Hamas and Fatah: No civil war
Fatah vs. Hamas, heading toward an internecine Palestinian war?
LEMONDE.FR | 14.12.06 | 13h04 • Updated 15.12.06 | 12h08
The unabridged debate with Jean-François Legrain, CNRS researcher, Friday, December 15th, 11:00 am
Q. What are the main differences between the Fatah and Hamas organizations?
These are two organizations with very different origins. Fatah is a national liberation movement that appeared towards the end of the 1950’s and the beginning of the 1960’s, which, over the years, has become the principal force for Palestinian nationalism. It is the most important organization within the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization, composed of numerous organizations], and it is Fatah that is the backbone of the autonomous Palestinian Authority put in place by the 1993 Oslo Accords.
Hamas is a Muslim Brotherhood movement whose major activity was once the active preaching of a certain reading of Islam. But starting in 1987, during the First Intifada, the Muslim Brotherhood movement was compelled to join the national struggle against the Occupation. And Hamas was born of this transformation in the Muslim Brotherhood.
Q. What is the balance of power between Fatah and Hamas? What support have they found within the population and from neighboring countries?
The legislative elections that took place in January 2006 put on display the bi-polarity on the Palestinian political scene because Hamas and Fatah, and they alone, won 90% of the seats in Parliament and 80% of the vote.
Hamas won an absolute majority, with 56% of the vote, while Fatah won 34%. Concerning the number of seats, the gap was less significant, since Hamas got 41% and Fatah 35% The two movements today constitute the heart of the Palestinian political scene.
And everything leads to believe that today, ten months after the last elections, that Hamas will remain the principal political force in the eyes of Palestinian public opinion.
Q. What regional support has been garnered by these two organizations?
Fatah benefits from the support of traditional Palestinian and Arab nationalist movements. As a member of the PLO, it is represented in the Arab League; thus, Arab states have generally supported the PLO –recognized in 1974 as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.
Hamas has entered the national Palestinian political scene only recently. And in its struggle today with Fatah and the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas has the active support of Iran. But Hamas was very reluctant to play the card of financial support from Iran out of fear that such a policy would be read by the international community as a policy of political alignment with Iran.
It happens that the Palestinian cabinet, led by Hamas, has received a certain amouunt of support from the Arab League in the form of support for the Palestinian people and the expression of the will of the people through an election recognized as honest and transparent.
Q. Both organizations seek autonomy for their country. Is their internal struggle due to the difference in the choice of methods to attain this goal (recognition or not of Israel, establishment of an Islamist state…)?
The two organizations are agitating for the creation of a Palestinian state and the end to the Israeli military occupation, which may be direct or indirect, depending on the zone. The two organizations demand the implementation of different UN resolutions concerning the right to self-determination by Palestinian people and to have a country of their own.
The difference between these organizations, Fatah and the PLO, is that Fatah has recognized Israel’s right to exist as it demands the creation of a Palestinian state adjacent to Israel, i.e. it accepts as legitimate the division of Palestine between a Jewish state, which occupies 77% of the land mass, and an Arab state, which will be entitled to the remaining 23%.
Hamas supports the coexistence of two states in Palestine, while simultaneously refusing to grant to Israel the principle of the existence of a non-Islamic state in Palestine. Hamas therefore accepts the de facto partition of Palestine into two states with the frontiers that existed prior to the 1967 war when Israel withdraws from all territory occupied during this war, –i.e., the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and Jerusalem.
Both movements demand the creation of a state and the end to military occupation, but Hamas has never formulated a detailed plan for a state on paper. But then, neither has Fatah nor the PLO. One shouldn’t become entrapped in the fallacy of believing that the secular PLO is engaged in a struggle with a Hamas that seeks an Islamic state because both recognize the central role of Islam. The Palestinian Authority, under the control of the PLO, and just like the PLO, declares Islam and Islamic law to be the fundament of the laws of the State that it hopes to create.
This is also the position of Hamas, which has always sought to impose an Islamic vision on society. But in fact, since the takeover of the executive by Hamas, there has been no coercive Islamization of society.
Q. How is the balance of power between Hamas and Fatah evolving? What are the determining factors?
We are in a period in which tensions are forcefully manifested but these are not new tensions. Since the victory by Hamas in the legislative elections of January 2006, we are witnessing a permanent and multifaceted coup d’état by the President of the Palestinian Authority and by Fatah –the movement defeated in the elections– against the legitimately elected Cabinet.
