In the summer of 1997, I found myself seated in the office of Yasser Arafat in
Gaza. I had known Arafat for many years, and was a welcome visitor. Being an
American and a friend gave me privileges. Others weighed their words, but I was
constrained by no such requirement. So as he thumbed through a stack of papers,
I pleaded clemency for a friend who had been under house arrest in Gaza for the
better part of a year.
The man, a prominent security official, had ordered Palestinian security forces
to fire on a Hamas demonstration the summer before and Arafat, enraged, had
ordered him home. "He made a
mistake," I said. "It's time to bring him back." Arafat ignored me.
There was a long moment of silence as Arafat's aides eyed one another in
discomfort. Arafat motioned to one of them and handed him a paper. This was
typical of him. You could spend hours with the man in silence. He continued to
pretend he hadn't heard, so I plunged on. "The man is dedicated," I said.
Arafat stopped, his eyes widening, but he still refused to look at me. I waited
many moments and pleaded my case again. "He's a good man."
Finally, he spoke, but he bit off each word, making his point. "This is not
your concern." And he was silent again. "I think that it is," I said. "He is a
friend of mine." Arafat was suddenly exasperated and locked me in his gaze, to
emphasize his point: "He crossed a line."
Those of us who know and understand something of Palestinian society were
saddened by June's Gaza troubles - the flickering YouTube films of Palestinian
gunmen being dragged willy-nilly through the streets of the strip seemed a
talisman of lines crossed so many times they no longer existed. Palestinians
have fought one another before - most notably in the Palestinian Civil War that
raged in northern Lebanon in 1983 - but nothing like this.
Palestinians themselves seemed to draw back, even recoil, from the violence.
"Both sides made mistakes," Hamas official Usamah Hamdan told me in Beirut in
late June, and there was sadness in his voice. "We are sorry for that."
In the wake of these troubles, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas cut ties
with Hamas, declared an emergency government, suspended the workings of the
Palestinian Legislative Council, arrested dozens of Hamas legislative members,
clamped down on anti-government protests, purged critics in his own Fatah
movement, and announced that he would begin immediate talks with the Israeli
government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
The United States reciprocated: it urged Israel to release hundreds of millions
of US dollars in tax monies and said it would work toward the creation of a
Palestinian state. It pressured Israel to ease travel restrictions in the West
Bank, awarded the Abbas government tens of millions of dollars in economic and
security aid, and urged Arab nations to support Abbas' political program.
Additionally it called on the European Union to take similar actions,
dispatched a team of experts to assess Palestinian needs, called for an
international conference to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and
conducted high-level talks with Arab nations to make certain their support for
these programs was assured.
The actions were breathtaking in their scope. They provided, for the first time
in nearly a decade, the prospect for a political resolution of the daunting
Palestinian-Israeli conflict. And they have absolutely no prospect of success.
Instead, Abbas will fail to solidify his position as president of the
Palestinian Authority; the US program to support him will fail; there will be
no international conference; and, within the next 60-90 days - and almost
certainly by the end of the year - Abbas and his colleagues will either be
forced into exile or will take steps to reconstitute the national-unity
government that they have spent the past 60 days destroying. And here's why.
Palestinian society is not divided Palestinian society is more united
than it has been in years, in spite of what we see on our televisions or read
in the US press.
The "Gaza coup" was not launched in Gaza, but in Ramallah - and the forces that
brought instability to the Gaza Strip were funded and armed by the US. They did
not represent Fatah or even a majority in Fatah, but rather a small minority of
Fatah radicals. The vast majority of mainline forces in Fatah, and even a
significant number in the Fatah Central Committee, did not support the arming
of the Preventive Security Services (PSS). The leader of the PSS, Mohammad
Dahlan, is now in exile, and his opponents are calling for his arrest.
The Palestinian people know this. They know their vote was overturned by Abbas
and the United States, and they resent it.
Hamas still popular, gaining strength
It is true, there have been some dips in the popularity of the movement in some
areas, but the losses are not significant. And, remember, there is a tendency
in the US consistently to underestimate Hamas' popularity, which I attribute
A disbelief that Palestinians could support such an organization.
A belief in US-funded Palestinian polling numbers.
The reputed secular nature of Palestinian society.
A tendency to overlook the traditional strength of Hamas during periods of
The impact of the economic embargo.
My own (admittedly unscientific) belief is that Hamas' strength is likely to
grow. The movement's base of support has widened significantly - from about 9%
in the late 1980s to about 25-30% now, numbers that match up well to any
well-established Western political party.
