Friday, June 15, 2007

Civil War In Gaza

It seems as if Hamas has all but destroyed Fatah in the Gaza Strip. Yesterday, Hamas gunmen ransacked the house of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a member of Fatah and chased the remnants of Arafat's former movement into the West Bank. In response, Abbas has dissolved the Palestinian government and replaced the prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, and replaced him with Fatah-based former Minister of Finance Salam Fayyad. Meanwhile, the US, the EU, and Israel are moving to release frozen tax revenues to Abbas in an effort to bolster Fatah against Hamas. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert praised the move by Abbas to reform the Palestinian government, while Hamas lacks the power in the West Bank to challenge Abbas there.

The plan of the US and its allies assumes that "that strengthening Abbas, and reviving the peace process through him in the West Bank, would serve to marginalize Hamas and increase Fatah's chances of winning any future elections." The New York Times editorializes today that the Hamas victory in Gaza is a defeat for Palestinians, Israel, and the US, and that Abbas should be offered concessions such as "a total freeze on settlement building and expansion, a prompt easing of the onerous, humiliating and economically strangulating blockades on Palestinian movements within the West Bank, and the swift release to Mr. Abbas’s office of all tax revenues rightfully belonging to the Palestinians but still in Israeli hands," while "Hamas’s future diplomatic treatment should depend strictly on its own behavior. If it is ever willing to stop engaging in terrorism and live up to the standards expected of law-abiding governments, there will be something for Israeli and American officials to discuss with it."

The logic of these suggestions and strategies is that since Fatah accepts Israel's right to exist and the previous negotiations while Hamas does not, Fatah represents the horse to bet on, and Abbas should be supported, while Hamas should be ignored until it comes around. All good the short run. However, in the long run, the bolstering of Fatah against Hamas will at best undermine future chances of a negotiated settlement, and at worst lead to an even bloodier civil war.

The problem is the monopoly of violence in the Palestinian territories, or lack thereof. I've written about this several times, but the fact remains: So long as significant military force rests with the various militias (Fatah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, etc.) rather than with the government, whomever that may be at any given time, there will be no peace process. While one side negotiates, other sides are free to use their military capabilities to improve their own position, enhance their credentials as hard-liners by continuing to fight, and undermine the political positioning of their rivals. All sides are guilty of this. Just as Hamas used suicide bombings and Qassam rocket attacks to undermine on-going negotiations between Fatah and Israel, so did Fatah use its own militia to weaken Hamas' power in Gaza.

If there is ever to be a solution to the Israel-Palestinian problem, if the Palestinians are to ever be given the stable and credible government that they deserve, then force must be controlled by the government. The current strategy of supporting Fatah may assuage those worried about the radical ideology and violence of Hamas, but it won't solve the problem.

One of the speakers on my trip to Israel, Meir Litvak of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, agrees with my position. In his view, both Israel and the Palestinians need a stable, unified Palestinian government, even if that government is led by Hamas. He argues, as I have in the past, that when given the choice, Hamas prefers to govern than to fight. If forced with the need for real governance, Hamas will likely become more pragmatic, and do what it needs to do, i.e. negotiate with Israel. And while Hamas would be unlikely to drop its radical ideology, or cease all attacks against Israel, the situation very well might be better than it is now, as Hamas would be forced to behave itself in order to receive international funding, tax revenue, and diplomatic recognition.

But, you argue, Hamas had the opportunity to moderate itself when it won the elections in early 2006 and took over the Palestinian Authorty, and failed to do so. Why would it be any different in the future? Hamas never had a chance to really govern, as Fatah and PIJ did what they could to undermine Hamas' rule. In order for any party to really govern, the Palestinian Authority must have a monopoly of force; it must be able to rein in the militias, fighters, and terrorists of all of the various groups. For this reason, the strategy of supporting Abbas is a very short-sighted one. It does nothing to resolve the real problem in the territories and sets the stage for endless war between the Palestinian political actors.

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