Jaded observers of the current conflict between Israel and Palestinians in Gaza might well wonder: What else is new? Today, in fact, there’s a whole new dynamic at play in the Mideast — one that may define the conflict between Israel and its neighbors for years to come.
“Right now you have Israel at war with one Palestinian territory and not at war with the other. This is something that, in my years observing the Middle East, is new,” Jonathan Schanzer, the deputy executive director of the Jewish Policy Center, told National Review Online.
Schanzer is also the author of the new book Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine, a book that — while a long time in the making — seems tailor-made to address the big questions behind the headlines from Gaza.
For years, the default media narrative has framed the Palestinian conflict as strictly between Arabs and Israelis, ignoring the obvious and bloody tensions among the competing Palestinian factions. With the election of the militant Islamic group Hamas in 2006 as the ruling party in the Palestinian territories — over Yassir Arafat’s more secular and established Fatah party — these internal conflict broke out into the open.
Fatah refused to hand over the reins of power to Hamas, and a civil war broke out between the two groups for control of the Gaza strip and West Bank. After a year of pitched battles, Hamas gained control of Gaza. So as the Israeli Defense Force on the move in Gaza, Palestinians aren’t exactly united in opposition.
“You’ve got Fatah, which controls the West Bank, sitting out of a conflict in which Israel is attacking Hamas positions in Gaza,” Schanzer said. “This should be an indication that there is something askew in the divisions of Palestinian politics.” Indeed, there are even reports that embittered factions of Fatah have been helping the IDF vanquish Hamas, even as both groups share the goal of a Palestine state.
However, Hamas’s more militant approach has not meshed well with the entrenched Fatah. As Schanzer observes, “The biggest thing that divides Palestinians is: Should they engage in a peace process with Israel or not? This is to a certain extent sparked the Civil war that broke out in 2007 in the first place.”
That it took the current conflict to illustrate the divisions within Palestinian nationalism reflects “a major shortcoming of the mainstream media,” in Schanzer’s view. Journalists on the ground often allow their perspective to be manipulated by “fixers” — journalist slang for local guides hired by westerners to show them the lay of the land while working in foreign countries. “Fixers always have a political perspective. So they lead people by the nose to the areas that they would like them to cover,” he said. “They will show the suffering of Palestinian refugees, but not the suffering of Palestinians who have been shot by other Palestinians.”
Then there’s just general political bias that has made Israel “a favorite whipping boy of the mainstream media for some time,” Schanzer adds. “It’s easier to cover the Arab-Israeli conflict. I think people understand it more,” he said. “You can drop a wet-behind-the-ears journalist into Gaza and they will be able to understand the decades-old animosity between Palestinians and Israelis.”
Still, while a recognition that the Palestinian people are riven by competing nationalist factions is necessary to properly framing the current conflict, the insight doesn’t necessarily point to a resolution.
“If international pressure is too much for Israel to bear and Israel leaves Gaza before achieving its military goals, Hamas will return to its original strength — a strength built on the funding, training, and weaponry it receives from Iran,” Schanzer adds. And if Israel were to break the back of Hamas, and leave the comparatively moderate Fatah to fill the power vacuum in Gaza, that wouldn’t necessarily be a more desirable result.
Fortunately, it isn’t an either/or proposition. Moderate Palestinian factions are emerging that deserve to be recognized, Schanzer notes. “They are small, but growing. One, is the Third Way, another is called Wassatia, which is arabic for ‘middle ground,’” Schanzer said. “But the problem is they have very little traction.”
Still, encouraging the development of alternatives to the two main Palestinian factions of Hamas and Fatah may be the only hope for peace — both with Israel and among Palestinians themselves.
Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.