While its parliamentary victory in January 2006 was due largely to Fatah's poor
reputation, Hamas has not repeated Fatah's mistakes: despite the clear
temptations of power, it has provided as good a government as its resources
have allowed - no stain of impropriety has touched its senior leadership. This
remains its most significant achievement.
Hamas represents mainstream society
Palestinian society is not secular, liberal, progressive and Western. It is
Arab, traditional, conservative and Muslim.
Mahmoud Abbas, Salam Fayad, Saeb Erakat and Yasser Abed Rabbo are fine people -
and they are friends of mine - but they do not represent mainstream Palestinian
society. Hamas does. The election of Hamas and its continued strength is not a
setback for Palestinian society, but a reflection of its growth. My own
Hamiltonian tendencies are humbled.
It is possible to understand the US by visiting Boston, but I wouldn't
recommend it - any more than I would recommend that an American believe that
Hanan Ashrawi is typically Palestinian. Americans aren't governed so much from
the Washington Beltway as they are from their local boroughs, and Palestinians
aren't governed from Ramallah, but from Jubalya - and wishing it so doesn't
make it so.
That Fatah was defeated is not simply a comment on its corruption, but on its
inability to speak for the people of Palestine. It is for this that Hamas is
likely to grow and prosper.
Hamas is not wedded to violence
Hamas stood for an election and won. The United States decided to reverse the
verdict of a democratic process, not Hamas.
There is certainly debate inside Hamas on the efficacy of continuing the
movement's involvement in electoral politics. The loss of some popular support,
the reversion to violence in Gaza, the inability of the movement to break the
international boycott, emerging divisions inside Hamas itself, and the closing
off of political options have sparked this internal debate.
But I doubt that Hamas will abandon its current strategy in favor of violent
confrontation, either with Fatah or with Israel. The view from Gaza may seem
dark; perhaps the view is even darker in Damascus. But there is another side to
the ledger, and it is as significant: balancing Hamas' strengths are Fatah's
continuing weaknesses - and those cannot be reversed with a simple infusion of
From top to bottom, Fatah is broken
Fatah is weak, aging, corrupt, disorganized, and even more divided than Hamas;
it is funded exclusively through outside sources; it lacks a clear political
program and political vision; its leadership is out of touch, conference-bound,
tethered to a past era; it is dependent for its survival on the United States
and Israel (a fact of which Palestinian society is well aware, at the expense
of Fatah's credibility); it is at war with its own younger cadre (which are
abandoning the movement).
Its militant Tanzim grassroots are growing in strength, but is alienated from
Fatah's leadership, is disenchanted with its corruption and, perhaps most
important, is cooperating with Hamas. The Fatah grassroots is pushing hard,
just now, for the long-delayed General Conference to reform the organization.
Abbas can throw Hamas legislators in jail - it will be much more difficult to
throw members of his own party in jail, which is why the political battle being
waged in the West Bank now is being waged inside of Fatah.
Abbas' power has been significantly eroded inside of his own organization. The
recent meeting of the committee called to make an assessment of the Gaza
troubles repudiated Abbas' appointees: Mohammad Dahlan, Rashid Abu Shabak and
Tawfik Tarawi. Abbas is within one vote of losing his Fatah power base. His
closest aides (Salam Fayad, Saeb Erakat, Rafiq Husseini, Yasser Abed Rabbo)
count for nothing in Fatah, because they have no vote in the organization.
Abbas' plea to the Central Committee that "my aides have told me my actions are
legal" brought laughter even from his closest supporters.
Former Palestinian prime minister Abu Alaa has refused to support him and Hani
al-Hassan has denounced him. In response someone shot up Hassan's house. "They
made sure I wasn't here," he told me, laughing. And the former national
security adviser, Jabril Rajoub, has called for Mohammad Dahlan's arrest.
Abbas' response has been to say he will hold national elections - but without
allowing Hamas to run. And US President George W Bush has conferred his
blessing on this, calling Abbas' government "legitimate".
Abbas is increasingly isolated
The non-payment of governmental salaries to Hamas members in the West Bank is
causing deep disenchantment because it cuts across family and tribal lines. So
it is that one brother, a Fatah member, is paid while another, a Hamas member,
Salam Fayad has thereby proved to be a good bean-counter, but not much of a
politician. He has set family against family, brother against brother. And
doing that is deeply resented in the West Bank. So too the security services
are in a posture of near-revolt over the policy of continuing arrests of
anti-Abbas partisans. Posters have begun to appear in the West Bank, styling
Abbas a Palestinian Augusto Pinochet - or worse, an "Abu Musa" (the man the
late Syrian president Hafez Assad sent to kill Arafat in Lebanon). The posters
are being designed by Fatah, not Hamas.
