How Palestinian divisions undercut call for a UN deadline on statehood

The Fatah faction of President Mahmoud Abbas is fundamentally at odds with Hamas over diplomacy vs. armed conflict as the best path to statehood. The problem for Palestinians: Neither is working.

Mike Segar/Reuters
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas addresses the 69th United Nations General Assembly at United Nations Headquarters in New York, Friday, September 26, 2014.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is addressing the United Nations General Assembly Friday, wants an international ultimatum for Israel: Get out of the Palestinian territories in three years, or else.

The problem for Palestinians: They’re deeply divided over what should be the “else.”

In the wake of this summer’s war in the Gaza Strip, in which Hamas emerged as stronger militarily than any other Palestinian movement in history, 53 percent of Palestinians now support armed confrontation as the best route to statehood. But 22 percent still support Mr. Abbas and his Fatah party’s insistence on negotiation as the best path.

Palestinians are concerned that Israel is exploiting this division to its advantage, and to the detriment of the cause of an independent Palestinian state.

“It’s like having both your sons at home, and they’re not talking to each other,” says Hiam Asmari as she shops in Ramallah. “We have to be united in order to confront Israel.”

Fatah and Hamas, which reconciled in June after seven years of divided rule, theoretically now present a united front against Israel. A deal Thursday between the factions, which resolved some sticking points over Gaza’s governance and reconstruction, is evidence of that.

But despite a veneer of unity, the two factions – and their adherents – espouse deeply different visions for how to end Israel’s grip on the Palestinian territories, neither of which are working.

Since Fatah agreed to the 1993 Oslo Accords, 21 years of negotiations have failed to deliver a Palestinian state with a capital in East Jerusalem. And Hamas, despite its growing military strength, has been unable to make good on its founding promise to reestablish Muslim rule in historic Palestine.

“Our strategy has failed and their strategy has failed,” says Husam Zomlot, a senior foreign policy adviser for Fatah. “They are not closer to Jerusalem, and we are not closer to Jerusalem.”

Security coordination with Israel

One of the biggest points of contention is the security coordination between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israeli forces in the West Bank, which have worked together to quash Hamas. With the PA’s support, Israel rounded up hundreds of Hamas figures this summer, including many leaders.

Farraj Rumaneh was not one of them, because he was already in Israeli jail, his seventh incarceration – four were in Palestinian jail – in as many years. But he says it underscores a growing PA offensive against Islamist forces that has gained momentum post-Arab Spring.

“There is a methodology of throwing panic in the hearts of the people in the West Bank against Islamists to the point that they are made to appear as the enemy, and not Israel,” he says. “The testimony to this is that the PA is ready to arrest the freedom fighter and hand him over to Israel.”

Take Ahmed Khamis, a student at Bir Zeit University who supports Hamas. When he was interrogated by the PA earlier this year, the following day Israeli forces detained him and asked him about the exact issues he had discussed the day before with the PA.

While Palestinian security forces have started making rumblings about ending such coordination with Israel, some see it as in the PA’s interest. Hamas poses a potential threat to Fatah, the dominant force in the PA. While the factions have signed at least six accords aimed at ending the split, there are few signs of reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas on the ground.

“In the West Bank, I think reconciliation is nonsense,” says Mr. Khamis.

Waseem Wishaa, a Fatah member of the PA security forces in Gaza, is on the opposite side of the spectrum from Khamis but shares his view.

As one of tens of thousands of government employees in Gaza who remained loyal to the PA even after it was ousted by Hamas in 2007, he has been targeted by the Islamist movement. In the middle of the war this summer, he says, masked gunmen shot 22 bullets into his right leg when he stepped outside his home. He is now recovering in a Ramallah hospital.

“Hamas does not want reconciliation. They think that anybody who talks to Ramallah is a collaborator,” he says. “We in the security agencies are the victims of this feud between Hamas and Fatah.”

How to govern Gaza

In Cairo this week, Hamas and Fatah delegations met to iron out details about governance in Gaza, which was thrown off course first by a disagreement over who would pay overdue Hamas salaries, and then by the 51-day war.

While the factions had worked together in indirect cease-fire negotiations with Israel, other issues are much thornier, such as finances and security – particularly in Gaza, with Hamas’s Al Qassam Brigades loath to give up control.

“During talks with the Israelis, it was always possible to bridge [internal Palestinian] disagreements … but the general picture is a bit more complicated,” said Qais Abd al-Karim, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee and the cease-fire negotiation team, in an interview Wednesday. “Where both parties accuse each other either of obstructing the work of the government in Gaza … this is a kind of signal that the power struggle is continuing.”

With a donor conference on Gaza reconstruction scheduled for Oct. 12 in Cairo, the factions appeared eager to establish a framework for governing that would ensure international donor confidence and Israel’s cooperation in funneling reconstruction materials to Gaza. But the real test will be in implementation.

As for the larger issue of rolling back the Israeli occupation, Mr. Zomlot of Fatah says the military way is a dead end.

“Hamas has also to realize that its resistance strategy might be successful for a short period of time to gain some popular sentiment because people are under the thumb and boot of occupation and they want to see someone [standing] up [to Israel] but in the long term it … brings a lot of mayhem and chaos and misery,” Zomlot says.

He adds: “Our power lies in the moral, legal, and political arenas, not in the military arena.”

Nuha Musleh contributed reporting from Ramallah. 

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