Palestine, Bush's Other Civil War
February 06, 2007
Seth Ackerman is a contributing writer to Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting. His piece for the October issue of Fair's magazine Extra!, "Mixed Signals," covers the history of misrepresentation of the Hamas government's stance towards negotiations and peaceable co-existence with Israel.
One year after Hamas won a surprise victory in the Palestinian legislative elections, Palestinian politics are in chaos and the occupied territories stand on the brink of civil war. Hamas's increasingly moderate tendencies, heavily on display early last year, have since then run into a formidable wall of obstacles—most of all, Washington and Jerusalem’s staunch refusal to accept the will of Palestine’s voters.
Hamas, then only five years old, was the most potent of the anti-Oslo groups. As Israeli settlement-building accelerated and Arafat’s corruption spread, Hamas was able to exploit growing Palestinian disillusionment with Oslo and Arafat to attract support for its Islamist politics. But ironically, the stronger Hamas grew, the less tenable its stance of uncompromising militancy became. As a political power in its own right, Hamas was now expected by Palestinians to propose solutions instead of simply undermining the old regime. Its rejection of electoral politics looked increasingly pointless and even many Islamists began to see its grisly suicide bombings as counterproductive.
The decision to participate in last year’s vote represented a major shift for a group that had previously boycotted the Palestinian political system entirely. Hamas’ political turn was accompanied by quietly adjusting its stance on the conflict to bring it into line with the Palestinian mainstream. Although Hamas would not talk to Israel, it would support talks led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. While ruling out recognizing Israel itself, in the wake of its victory Hamas declared that recognition was a question for the Palestinian people to decide, and senior Hamas officials signaled that they would accept the results of a referendum on the matter if it came with a negotiated peace agreement.
But on one point, Hamas was firm: It refused to go back to the Oslo procedure of piecemeal talks under Washington’s auspices unless the ultimate terms of a peace deal were spelled out in advance—the borders of a Palestinian state, the refugee issue, the status of Jerusalem and so on. The problem was that Washington would not allow a mere election to interfere with the system it had so painstakingly constructed since the early 1990s.
Faced with the system’s collapse, Washington set to work constructing an international firewall. It corralled the European Union and Russia (through the mechanism of the Quartet) into a policy of isolating the new Palestinian government via an aid embargo and a cutoff of diplomatic contacts. Despite being freely elected, the new Hamas government would remain a pariah until it accepted three conditions that few expected it to meet: unconditional recognition of Israel, acceptance of the Oslo agreements and a renunciation of armed action.
For Abbas’ defeated Fatah movement, the choices were stark. Its pro-Oslo stance had failed to win an independent state and the corruption of its old guard had deeply eroded its popularity. One option was to work with Hamas to force the West into recognizing the new political reality by forming a joint government and presenting the world with a united front. The alternative was to join with the Bush administration in a campaign to force Hamas out of power despite its clear electoral victory. Advisors to the indecisive Abbas pushed both options.
Through much of the spring and summer, Abbas focused his attention on the prospects for a unity government. Despite the capture of an Israeli soldier by Hamas militants in July, such an agreement seemed to be sight by September. Two factors led to the breakthrough. First, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh agreed to accept the 2002 Arab League peace plan—which calls for recognition of Israel—as the basis for the new government. Secondly, European diplomats, fed up with Washington’s hardline stance, threatened to recognize a Palestinian unity government whether the U.S. agreed or not.
But in a private White House meeting on September 19, Bush vetoed the deal, threatening to cut off all contact with Abbas’ party if the Palestinian leader joined a government with Hamas that did not embrace the three conditions. Underscoring the extent to which Fatah had been reduced to a U.S. client regime, Abbas dutifully insisted the next day in public that any joint government would have to be based on Washington’s terms.
This was the start of the disintegration of Palestinian politics. Seeing no prospect for working with Hamas, Fatah moved closer to Washington’s plan to oust the elected government. Three weeks after Bush’s veto of the unity government, his Middle East security envoy, Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton presented a plan to arm and train Fatah militias in advance of a conflict with Hamas.
Ha’aretz reported that the administration was “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.’” Although desultory closed-door talks on a unity government continued, by December it was clear that no one expected them to yield an agreement. Hamas seemed to have repudiated the Arab League peace formula and Abbas was now talking openly of dissolving the parliament and calling new elections. (Whether he has the authority to do so is not clear.)
It was in this context that clashes between Fatah and Hamas militias began escalating. Last Thursday, Hamas Interior Ministry forces in Gaza interdicted a shipment of weapons from Israel destined for Fatah militias. Assassination attempts against officials of the two movements have been almost daily occurrences. Even more ominously, U.S.-allied Fatah elements seem to be trying to paint the conflict as part of a broader regional struggle between the U.S. and the Sunni client regimes on the one hand and Shiite Iran and Hezbollah and Sunni Hamas on the other. Cries of “Shia! Shia!” were heard at anti-Hamas demonstrations in recent weeks, while Fatah sources claimed (with no evidence) that Iranian weapons experts had been found at a Hamas stronghold in Gaza.
Israel has been conspicuously quiet about the turmoil, but clearly many Israeli officials see the fighting as a sign that the U.S.-Israeli strategy is paying off. Last month, Israel’s foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, once again urged Abbas not to make a deal with Hamas. As Ha’aretz reported, she warned the Palestinian leader that “should he reach a compromise with Hamas, that would send the diplomatic process into a deep freeze.”
An even clearer indication came from Israel’s muted reaction to the suicide bombing at Eilat last week, which killed three bystanders at a bakery. Hamas was uninvolved in the attack, which was carried out jointly by Islamic Jihad and an offshoot of Fatah. But, as Ha’aretz explained, Jerusalem knew better than to respond: “When Fatah and Hamas are so good at killing each other, why should Israel intervene and spur them to close ranks against the common enemy?”
But chaos in the occupied territories will only serve to torpedo the chances for peace. As civil war looms in Gaza, it looks as if the Bush administration is making good on his pledge to export his Iraq model to the rest of the Middle East.