Commentary Magazine


Topic: Palestinian unity government

Intifada with a Twist

During the earlier, more hopeful days of the Arab Spring it was common for people to wonder aloud if the revolutionary momentum would reach the Palestinians. One major difference between the Palestinians and Egyptians or Syrians was that the Palestinians have a degree of self-rule. Any uprising in the Palestinian territories might therefore target the Palestinian Authority or Hamas before Israel, and would likely result in less, not more Palestinian freedom because of it: Hamas would crackdown brutally in Gaza, and if the PA fell in the West Bank it would be replaced by a more authoritarian ruler (probably Hamas).

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During the earlier, more hopeful days of the Arab Spring it was common for people to wonder aloud if the revolutionary momentum would reach the Palestinians. One major difference between the Palestinians and Egyptians or Syrians was that the Palestinians have a degree of self-rule. Any uprising in the Palestinian territories might therefore target the Palestinian Authority or Hamas before Israel, and would likely result in less, not more Palestinian freedom because of it: Hamas would crackdown brutally in Gaza, and if the PA fell in the West Bank it would be replaced by a more authoritarian ruler (probably Hamas).

In part that was the folly of having elections in the territories that included Hamas back in 2006: if you gave the Palestinians a chance to punish the ruling party when Hamas was the only alternative, you would get Hamas in government. In the end, that’s exactly what happened. And it’s why many were warning against the United States giving its blessing to a Hamas-Fatah unity government that would soon call for elections. Mahmoud Abbas has been in office twice as long as his legal term; given the corruption of Fatah and the pent-up desire to register their discontent, the Palestinians could be expected to once again empower Hamas.

But now we’re seeing the possibility of Hamas gaining the upper hand without having to wait for an election. Both Haaretz and Khaled Abu Toameh are reporting the rumblings of a new intifada in the West Bank–only this time aimed at Abbas. As Jonathan mentioned earlier, the unrest is tied to Abbas’s criticism of the kidnapping of Israeli teenagers and the Israeli army’s West Bank operation to track them down. Here’s Toameh:

The attack on the Palestinian police station came amid growing Palestinian discontent with PA President Mahmoud Abbas over his opposition to the kidnapping of the three Israeli youths.

Palestinians representing various Palestinian factions, including Abbas’s own Fatah, have resorted to social media to denounce Abbas and his security forces as “traitors” for helping Israel in its efforts to locate the three youths.

One campaign on Facebook entitled, “I’m Palestinian and Abbas doesn’t represent me” has drawn hundreds of supporters.

Palestinian protests against Abbas and security coordination with Israel have recently become a daily occurrence in the West Bank, where Palestinian protesters are no longer afraid to express their views in public.

The Palestinian Authority has begun to feel the heat and that is why its security forces have been instructed to use an iron-fist policy not only against its critics, but also against Palestinian and Western journalists in the West Bank.

On June 20, Palestinian policemen broke up a protest in Hebron by families of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, and beat a number of journalists, including a CNN reporter who had his camera smashed.

But the Haaretz piece gets right to the point. Its subheadline, echoed in the article as well, is: “The Palestinian president will soon have to decide whether he’s in favor of Israel or his own people.”

And here we have yet another consequence of opening the West Bank to Hamas, and it’s one that directly threatens not only Abbas’s governing structure but the security of Israel as well. This is obvious if Hamas was indeed behind the kidnapping. But even if not, it’s a good demonstration of Hamas’s ability to use such crises to limit Israeli self-defense.

It’s no secret that Israel rightly prefers Abbas to Hamas. But if Israeli counteroffensives can threaten Abbas’s hold on power, then Hamas has figured out a formula: strike at Israel in the West Bank, and either Israel’s response triggers the weakening and possibly fall of Abbas (to Hamas’s benefit) or Israel ties its own hands, giving Hamas free shots at Israeli civilians.

Israel simply cannot choose the latter: whatever Israelis think of their preference for Abbas over Hamas, he’s not worth committing state suicide over. But the former outcome is still a win for Hamas. If Hamas can chip away at Abbas’s rule by simply attacking Israel, they will do so. And joining the unity government positions them to collect the support Abbas loses.

The American officials who supported this unity government also tried to justify it by claiming that the Palestinians involved in the government cannot be card-carrying members of Hamas (though the Americans wouldn’t know the difference anyway). One way around that for Hamas would have been to run Hamasniks who simply run under a non-Hamas banner. But these latest developments suggest the Palestinians may not even make it to the elections.

If Hamas can cause the downfall of Abbas in the West Bank before elections can be held, they can avoid the trouble of pretending to be on the outside for those elections and can simply rule directly. The Obama administration officials who thought this was a good idea were pretty clearly outsmarted–but they probably thought they had more time before that became clear. Hamas seems to have other ideas.

