The broad offensive by Hamas, begun several days ago, was essentially a preemptive strike against those who have been working tirelessly to precipitate its downfall. As Tony Karon writes,
"Hamas appears to have taken a leaf from Israel’s playbook in that conflict [the ‘67 war]. Instead of standing by and letting Dahlan set the terms of the conflict, slowly raising the temperature of the confrontation in keeping with the capabilities of his forces, Hamas went to war this time to destroy Fatah’s capability to fight in Gaza."
Hamas’ aims are clear: they are letting everyone know that they are an intractable reality, that can’t be bypassed and that can’t be ignored. As a Hamas gunman joked, in an imaginary telephone call to the U.S.,
"Hello Condoleezza Rice. You have to deal with me now, there is no Abu Mazen anymore."
Amira Hass writes in Ha’aretz that the Hamas offensive in Gaza is "a statement that Hamas is the "real sovereign in Gaza." A resident of the Jabaliya refugee camp agrees:
"Hamas wanted to send a message not just to Fatah but to Israel, to America and the whole region that it is in control".
It is sad that Hamas was, as Danny Rubenstein puts it, left with no option but "to take by force what they believe they rightfully deserve" - namely, to be treated as the legitimate authority in the Occupied Territories, winning as they did democratic elections last January. As we know, Israel and the U.S. implemented a strategy to topple Hamas from the minute it took power. This strategy involved collectively punishing the Palestinian people by withholding the aid on which they depend for survival, stealing the tax money necessary for the PA to function and bombing the hell out of Gaza, killing hundreds of innocent people. Power-hungry Fatah has collaborated with this disgraceful programme of democratic subversion not only by playing along diplomatically with the absurd verbal contortions used to justify the boycott of Hamas (the so-called "Quartet principles") but also by accepting U.S. and Israeli help in the financing, arming and training of Abbas’ and Dahlan’s private army. In fact, Fatah was collaborating with the enemy even before Hamas was elected, accepting U.S. money to help them fight the January elections. The U.S./Israeli plan to ‘undermin[e] and replac[e] the Palestinian national-unity government’, outlined in a recently leaked secret 16-page document, has depended heavily on Abbas’ cooperation. Suffering from "post-election denial", as the Financial Times puts it, Fatah has "acted as if it were still in charge" and has never allowed Hamas the authority to which its democratic mandate entitled it.
The Fatah forces that have been behind much of the provocations and confrontations with Hamas over the past six months are under the command of Gaza warlord Mohammed Dahlan, currently in Cairo "recovering from a knee operation". He was behind the brutal crackdown on Hamas militants in the 1990s, and in June last year made explicit his campaign to destroy the Hamas government. Describing their electoral victory as a "catastrophe" (or ‘nakba’), Dahlan continued,
"Hamas is now the weakest Palestinian faction. They are whining and complaining. Well, they will have to suffer yet more until they are damned to the seventh ancestor. I will haunt them from now till the end of their term in four years. And I swear, whoever within Fatah says ‘we should join the government," I will humiliate them."
Thus, to hear Abbas describe Hamas’ actions in Gaza as a "coup" is laughable. Hamas is the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Thanks to Israel, much of the international community and Fatah, it has been denied the chance to exercise its democratic mandate, subjected to crippling sanctions and constant threats by Abbas to "call early elections", threats accompanied by violence orchestrated by Dahlan. The reality is that Hamas’ recent actions in Gaza have been necessary to prevent a coup. As the Morning Star paper writes,
"If there has been any evidence of an attempted coup, it has been in the opposite direction - a bid [by Fatah and the international community] to undermine the elected government by increasing unemployment, hunger and desperation to the extent that the Palestinians turn against it."
Writing for the Electronic Intifada, Ali Abunimah details the extent of Fatah’s collaboration with the occupying forces:
"Two recent revelations underscore the extent of the conspiracy: on 7 June, Ha’aretz reported that "senior Fatah officials in the Gaza Strip have asked Israel to allow them to receive large shipments of arms and ammunition from Arab countries, including Egypt." According to the Israeli newspaper, Fatah asked Israel for "armored cars, hundreds of armor-piercing RPG rockets, thousands of hand grenades and millions of rounds of ammunition for small caliber weapons," all to be used against Hamas.
