May 21, 2009
Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine
by Jonathan Schanzer Palgrave Macmillan, New York, $26.95, 256 pages
Jonathan Schanzer has given us a very important book. The director of the conservative Jewish Policy Center writes with dispassionate objectivity; attacks nobody personally, and is not interested in propaganda. The main thrust of Hamas vs. Fatah is to point out, through historical research, that the Palestinians are facing an internal problem characterized by the rivalry between Fatah and the radical Islamic, anti-peace Hamas. The book also notes that this problem has been largely ignored by United States foreign policy as well as by the media, and that as a consequence, it came as a surprise when, for example, Hamas was victorious in the 2006 parliamentary elections and took over Gaza in June 2007.
Moreover, Schanzer shows how this internal Palestinian problem is a major obstacle for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
While not a work in which one single or a few theses are systematically developed, the book does bring forth an account of the events of the last decades among the Palestinians and expounds on Israel-Palestinian relations.
The Hamas-Fatah rivalry and the lack of Palestinian unity, Schanzer says, has been much more of an issue within the Palestinian territories than the search for Palestinian independence and the two-state solution. The latter is perceived by the Western media and some political leaders as the magic formula that will put an end to Palestinian discontent and the eternal “Middle East conflict.” But Schanzer’s insight into this matter raises the question: How exactly can a peace agreement with an external entity be possible while this internecine rivalry continues?
Schanzer describes in great detail how Fatah-Hamas negotiations have failed and how Hamas has systematically and violently challenged the authority of Hamas. Both factions not only have failed to achieve reconciliation but, it appears, have never intended their talks and agreements to succeed. Hamas’ stubborn ideology purposely avoids Palestinian reconciliation, not only because of competition with Fatah but because it rejects the idea of peace with Israel altogether. This idea, which may seem obvious to some of us, is not that obvious in a post-Bush era when the ghost of post-modern political analysis is returning. Indeed, some columnists, academics, and others appear to have revived the idea that Hamas and Iran are not so bad if you only look “deeper” or, that these entities on further inspection may be “even better than the Israeli government.”
Schanzer’s book is refreshingly rich in facts. While it is difficult to summarize, it is important to highlight some important facts that Schanzer brings forth:
First, without the Israel Defense Forces, the West Bank could fall in the hands of Hamas in a matter of days, as Gaza did in 2007. Thus, Schanzer reminds us, the final fight between the two factions is likely to end in a victory for the intransigent Hamas.
As a result of this non-parliamentarian, non-peaceful rivalry, there appears to be little room for more genuine grassroots movements, nor for parties that have already emerged and whose goals are to deal with such practical matters as economics or the peace process. Palestinian civil society has not found any way outside the framework of these two main groups.
Moreover, Schanzer (contrary to what is now a general perception) also holds regular Palestinians responsible for the victory of Hamas in the elections, which strengthened Hamas for the subsequent violent takeover of Gaza in the summer of 2007. Some Fatah leaders often have adopted the discourse and way of thinking of radical Islam, as reflected, for example, in the eruption of the al-Aqsa Intifada in September 2000. At the same time, a substantial number of Fatah members played a role in that violent development.
In addition, Schanzer, who completed his book a few months before this past winter’s Israeli operation in Gaza, clearly points out the responsibility of Arab countries in shaping Israeli-Palestinian relations. Egypt is geographically adjacent to Gaza and has failed, perhaps intentionally, to control weapons being smuggled to Hamas. Likewise, Egypt, by not effectively implementing sanctions against Hamas, has failed to isolate the terrorist group. The smugglers’ ability to bribe Egyptian police and border guards reveals a problem as serious as the one the United States faces on the Mexican border today. We cannot fail to see that Egypt’s ambivalent stance regarding Hamas is partly responsible for the escalation that brought about the conflict in Gaza.
And, in the same vein, Saudi Arabia, whose 2002 peace initiative is considered by many a sign that the Arab world is moving in the direction of peace with Israel, viewed Hamas terrorist suicidal attacks on Israel as “legitimate resistance.” Thus, the Saudis supported Hamas financially, well after their “heroic” 2002 peace initiative, and despite U.S. requests that such support cease.
Moreover, Schanzer graphically describes atrocities and the violations of rights of Christians under Islamic rule in Gaza. This situation — part of the so-called “Talibanization” of the region — has been purposely ignored by liberal Christian groups, mainly members of the World Council of Churches. Another crucial fact to revoke the ideas of those who see pragmatic-rational elements in Hamas.
On the other hand, Schanzer overemphasizes the importance of the cultural, linguistic, and historical differences between the West Bank and Gaza, insinuating they are an obstacle to creating a unified state. States have often been created from dissimilar regions (e.g., Italy). Also, Schanzer does not address in depth the differences between factions within Fatah, an issue considered to be important at the outbreak of the al-Aqsa Intifada.
Overall Hamas vs. Fatah brings forward the key facts of a complex problem and could bring U.S. policy-makers a better understanding of the dynamics of the actors in this troubled arena, thus helping them better shape the quality of their decisions. The book, despite the absence of a larger theoretical approach, is an excellent resource for academics. For the general public interested in the subject matter, the book is accessible, lively, and instructive.
Luis Fleischman (Luis.Fleischman@jewishpalmbeach.org) is executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County and an adjunct professor of sociology and political science at Florida Atlantic University Honors College.