago into Fatah and Hamas it has become clear that disunity has been a critical factor standing in the way of Palestinian statehood. Many reconciliation efforts, with several third parties, were attempted and aborted. This time it seems that things are different, despite the enormous ideological divisions and outstanding grievances between Fatah and Hamas.

Why is this happening now? Clearly, the historic impact of the “Arab Spring” on Egypt and Syria, and across the region, is an enormous game changer. The increasing instability of Syria suggests that there is a strong possibility that A) Hamas may no longer have a stable home in Syria, but, on the other hand, Palestinians now have a much more sympathetic ear in Egypt which has been critical as a peace broker. B) Syria has long prevented its own Palestinian population from any kind of political activism, preferring to keep them as a bargaining chip to get back the Golan. But events of Naqba Day 2011 suggest that there are elements in Syria who are ready to unleash the power of the Palestinian masses against Israel if they see their internal situation increasingly destabilized by what they say are “outside agitators”. In other words, if the spirit of the Arab Spring brings them down then these elements are threatening to take Israel with them. All of this is new and is due to the unprecedented power and effects of Arab nonviolent resistance.

Aziz Abu Sarah is Co-Executive Director of CRDC, a leading Palestinian peacebuilder, architect of CRDC citizen diplomacy interventions in Palestine and Israel, and an important analyst featured in numerous Middle Eastern outlets. He explains Hamas’ and Fatah’s evolving strategies this way:

“Hamas has been following the changes in the Middle East with growing interest and anxiety. The centers of power are changing, and some of their allies in the region are facing internal challenges and uprisings that they might not survive. They learned from watching the Arab revolutions that there is the potential for unrest in Gaza due to frustration with the status quo.  At one point Gazans will ask Hamas’ leaders what are they doing to make a difference, and the people will not be satisfied with just blaming Israel. They want to see a difference in their lives and they expect their leaders to have a strategy that would lead them to freedom, dignity and security. A unity government will legitimize Hamas, especially in the Arab world. Both Khaled Mashal and Ismail Hanniyeh have spoken publicly about accepting a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. Many believe that Hamas was waiting for President Abbas to negotiate an agreement before jumping onboard.”

In other words, the Arab Spring of the young has already come to Gaza, and it is re-structuring the strategy of Hamas. The same can be said of Fatah, who were facing a restive youthful population in recent months, ready and eager to join the Arab Spring. Aziz explains:

“The Palestinian leadership decided that they must choose a different avenue if they want to shake the political stalemate. This new path includes the internationalization of the Palestinian case and putting Israel under pressure by countries sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. ”

The Arab revolutions are making all power brokers re-calculate their strategic interests in terms of the power, voice and interests of the young masses. The fear among the elites, whether or not the young protestors achieve all of their aims, is palpable, and most recently exposed in the creation of a Colombian mercenary army for the UAE by the scandalous founder of Blackwater.

I am concerned, however, about the possibility of ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water’. Many a noble Palestinian and Israeli hammered out a livable two state solution based on the ’67 borders, and it is not clear that the youth–nor Hamas–are in the mood to move all this energy of resistance back to a two-state solution. It is not clear to me how Hamas could ever be integrated not only into a peaceful relationship with Israel but also with a secular Palestine. Nevertheless, I agree with Aziz that Mashal and Hanniyeh sent clear signals in recent years for what a viable peace deal with Israel would look like, good signals.

It is true that Hamas will not recognize Israel’s right to exist as a starting point for negotiations, especially negotiations that turned during the Oslo years into an endless pretext for successive Israeli political coalitions to take more land. Hamas, despite its abhorrent use of violence against innocents, may have been right to not want to give away recognition of Israel until there is a real deal, and that this was Arafat’s fateful error. They may have legitimate reasons to consider the Quartet’s demands on them regarding recognition as unreasonable.

Hamas, however, should listen to the masses across the region and write a new page in their history, as did the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and that is the new page of nonviolence and democracy. Hamas therefore should play its part in nonviolent resistance and state building by enforcing a hudna, a long-term ceasefire with Israel without recognizing Israel, in order to test Israel’s intentions and behavior, and in order to create the space for a viable two-state solution to be realized.

It is nonviolence that is the key here to the future, it is the key to the heart of Westerners and Americans who ultimately must get behind a Palestinian state, and it is the key to moving the mostly liberal Jewish masses in America into a clear coalition for Palestinian statehood. Many polls suggest that there is a majority in Israel and especially among American Jews for Palestinian statehood if nonviolence is the method and goal of its achievement. Now that Hamas is not as encumbered by Syria and Egypt it should seize the opportunity to present a new, defiant but peaceful face to the world.

The Palestinian Authority is already putting all its efforts into a nonviolent strategy of unprecedented proportions. Quietly there is support for the nonviolent resistance movements in the village, and publicly there is a massive and successful campaign for the unilateral declaration of statehood. Palestinian leadership is engaged in a high-stakes nonviolent resistance strategy, using their assets-global fatigue with Netanyahu’s government and over forty years of occupation. This may also press the United States to go where President Obama was incapable of moving it, certainly in his first term given the power of the Lobby and the weakness of his political party. But considering the sweeping changes across the Middle East and the rising din of the popular voice of nonviolent resistance, the United States may be forced to confront the Israeli government with a stark choice; accept the Clintonian parameters of a two-state solution based on the ’67 borders, or face a Middle East marching with Palestinians toward Jerusalem.

Aziz Abu Sarah concludes:

“Palestinians are changing the rules of the game. They are two steps ahead of Netanyahu and Obama in their strategic planning. The Palestinian strategy has been for too long emotional, filled with reactionary responses to Israeli actions, and consequently unproductive. It is a breath of fresh air for Palestinians to see their leaders making a giant shift in their behavior. The reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah and the clear strategy for achieving independence is inspiring Palestinians to believe once again in their leaders.”

© Marc Gopin