Sunday, June 17, 2007

Hamastan and Fatah-stine

Map of Gaza (May 2005, Perry Castaneda)

The mantra that we are hearing in the wake of Hamas's victory in the Gaza Strip is rather familiar. The Americans have been telling the Israelis for some time now: support the Palestinian "moderates." It seems that this idea has also excited Olmert. Right now, the Americans as well as the Israeli foreign ministry are pushing for moves to strengthen Abbas. The goal seems to be to turn the West Bank into some kind of oasis showcasing the fruit earned by moderates who deal pragmatically with the U.S. and with Israel rather than embracing the genocidal extremism of Hamas. This is a nice thought. But it will not work.

The battles between Hamas and Fatah in Gaza showed how weak Abbas's forces are militarily. The lack of leadership, coordination, and, most importantly, motivation on the side of Fatah's forces were all too apparent. Neither the political echelon of Fatah nor the security apparatus showed enough determination to impose its vision on Palestinian society. This may be because no such vision exists on the side of Fatah, and because the fighters knew that they did not have a great deal of popular support. Hamas, on the other hand, showed no such scruples. While the organization is not invincible and may face significant challenges from various clans, it has enough committed fighters as well as popular support for its ideas and style of government in Gaza.

What lies behind Fatah's military failures is a major structural weakness - a disconnect between the instruments of violence and political institutions with popular backing. Rightly or wrongly, Hamas's armed forces seem to be perceived by enough Palestinians as being guided by more or less representative political institutions. Fatah's fighters, on the other hand, appeared like disconnected crews of private militiamen fighting for individual feudal lords rather than a coherent ideology.

Given this structural problem, it seems rather foolish to throw more arms and money at the Fatah forces. Likewise, I am not sure that spending funds on certain civic projects will necessarily do that much good. Much of the money will likely end up in the pockets of PA officials anyway. The rest will be invested haphazardly in certain towns and neighborhoods attached to various local bosses. Much like the private militiamen, it will be atomized power (economic rather than military in this case) without a unifying ideology or a responsive mechanism of control.

Perhaps equally damaging is the bad odor that clings to American and Israeli money or support among Palestinians today. Never mind that they are all sitting in big piles of it, and that even a Hamas-ruled Gaza cannot achieve autarky from Israel; the linkage of Fatah with the U.S. and the Zionists will remain a powerful weapon in Hamas's arsenal. Thus, supporting Fatah may backfire.

There are people who see the outcome of the first phase of the Palestinian civil war as some kind of new opportunity. Some of this chatter can be dismissed right away as wishful thinking. Whoever thinks that Hamas's victory in the Strip will lead to the permanent severing of Gaza from the West Bank and hence bring about an end to the dream of a united Palestinian state is living in a kind of movie. Neither the Palestinian people nor its leadership will agree to this.

Although Abbas is playing hard to get right now and rebuffing overtures by Hamas, I would not count on him to faithfully execute American or Israeli objectives. Fatah will come to some kind of accommodation with Hamas at the end, although the two factions will continue to hate each other's guts. Most likely, we will see a situation where both Hamastan and Fatah-stine claim the right to negotiate on behalf of all Palestinians - a situation of dual power that might be institutionalized in another complicated constitutional arrangement. This would bring Israel back to the status quo ante.

Given Fatah's current weakness, it almost seems like dealing with Hamas instead would be a better choice. Here, Israel might be able to negotiate with an entity that has something closer to a monopoly on violence, which can gain a great deal from Israeli carrots and can offer certain things in return. (For an excellent overview of the economic situation faced by Hamas and the carrots as well as two-sided sticks available to Israel see this article in today's Ha'aretz). But the problem is that Israel is dealing with an enemy in Gaza who does not appear to be acting pragmatically. Furthermore, this enemy is armed and egged on by two foreign powers - Iran and Syria - which do not want stability on Israel's southern border, just as they want to maintain a strike force on its northern boundary.

There have been some rumors in the press that Israel's newly-appointed Defense Minister Ehud Barak is planning a massive invasion of the Gaza Strip. I am hoping that this is part of an information operation to warn Hamas and its sponsors. If it isn't, I wonder how Barak would define the objectives of such an operation, and what outcomes he might foresee.

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