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reflections

Feb 24, 2009 | 03:06 GMT

4 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: Public Divisions Among the Palestinians

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
Hamas said on Monday that a delegation led by the group's No. 2 official, Moussa Abu Marzouk, would attend Egyptian-sponsored talks with rival group Fatah in Cairo on Tuesday. In addition to the Hamas-Fatah negotiations, Cairo will be hosting a conference of 13 Palestinian factions who will discuss the future of the Fatah-dominated Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Even as Hamas and Fatah prepared for the talks, relations between the two remained tense, with Hamas accusing the Fatah-dominated Palestinian National Authority of collaborating with Israel during the recent Gaza offensive. There has been, in effect, a civil war within the Palestinian community for years, pitting two radically different visions of Palestine against each other. The older tradition represented by Fatah was secular and socialist, and above all, pan-Arab. Islam was incidental to what it believed, and in some ways it was hostile to Islam, and to Islamic states like Saudi Arabia. Fatah derived its existence from Egypt under Gamal Abdul Nasser and was part of his historic alignment with the Soviet Union. Indeed, during the 1970s in particular, Fatah itself was closely aligned with the Soviet Union. It represented a very different Palestine from the one Hamas has in mind. Hamas' roots run to the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the largest opposition movement in Egypt. Hamas is not in any way secular or socialist or pan-Arab. It sees itself as religious, supporting traditional society, and celebrating an Islamism that goes beyond the Arab world. It sees the traditional enemies of Fatah — the conservative monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula — as its friends. Apart from sharing a Palestinian identity and hostility to Israel, Hamas and Fatah have little in common and much to divide them. For Fatah, the struggle for statehood is part of a secular ideological imperative. Therefore, there is an element of flexibility built into its attitude. In the end, its mission does not come from Allah. Hamas' mission does come from Allah, and this limits what they can concede and bargain away. But more than that, Hamas is a movement in Gaza; Fatah now dominates the West Bank. These are two utterly different environments. Gaza is a city, not a region. It is a vast slum which has a minimal economy and which, in the end, survives on charity and foreign aid. The Palestinians in Gaza have little room to maneuver, little room for compromise and less to lose. They are trapped in an untenable position, and surrounded by two enemies: Israel and Egypt. Gaza is a natural fit for Hamas. The West Bank, for all of its shortcomings, is a very different place. It is a region with distinct towns and villages, many with diverse outlooks and interest. There is a vast chasm between Hebron's militancy and Jericho's relative quiet. Governing the West Bank is a complex balancing act with multiple players that need to be satisfied. It would be wrong to say that the region is inherently moderate; it isn't. But it is a region whose politics are sufficiently complex that it can be governed only with flexibility. It is also a region that is not devoid of options with regard to Israel or its other enemy, Jordan. Therefore, the difference between Hamas and Fatah is partly a difference in ideology but also a difference in geography. It is ironic to think of Fatah as moderate, given its role from Munich to Beirut. But at the same time, Fatah was never locked into a position the way Hamas is. The current tensions between Fatah and Hamas are not new; the two sides have been at war for years. Though a stalemate of sorts exists between them, Hamas wants to supplant Fatah. It is unlikely that Hamas can do that. Hamas is at home in Gaza. It is far less at home in the West Bank. What Hamas has done, however, is give Israel precisely what it wanted. There is now a very public civil war between the two Palestinian regions and factions. Hamas clearly thinks it has an opening, given the aging leadership of Fatah and the movement's lack of charisma. But Fatah is a mature and wily entity. It won't go gently into that good night — and it has the support, ironically, of Israel and many Arab countries worried about the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood-type Islamism. Hamas will not defeat Fatah quickly — and the longer the struggle continues, the more Israel benefits.

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