From the moment of its election victory, Hamas acted pragmatically and with the intent to integrate itself into the existing political structure. It had observed for over a year a unilateral ceasefire with Israel and had halted the suicide attacks on Israeli civilians that had made it notorious. In a leaked confidential memo written in May and published by The Guardian this week senior UN envoy Alvaro de Soto confirmed that it was under pressure from the United States that Abbas refused Hamas’ initial invitation to form a "national unity government." De Soto details that Abbas advisers actively aided and abetted the Israeli-US-European Union aid cutoff and siege of the Palestinians under occupation, which led to massively increased poverty for millions of people. These advisors engaged with the United States in a "plot" to "bring about the untimely demise of the [Palestinian Authority] government led by Hamas," de Soto wrote."
The Hamas victory in Gaza represents a victory for Palestinian democracy over the proxy forces of the occupation, the Palestinian Contras.
Portraying the violence as a mere "power struggle" between factions, or between differing politics, misses the point. Sure, it’s a power struggle, but it’s a struggle that should’ve been put to rest with the election results last January. The reason why it has continued to play out on the streets is the result of Fatah’s decision to act as the Palestinian Uncle Tom and return to power on the back of the occupation. Put simply, having lost politically, Fatah attempted to regain power militarily, and in the past few days in Gaza, this attempt was defeated.
There is lots of talk in the Western press about "Hamas-stan", with a possible division of the OPT into two separate states (Gaza and the West Bank). In fact, (deposed) Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh has explicitly rejected the idea, calling for calm and the maintenance of the National Unity Government. Hamas has talked of reconciliation, granting an amnesty to the top-level Fatah officials and commanders it has captured and releasing all its Fatah prisoners unharmed. Abbas, on the other hand, has declared a "state of emergency", dismissed the National Unity Government and appointed a new Palestinian Prime Minister. This will not be enforceable in Gaza, where Fatah is no longer a relevant military force, but its an ominous sign of what’s to come. These decrees have been accompanied by a Fatah offensive against Hamas in the West Bank, where dozens of Hamas activists have been arrested, one shot dead in Nablus, and several offices of Hamas lawmakers have been set alight. Olmert is speaking of a "separation policy" between Gaza and the West Bank - in reality, of course, the two have been separated for a long time (Israel never implemented the 2005 agreement to allow the passage of convoys between the two territories). The only people speaking in terms of, and actively encouraging, a Hamas mini-state in Gaza are Israeli officials and their Fatah puppets in the West Bank. Unsurprisingly, it is this line the Western press have adopted.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has affirmed America’s support for Abbas, as have the EU, Jordan and Britain. White House spokesman Tony Snow must have made all the press correspondents laugh with this line,
"Hamas has demonstrated its own view of democracy by once again committing acts of terror, now against the Palestinian people,"
until they realised he was being serious. Snow continued, "We think that it’s important that the violence cease and that democracy, real democracy, get a chance to succeed in the Palestinian areas". "Real democracy" means democracy that results in a government favoured by the U.S. Anything else is, naturally, unacceptable. British Foreign Minister Margaret Beckett was similarly hilarious, stating,
"Once again, extremists carrying guns have prevented progress against the wishes of the majority who seek a peaceful two-state solution."
Err...Margie? The "wishes of the majority" were to have a Hamas government, remember? As punishment for their politics, Britain has colluded in the collective starvation of the Palestinian people, such that Palestinian poverty has jumped 30% and more than half of the Palestinian population has been reduced to dependency on food aid for survival.
The current Palestinian internal violence is the intended result of U.S. and Israeli policy. It was predicted from the start that boycotting the Hamas government and starving the Palestinian people would result in violence. As Ha’aretz reported last October,
"Israeli sources say that the United States is interested in the fall of the Hamas government currently in power in the Palestinian Authority.