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Palestinian “Unity” Government So Far Not Applying to Gaza

When Hamas ejected Fatah from Gaza in 2007, the terror group did more than simply carve out a base of influence. Because of Gaza’s geographic isolation from the West Bank, once Hamas was able to solidify control it created a shadow state governed by one-party rule and with its own foreign policy. In authoritarian societies like Hamas-ruled Gaza, government control is such that the unaccountable bureaucracy is staffed with appointees whose livelihood depends on the whim and favor of those above them. So that’s where their loyalties lie.

This situation–Gaza’s isolation and its one-party rule–means that integrating Hamas into the broader Palestinian governance structure in the West Bank is far easier than integrating non-Hamasniks into Gaza. That goes double for Hamas’s rival, Fatah. The two may have signed a unity agreement seeking to forge a common government and hold elections, but how will it go when Palestinian Authority “unity” government figures try to apply that piece of paper to Gaza? The New York Times gives us an idea:

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When Hamas ejected Fatah from Gaza in 2007, the terror group did more than simply carve out a base of influence. Because of Gaza’s geographic isolation from the West Bank, once Hamas was able to solidify control it created a shadow state governed by one-party rule and with its own foreign policy. In authoritarian societies like Hamas-ruled Gaza, government control is such that the unaccountable bureaucracy is staffed with appointees whose livelihood depends on the whim and favor of those above them. So that’s where their loyalties lie.

This situation–Gaza’s isolation and its one-party rule–means that integrating Hamas into the broader Palestinian governance structure in the West Bank is far easier than integrating non-Hamasniks into Gaza. That goes double for Hamas’s rival, Fatah. The two may have signed a unity agreement seeking to forge a common government and hold elections, but how will it go when Palestinian Authority “unity” government figures try to apply that piece of paper to Gaza? The New York Times gives us an idea:

The Palestinian Authority has had a new government for 10 days now, but the prime minister, Rami Hamdallah, acknowledged on Thursday that he still lacked any authority in the Hamas-dominated Gaza Strip and that nothing has yet changed on the ground.

Though the new government was approved by both of the rival Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, Mr. Hamdallah offered no plan for disarming militants, integrating the two sides’ security forces, or even for getting Gaza’s 1.7 million residents to start paying taxes and electricity bills.

How does Mr. Hamdallah plan to rectify this? Your guess is as good as his:

In an hourlong interview, Mr. Hamdallah laid much of the responsibility for reconciling the West Bank and Gaza after seven years of schism on two committees, one of which has yet to be formed. He repeated political platitudes about Palestinian unity, but offered no practical program to deliver it.

Part of that can be explained by the fact that Hamdallah apparently doesn’t approve of the team he was not able to choose:

Mr. Hamdallah, who has been prime minister for a year, said he was dissatisfied with his new cabinet, which was selected through negotiations between the Fatah-dominated Palestine Liberation Organization and Hamas, the militant Islamic faction that has ruled Gaza since 2007. If the decision had been left up to him, he said, he would have chosen “very few” of the ministers in the new cabinet.

Asked when he would visit Gaza, Mr. Hamdallah was silent for a long moment and then said, “We haven’t set a time for that.”

Let’s stipulate that we’re not even two weeks into this new government, and that the leadership is temporary anyway until elections can be held, and so no one’s expecting miracles. But Palestinian leaders hoping to break up Hamas’s monopoly in Gaza really should consider actually going there.

Unless it’s all for show, as skeptics of the Hamas-Fatah unity deal have been warning. As the Times notes:

Samah Sabawi, a Palestinian poet and political activist who lives in Australia but has many relatives in Gaza, said the bank crisis showed a “lack of trust on the ground between the two factions.”

“If it’s a normal democracy in a sovereign nation, you can have diverse views with conflicting agendas,” Ms. Sabawi said. “But we’re talking about a people under occupation. Their politics, their policies, are always beholden to whomever is paying their money. It really has been reduced to just theater.”

There can’t be a peace deal without Palestinian unity, but there can’t be Palestinian unity without a peace deal, and around and around we go. Yet the remark about it all being “just theater,” however accurate, also points to the fact that the Obama administration is playing the same game.

All these loopholes and facades, such as the idea that no one in the new government is explicitly a member of Hamas, are not fooling Washington. They are, instead, adhering to precisely what Washington wants from them at the moment. American law says we can’t fund a Palestinian government that includes Hamas, but the Obama administration wants to support Palestinian unity which necessarily has to include Hamas–regardless of what their party registration cards say.

As long as there’s a technicality on which the administration can legally continue its policy of engagement, it will do so. No one’s fooling anyone, because they don’t have to.

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