This coup d’état has taken on different forms within the civilian, military and political spheres through a set of appointments of high-ranking civilian and military officials that aims to prevent the Cabinet from functioning normally.
This “coup d’état” has received both the active and passive support of Israel and the international community. Today, tensions between the President and his Fatah ally with the Hamas-dominated Cabinet has spilled over into the street, with armed clashes between elements representing one side or the other.
However, one should avoid the term, “civil war”, to describe the ongoing outbreak of violence. We are, in fact, facing a multiplication of “small-scale” events and not generalized clashes that would mobilize both camps.
The violence, in fact, takes many forms: assassinations, kidnappings, armed confrontations and threats against individuals and property. This violence has produced 330 deaths since the beginning of the year, but the claimed justifications for the violence are extremely diverse.
They can be political, but in most cases they are the result of mafia-like rivalries that are local and clan-based; reading politics into these events would be a mistake. But the problem is fundamentally that of generalized security chaos in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank being spared.
Q. Why is Hamas so popular in the Arab street?
The Hamas movement is popular, like a certain number of other Arab movements –and I’m thinking specifically of Hezbollah, in Lebanon. These two movements are popular because they consider themselves the inheritors of Arab nationalism in its struggle against Israeli military occupation and the multiform presence of the United States in the region.
And the second aspect explaining the popularity of Hamas in the Arab street is the identification of the Muslim Brotherhood with Hamas. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamists constitute the most important popular force in the near totality of Arab states.
Q. Is it normal and desirable that a single party runs a monopoly over the security services, as the Fatah of Abbas does in the occupied territories?
Obviously not. As I said earlier, we are now witnessing a sort of coup d’état because the prerogatives normally granted the Cabinet are refused by the President. Paradoxically, President Mahmoud Abbas is denying Prime Minister Ismaïl Aniyeh the powers which he snatched after a sustained struggle with Yassir Arafat as prime minister in 2003.
The Palestinian Fundamental Law differentiates between security services that depend on the Presidency and others that depend on the Interior Minister. Since the victory by Hamas, the Presidency has assumed control of all security services. For long months, it has refused to recognize the creation of a so-called “Executive” force –a police force created by the Ministry of the Interior.
Q. How are these movement financed?
Financing for the Palestinian Authority –the Presidency and the Cabinet– comes from three sources: the most important is financing derived from reimbursement by Israel of provisions transiting its territory; between 40 and 50% of the Authority’s revenue normally comes from this reimbursement, which is stipulated in economic accords. But since the victory of Hamas, Israel has unilaterally frozen these sums.
The second source of revenue comes from taxes collected by the Authority itself from Palestinians; this normally represents 20% of its revenues.
The remaining income –depending on the year– between 40 and 50%, comes from international aid. Aid that has been frozen by the international community. Any international aid now is being directed exclusively to the President or to civilian NGO’s.
Q. What is the role of other Palestinian political organizations?
Their role is both marginal and significant. Marginal, given the near monopoly of Fatah and Hamas on the political scene following the presidential and legislative elections. Important because they also represent Palestinian identity. These organizations can point to their common and effective role in the national struggle of these last decades. Any decision concerning the future of the Palestinian people must unite the entire political spectrum. Of course, the two largest organizations but also the small ones, whose presence is recognized as necessary in the building of Palestinian national consensus.
Q. How is the current power struggle between the President and the Palestinian government going to play out?
That is obviously hard to say. The problem is that today Fatah has so far failed to study the reasons behind its defeat; it simply rejects it.
For its part, Hamas entered the elections without recognizing the legitimacy of the institutions for which it competed. In fact, Hamas has always rejected the Oslo Accords in the conviction that they are unable to produce a legitimate solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
One of the exits to the impasse would be dissolution of the Palestinian Authority by consensus between Fatah and Hamas, which would force the international community to face its responsibilities. For decades, the international community has recommended the creation of two states in Palestine, one Jewish and one Palestinian, but it has never found the means to implement its own resolutions.
By dissolving the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinians would force the international community to follow through on its commitments, not only financially but politically and militarily.
But it would also signify a rupture with the international policy of the last few decades, which has gone adrift to the benefit, de facto, of the regional superpower, Israel, which enjoys the active support of the United States. And therefore, an abandonment to the logic of simple balance of power.
Chat moderated by Constance Baudry