The Palestinian Cold War

Published in the Guardian (Comment is Free), 30/4/10

Though rarely alluded to by those engaged in trying to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the split between the Hamas enclave in Gaza and the West Bank Palestinian Authority has the increasing look of permanence about it. The divide reflects regional politics, with each of the rival authorities aligned with one of the opposing blocs in the cold war that currently dominates the Middle East.

Last week, Salah al-Bardawil, a leading Hamas official, said that efforts towards Palestinian reconciliation are “frozen”. In an interview with Quds press, Bardawil stated that communication between Hamas authorities in Gaza and the government of Egypt on the issue of reconciliation had ceased. Talks were now restricted to “matters such as permission for patients to leave Gaza for treatment or the return of deceased Palestinians across the Rafah crossing”.

Bardawil’s message was confirmed by Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in a speech in Damascus later in the week. Mashaal said Hamas had been urged by Arab officials to accept quartet conditions, including recognition of Israel, in return for changes to an Egyptian-brokered reconciliation agreement. He said that Hamas had reiterated its refusal. Addressing “the Americans, the Zionists, and everyone”, he asserted that Hamas would not “succumb to your terms. We won’t pay a political price no matter how long the blockade lasts. God is with us and he will grant us victory”.

These statements indicate that there is now no process underway towards ending the Palestinian political divide. On the ground, meanwhile, the rival Ramallah and Gaza Palestinian authorities are entrenching themselves.

Parallel to the rise of Hamas in Gaza, and its ongoing popularity in the West Bank, Fatah is in a process of severe decline. The movement failed to embark on a major project of reform following its election defeat in 2006. As a result, it remains riven by factionalism and corruption. It is increasingly irrelevant.

The key Palestinian leader in the West Bank today is prime minister Salam Fayyad. Fayyad is not a Fatah member, and his government holds power not as a result of that movement’s authority. Rather, Fayyad is in effect an appointee of the west.

The security forces led by General Keith Dayton, which keep him in place, are western organised and financed, and not beholden to any political faction. His gradualist approach is quite alien to Palestinian political culture, and despite the undoubted improvements this has brought to daily life in the West Bank, the level of his support is uncertain.

It remains widely believed that without the presence of the Dayton forces and, more importantly, without the continued activities of the IDF in the West Bank, the area would fall to Hamas in a similar process to that which took place in Gaza.

Veteran Palestinian political analyst Yezid Sayigh recently noted that both the Gaza and Ramallah governments are dependent for their economic survival on foreign assistance. The Fayyad government has an annual $2.8bn budget, of which one half consists of direct foreign aid. The Hamas authorities, meanwhile, announced a budget of $540m, of which $480m is to come from outside (Iran). The dependence on foreign capital reflects perhaps the salient element shared by both Palestinian governments – they are both able to continue to exist because of the interests of rival outside powers.

The Middle East is currently divided between a loose alliance of states aligned with the US and the west, and an Iran-led “resistance bloc” of states and movements. Hamas is able to maintain its sovereign enclave in Gaza as a result of the willingness of Iran to arm and finance it. The Gaza enclave serves Iran’s purposes well. It gives Tehran an effective veto over any attempt to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It also gives non-Arab Iran a direct point of entry into the single most important regional conflict in the eyes of the masses of the Arab world.

The west, which also attaches massive importance to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has itself in turn been prepared to create, finance and underwrite a version of Palestinian politics and governance – that of Fayyad – which is to its liking, once it became clear that the Palestinians themselves were not going to do this.

The result is that Palestinian politics has been thoroughly penetrated by the larger regional standoff. Each of the regional blocs has its own Palestinian authority, which acts as a laboratory and advertisement for its preferred methods. The Gaza version favours strict Islamic governance and armed struggle to the end against Israel. The Ramallah government – according to Sayigh the less representative of the two – stands for alignment with the west and proclaimed acceptance of a negotiated solution.

The proudest achievement of PLO and Fatah leader Yasser Arafat was the establishment of a single, authoritative Palestinian national movement not beholden to or dependent on any outside power. This movement no longer exists. The full implications of its disappearance are not yet apparent. But the continued presence of two rival, dependent authorities changes the basic dynamic both of Palestinian politics, and of the framework of possibilities between Israelis and Palestinians. It deserves far greater attention.

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2 Responses to The Palestinian Cold War

  1. Gary says:

    Thanks for the article Jonathan! Another great informational piece for those of us living outside the Middle East. So much of what we read is heavily biased so it is refreshing to read factual and non-emotive pieces such as this.

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