Hamas and Fatah: A Temporary Marriage of Convenience

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 138

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The Hamas-Fatah agreement creates a Janus-faced government in the West Bank and Gaza, which is more smoke and mirrors than reality. When the time comes to divide up the bearskin – perhaps after international recognition (if this takes place) of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza – the deep-seated divisions between Hamas and Fatah will again come to the fore.

Both parties to the Hamas-Fatah “unity” agreement are acting on the basis of expediency. In fact, the appearance of unity and the accolades for achieving it are of more significance than unity itself.

Mahmoud Abbas is racing forward in preparation for the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, a move strongly backed by Europe, by some defeatist Israelis, and perhaps even by the White House. At this rate, in September 2011 he will become the president of a Palestinian state.

However, this in fact would be domestically disastrous for him. In Palestinian and Arab eyes, Abbas would be viewed as a traitor for relinquishing Haifa and Jaffa (i.e. Israel of 1948), for forsaking the refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, and for building a state on “only” 22 percent of Palestine. This situation would be intolerable for Abbas as it would create too wide a disparity between his favorable international status and his domestic status as a “traitor.” He requires backup in order to silence his worst critics, i.e., Hamas. Even if such an agreement enables the Islamist Hamas to win the majority of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council, as occurred in January 2006, and even if Hamas achieves the sought-after position of president in the elections that must be held within a year according to the agreement – Abbas prefers this to being branded a traitor. He must prepare for September by establishing a temporary state of calm in his backyard – this is what he aims to achieve through the agreement with Hamas.

Hamas, for its part, is amazed by the way the world ignores its de facto state in Gaza, with an army, a missile industry, a legislative system, law and order. Everyone is speaking only with Abbas, preparing a state for him, and filling his coffers, while they – the authentic and legitimate representatives of the Palestinian people, as Hamas views it – are left out of the discussion entirely. Hamas is concerned that the PLO will be recognized as the official ruling body in the new state, which is unacceptable to it. Can Hamas, who suffered years of blockade, siege and hunger, who firmly withstood bombings and assassinations, and who undermined Israel’s international standing through Goldstone and peace flotillas, now hand the controls over to Mahmoud Abbas, who actually encouraged Olmert to embark on Operation Cast Lead? The recent agreement, therefore, is favorable to Hamas as it enables both groups to share the steering wheel: Abbas with his foot on the gas and Hamas riding the breaks.

The agreement stipulates a “non-partisan ‘experts’ government,” which essentially means they have decided not to decide. The designation of executive positions, those which enable ministers to appoint their own people to positions of control, power and money, will be delayed until the next stage, if only to postpone the tussle over “dividing up the cake.” The critical issue at present is deciding who will control the security mechanisms, as these constitute the true source of power. Initially, Hamas will retain control over the Gaza strip. Abbas will pay a courtesy call after Hamas places behind bars all members of radical groups to guarantee his security. In the West Bank, Abbas will take measures to ensure that Hamas does not become too prominent, and that its leaders, who will be released from prison as part of the agreement, are well aware of the surveillance placed upon them.

While the PLO and Hamas differ ideologically, the main difference is in the sociological composition of the two organizations. The average age of Hamas activists and leaders is 30-40 while the average age of PLO activists is 60-70. The PLO represents the Naqba generation, an oppressed, exiled generation who would be satisfied with partial achievements before moving on to the next world. Among the PLO, many were born in the land on which the State of Israel was established in 1948, like Abbas, who was born in Safed. They are not perceived as “sons of the town” (Abnaa’ al-Balad) either in Ramallah or in Gaza, but as foreigners. They have no local family clan (hamula) to stand up in their support. The middle generation of PLO has a stronger connection to the area (Sa’eb ‘Arekat is from Jericho), but they are still an echelon above the common people, with suits, ties and gold cufflinks; they smoke cigars and travel in luxury vehicles with tinted windows.

In contrast, Hamas’ members are closer to the indigenous population, particularly to those in refugee camps who, for 63 years, remained marginalized socially, economically and politically, and who served as menial laborers of the effendis in Nablus, Ramallah and Gaza. These are the people who spent many years in Israeli prisons and are proud of the scars on their bodies rather than of suits they do not wear.

Another difference between the two groups, somewhat of a skeleton in the closet, is that Hamas is an authentic representation of the Gaza population, 90 percent of which is of Bedouin origin, while the PLO represents the urban, educated elite of the West Bank. Many of the women in the West Bank dress in flattering, modern fashion and reveal their hair, while the women of Gaza cover their bodies with loose-fitting jilbabs to hide their shape. They also conceal their hair with khimars and many even wear a heavy face covering. The West Bank residents look down on the Gaza residents. The two regions differ in culture, worldview and even in dialect. In the Middle East, a marriage between a Bedouin family and an urban family is never considered to have good prospects.

Despite the agreement, PLO-Hamas relations will continue to be ridden with suspicions from both sides. Hamas will constantly suspect Abbas of flirting with the United States, Europe and Israel, while Abbas will always be on the lookout for Hamas attempts to recruit members of his own camp.

The world has ceased to count the number of accords that the PLO and Hamas have signed. The best example is the signing of the Mecca agreement in February 2007, in front of the holy Kaaba shrine, following unrestrained physical force by Saudi King Abdallah. The aim of this agreement was to mend PLO-Hamas relations after the fallout that occurred when Hamas won the majority of parliamentary seats in the previous year’s elections. For an entire year, the PLO had refused to transfer any authority or governing positions to Hamas. Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya, a Hamas member, had his hands tied due to the rift with Israel, the Quartet’s hostility, the refusal of the US to recognize Hamas as a legitimate entity, and Europe’s aversion to funding an entity ruled – at least by name – by a terror organization.

The Mecca agreement should have directed both parties’ efforts toward common objectives – for instance, overcoming the Zionist occupation, freeing Jerusalem, promoting the return of the refugees, and releasing the imprisoned. The two sides agreed at the time to implement “political pluralism,” an expression used to avoid decision making on the political and operative guidelines. They also consented on the principle of political collaboration, which outwardly meant joint decision making, but in practice meant a mutual freeze of both parties to the agreement. The agreement eventually led to the establishment of a unity government in March 2007. However, disagreements along the way, over the identity of the decision makers, resulted in its collapse and in the Hamas takeover of Gaza that year.

Disagreements between the PLO and Hamas over objectives and methodology still exist today. Their differing worldviews have not diminished over the years of severance, accusations and defamations. While Hamas does not believe in the slogans propagated by Abbas about not relenting on the Palestinians’ rights, they are prepared, once again, to enter into a non-binding agreement with the PLO. This willingness has been spurred by the public demand in Gaza and Ramallah to solve the dispute and bridge the gaps, as a high political cost has been incurred by both sides due to the divisiveness.

Nevertheless, Hamas’ security apparatus, led by the ‘Izz-addin al-Qassam brigades, will never give in to the PLO agenda. The armed wing of the PLO, as well, will not consider, even for a moment, abiding by demands dictated by anyone from the Hamas camp. The contradictions within this Janus-faced emerging entity will continue to divide the Palestinian Authority, despite attempts to mitigate the discord. When the time comes to divide up the bearskin – perhaps after international recognition (if this takes place) of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza – the deep-seated divisions between Hamas and Fatah will again come to the fore.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family

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(Photo Credit: Hoheit)

Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Mordechai Kedar
Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Mordechai Kedar

Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Mordechai Kedar is a lecturer of Arabic studies and Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University and a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. Email: [email protected]

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