By Mark Perry
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 each other 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 each other 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 Abu Mazen (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 he would begin immediate talks with the Olmert government. The U.S reciprocated: it urged Israel to release hundreds of millions of dollars in tax monies, said it would work towards the creation of a Palestinian state, pressured Israel to ease travel restrictions in the West Bank, awarded the Abu Mazen government tens of millions of dollars in economic and security aid, urged Arab nations to support Abu Mazen’s political program, called on the EU 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, Abu Mazen will fail to solidify his position as President of the Palestinian Authority; the American program to support him will fail; there will be no international conference; and, within the next sixty to ninety days — and almost certainly by the end of the year — Abu Mazen and his colleagues will either be forced into exile or will take steps to reconstitute the national unity government that they have spent the last 60 days destroying.
And here’s why:
Palestinian society is more united than it has been in years, in spite of what we see on our televisions or read in the American press. The “Gaza coup” was not launched in Gaza, but in Ramallah — and the forces that brought instability to the Strip were funded and armed by the United States. 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. 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 Abu Mazen and the United States, and they resent it.
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 U.S. to consistently underestimate Hamas’s popularity, which I attribute to:
– a disbelief that Palestinians could support such an organization
– a belief in U.S.-funded Palestinian polling numbers
– the reputed secular nature of Palestinian society
– a tendency to overlook the traditional strength of Hamas during periods of confrontation, and
– the impact of the economic embargo.
My own (admittedly unscientific), belief is that Hamas’s strength is likely to grow. The movement’s base of support has widened significantly — from about 9 percent in the late 1980s to about 25 to 30 percent now, numbers that match up well to any well-established Western political party. While its parliamentary victory in January of 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.
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 America 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 from Nantucket but from Natchez, 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 their corruption, but on their inability to speak for the people of Palestine. It is for this that Hamas is likely to grow and prosper.
Hamas stood for an election and won. We decided to reverse the verdict of a democratic process, not them. There is certainly debate inside of 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’s strengths are Fatah’s continuing weaknesses — and those cannot be reversed with a simple infusion of our money.
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 are alienated from Fatah’s leadership, disenchanted with its corruption and, perhaps most importantly, is cooperating with Hamas. The Fatah grassroots is pushing hard, just now, for the long-delayed General Conference to reform the organization. Abu Mazen can throw Hamas legislators in jail — it will be much more difficult to throw members of his own party in jail, which is why …
Abu Mazen’s 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 Abu Mazen’s appointees: Mohammad Dahlan, Rashid Abu Shabak and Tawfik Tarawi. Abu Mazen 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. Abu Mazen’s plea to the Central Committee last Tuesday, that “my aides have told me my actions are legal,” brought laughter even from his closest supporters. Former Prime Minister Abu Alaa has refused to support him and Hani al-Hassan has denounced him. In response someone shot up Hassan’s house. He laughs: “They made sure I wasn’t here,” he told me. And the former national security advisor, Jabril Rajoub has called for Mohammad Dahlan’s arrest. Abu Mazen’s response has been to say he will hold national elections — but without allowing Hamas to run. And our president has conferred his blessing on this, calling Abu Mazen’s government “legitimate.” Truly, truly, truly, we are a light in the darkness, a city on a hill.
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) is not. Salam Fayad has thereby proven 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-Abu Mazen partisans. Posters have begun to appear in the West Bank, styling Abu Mazen a Palestinian Pinochet — or worse, an “Abu Musa” (the man whom 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’s orders: to arrest Hamas activists because they do not meet the conditions of the Quartet? Because Hamas does not “recognize Israel?”
Indeed, the much-vaunted united front being built by the U.S. against Hamas is something of a myth: The Egyptians and Saudis have quietly repudiated the U.S. program to overthrow Hamas, and instead have urged Fatah and Hamas to reconcile. Colin Powell has called for talks with the Hamas leadership, while Israel’s support for Abu Mazen 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 Israel will suddenly rise up as one and say that they intend to endorse UN Resolutions 242 and 338? Or are they now quietly laughing into their tea and shaking their heads: we’re going to support Abu Mazen? 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 will to see what we have failed: that the last time there was an election in Palestine Mr. Abu Mazen’s party lost. The U.S. program in Iraq is in a shambles, calm and stability are returning to Gaza, questions about the American 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 Bush.
Some U.S. politicians and Abu Mazen’s 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?
Several years after my mild confrontation with Mr. 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 United Nations (as he did, shamefully, on Friday, when his diplomats blocked efforts to seek a Security Council statement on the humanitarian situation there), Abu Mazen 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 Abu Mazen has crossed it will, in the hearts and minds of the Palestinian people, make all the difference. There is only one Palestine and now, Abu Mazen is not a part of it.