Do we really believe that the Palestinian police will continue to follow Abbas'
orders: to arrest Hamas activists because they do not meet the conditions of
the Quartet? Because Hamas does not "recognize Israel"?
The united front of the US and Israel and the Arab regimes is no match for
Hamas in the battle for Palestinian support. Indeed, the much-vaunted united
front being built by the US against Hamas is something of a myth: the Egyptians
and Saudis have quietly repudiated the US program to overthrow Hamas, and
instead have urged Fatah and Hamas to reconcile.
Former US secretary of state Colin Powell has called for talks with the Hamas
leadership, while Israel's support for Abbas remains predictably indifferent.
(They're no dummies - the Israelis, too, will end up talking to Hamas is my
bet.) There are 542 roadblocks in the West Bank - the same number will be there
tomorrow and next week and next month. Tell me I'm wrong. Israel has returned
tax money collected for the Palestinians to the Palestinians, but not all of it
- and it has trickled in.
Do we really, really believe that the Israelis will suddenly rise up as one and
say they intend to endorse United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338? Or are they
now quietly laughing into their tea and shaking their heads: we're going to
support Abbas? We're going to send him guns? We're going to conduct talks with
him and calculate that he will be able to produce competent and uncorrupt
administration - and one that has the support of his people? Or are they
willing to see that the last time there was an election in Palestine, Abbas'
The US program in Iraq is in a shambles. Calm and stability are returning to
Gaza; questions about the US program for Palestine are being raised in
Washington. This is not a time for sudden political movement or a shift in
strategy, it is a time for political calculation. Hamas knows it. Israel knows
it. Egypt knows it. Saudi Arabia knows it. The only person who doesn't seem to
know it is George W Bush.
Some US politicians and Abbas' more alarmist allies like to paint the Hamas
administration in Gaza as a kind of pro-Iranian Islamic state, but this hardly
stands up to scrutiny. There is no enforcement of the veil or other
conservative Islamic social laws, no sharia council, no compulsion to attend
the mosque. Stability has returned to Gaza. People are obeying the law, and
feel secure. This is not a lesson lost on either Egypt or the Israelis. Which
would they rather have - civil conflict or civil order?
Abbas has crossed the line
Several years after my mild confrontation with Arafat in Gaza, I met with him
at his headquarters in Ramallah. It was a bright early-April morning and quite
memorable for its beauty: just one day after the resolution of the siege of the
Church of the Nativity. Those in the church had, the day before, been sent out
of the church to Europe - away from their families and into an involuntary
exile. Their departure had been emotional: they had walked out of the church as
their families, on the rooftops of Bethlehem, cheered and wept.
The next day, I traveled very early to Ramallah to see Arafat to talk to him
about the siege. When I arrived, I was ushered into his upstairs office. It was
just after dawn. I was exhausted, but I found Arafat in a good mood and open to
my banter. "I think you crossed a line," I told him. It was something I would
not have dared to say at any other time, but he was smiling at me and so he
nodded, as if humoring me. "Oh?" he asked. "And what line would that be?" I had
him, finally, and so I recited the rule, liturgically: "Palestinians do not
send other Palestinians into exile," I said. He looked at me and nodded and
then looked down, suddenly sad. "Yes," he said. "But I have another line," and
he reflected: "Palestinians do not send other Palestinians to Israeli jails."
There are lines. Palestinians do not send other Palestinians into exile;
Palestinians do not shoot other Palestinians; Palestinians do not betray other
Palestinians, Palestinians do not resolve their political differences by
gunfire, Palestinians do not collaborate with their enemies, do not betray
their own people, Palestinians are not traitors to their own cause,
Palestinians do not send Palestinians to Israeli jails. And at one time or
another each of these lines has been crossed. But at no time, ever, has any
Palestinian ever renounced the one principle - the one true commandment that
has motivated every Palestinian patriot from Arafat to Abu Musa to Abu Nidal:
that the Palestinian people are indivisible; that they cannot be divided.
Until now. By turning his back on the Palestinians in Gaza, but even actively
seeking their impoverishment in the UN (as he did, shamefully, when his
diplomats blocked efforts to seek a Security Council statement on the
humanitarian situation there), Abbas has set out to divide the Palestinian
nation, to set it against itself. And that line, in the end, cannot be crossed.
And the fact that Abbas has crossed it will, in the hearts and minds of the
Palestinian people, make all the difference. There is only one Palestine and
now, Abbas is not a part of it.
Mark Perry is the author of the recently released Partners in
Command and the co-director of Conflicts Forum. This article first appeared in
Rootless Cosmopolitan at www.tonykaron.com.