During the Quartet meeting in London, the Americans expressed their satisfaction with the results of the boycott of Hamas’ government, which has undermined its standing among the Palestinians.
However, the U.S. administration is also certain that the sanctions against Hamas will inevitably result in a violent confrontation between Hamas and Fatah, and in such a scenario, they would prefer to strengthen the "good guys" headed by Abbas."
If you starve an entire people and prevent their government from functioning on one hand, whilst arming and training the private army of an opposing faction on the other, it doesn’t take a genius to realise what will happen. Amir Peretz (soon to be replaced as Defense Minister by Ehud Barak) can talk all he wants of this being an "internal Palestinian matter", but the fact is that the internecine Palestinian violence is the predicted result of U.S./Israeli policy to topple the Hamas government and install Fatah. As Jan Egeland, special advisor to the UN Secretary-General, recently stated,
"This was predicted. This is the chronicle of an announced collapse. Last year I met in the Security Council and said ‘Gaza is a ticking time bomb it may go... off in five or in ten months’. And it took about 10 months and then it went off.
This is the product of failed Palestinian policies, failed Israeli policies, failed international policy."
Where Egeland gets it wrong is in his description of "failed" Israeli policies, and "failed" international policy. In fact, the disastrous violence in Gaza represents a huge success for Israeli policy - the only downside, perhaps temporary, is that Hamas emerged victorious.
Unfortunately for Israel and for Fatah, Hamas did not wait to be destroyed as a formal political force. It did not sit back and do nothing as the international community robbed it of its right to rule and paralysed it with vicious sanctions and murderous military campaigns. The Fatah vultures that have been circling over the dying carcass of Palestinian democracy for months have, thankfully, been unsuccessful in their attempts to subvert the legitimate Hamas government. It’s a huge shame that Hamas was forced to resort to violence to defend their right to govern, because all this internal Palestinian violence is exactly what Israel wants. It’s classic divide and rule. An internal Palestinian conflict is great for Israel, because it means Israel can rely on proxy Palestinian forces to get rid of Hamas for them and, in the absence of honest international media coverage, reinforces its claim that there is no Palestinian "partner for peace". As UN Middle East Co-ordinator Alvaro de Soto wrote to the UN Secretary-General in a recently leaked report (.pdf),
"...the US clearly pushed for a confrontation between Fateh and Hamas — so much so that, a week before Mecca, the US envoy declared twice in an envoys meeting in Washington how much "I like this violence", referring to the near-civil war that was erupting in Gaza in which civilians were being regularly killed and injured, because "it means that other Palestinians are resisting Hamas". (via The Democrat’s Diary)
The extreme contempt both Israel and the U.S. have for democracy means that, despite recent events in Gaza, the isolation and strangulation of Hamas and the Palestinians of Gaza will likely continue. The probable Israeli response to Hamas’ assumption of power in Gaza will be to ease restrictions in the West Bank and engage in meaningless "peace talks" with Abbas, with the cynical aim of increasing his popularity relative to Hamas’. In the long-term, however, if Hamas remains resilient and does not submit to external pressures to relinquish power, we could very possibly witness a full-blown "‘Bay of Pigs’ type invasion of Gaza", with Dahlan at its head.
If what we want to see is a relatively stable Palestinian democracy with the capacity to engage in meaningful peace negotiations with Israel (and again I emphasise that these are not the objectives of the Israeli government), the policies we should follow are obvious, as they have been for months. The Hamas government should be recognised as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, and should be engaged with in the form of meaningful final status negotiations. The criminal sanctions regime must end, and the Israeli policies that have effectively destroyed what was left of the Palestinian economy (the roadblocks, the border closures, the annexation wall, etc.) must be reversed. If, on the other hand, our goal is the continuing breakdown of Palestinian society and the further destruction of any chance for peace, then by all means we should continue down the path we’re on.
For more on the background to this latest wave of violence, see my posts here, here and here.
Cross-posted at The Heathlander
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