The latest convoluted set of events within Palestine, and at its borders, form a depressing tableau that mirrors the conflict as a whole.
Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister compelled by an Israeli-Arab-Western financial blockade to seek his government’s budget from Iran and Sudan, was denied reentry into Gaza, the seat of his government, until Israeli-Egyptian-US negotiations decided he would leave his bags of donated cash behind in Egypt. That a Palestinian’s movements should be thus externally controlled is not, of course, novel, and Israel accorded Yasser Arafat similar treatment, in life and in death. But there was a twist in Haniyeh’s delayed border crossing on December 14: the prime minister’s entourage met a hail of bullets from gunmen likely linked to Fatah, the main rival of the Hamas movement to which he belongs. Haniyeh escaped, but a bodyguard did not.
The backdrop to this imbroglio is the refusal, by Israel, the United States and much of Fatah, to accept the outcome of the January 2006 Palestinian elections, won fair and square by Hamas. Israel promptly halted transfer of the customs revenues it owes by treaty to the Palestinian Authority (PA). The US organized a Western-Arab aid embargo upon the Hamas-led PA, to remain in place unless Hamas recognizes Israel, renounces violence and embraces all agreements signed between Israel and the Palestinians under Arafat.
One might call these actions hypocritical. Having spent 2005 extolling the virtues of electoral democracy to Arabs, the Bush administration then boycotted the victor of the first Arab elections in decades in which the reins of power actually changed hands. Certainly, the revenue and aid blockade, aiming as it does to starve the Palestinian people into turning against Hamas, is immoral.
But the half-secret behind the sordid scene at the Gaza border crossing is that the embargo is slipping. For some months, alarmed by humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian territories, the European Union has been sending indirect aid, which, though not disbursed by Hamas-controlled ministries, does ease the burdens on the population and, hence, the popular pressure on Haniyeh’s party. Neither is Hamas simply waiting for charity. According to European border monitors, the prime minister’s colleagues had already brought some $80 million in cash, much of it raised in the Arabian Peninsula, into Gaza before he was stopped. Hamas has weathered the embargo without acceding to US-Israeli demands and, thus, it has retained its mantle as the political force representing the spirit of resistance to Israeli occupation. As independent leftist Mustafa Barghouthi told the Washington Post , “If they were to hold [new parliamentary] elections tomorrow, I’m fairly certain the results would not be much different.” Why? Mouin Rabbani of the International Crisis Group puts it this way: “The Palestinians are being asked to choose between their national dignity and their next meal”—and so far they are choosing the former. Even Israel’s five-month offensive in Gaza, following Palestinian capture of an army corporal, seems not to have eroded Hamas’ support.
Enter the final dramatis personae, President Mahmoud Abbas and those others in Fatah whose hopes spring eternal for a resurrection of the 1990s “peace process,” despite Israel’s manifest lack of interest. For months, Abbas has been avowedly anxious to woo Hamas into forming a “national unity” government, but his conditions keep moving away from a national reconciliation document agreed upon in June and toward the Israeli-US conditions for relaxing the siege upon Gaza and the West Bank. For that reason, and because the embargo has amplified less compromising voices within Hamas, the Islamist movement has declined. On December 16, Abbas upped the ante, threatening to call new parliamentary and presidential elections if Hamas does not change its mind.
The US and Britain have backed this maneuver, whose legality the American media persist in casting as “unclear.” But according to Nathan Brown, a scholar of Arab constitutions, the Palestinian Basic Law is “extremely clear and definitive” that Palestinian legislative terms are four years long. Full stop. The Palestinian president, Brown writes, “has no more basis for early parliamentary elections than President George W. Bush has for ordering new Congressional elections if he does not like the result.”
Couple this fact with Fatah’s complicity in Washington’s attempts to unseat Hamas—such as back-door funding, already in October, for the Islamists’ putative electoral opponents—and the deeper contours of the ongoing Hamas-Fatah clashes in Gaza come into focus. The US might like to see the fighting escalate; when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last visited Washington, Bush reportedly pressed him to allow the Badr Brigades, a Palestinian armed unit based in Jordan, into the West Bank. Do the two largest Palestinian factions have the stomach for civil war? Or, instead, will Hamas return underground and step up attacks on Israel, hoping for Abbas to assume the role of Israeli-US proxy policeman played by rafat during the 1990s? The Hamas politburo head promises the latter scenario, if his party is not permitted to govern. So Israel and the US, who limned the Palestinians’ current plight, will also sketch the outline of the sequel.