Near East Report: Why did you title your book Hamas vs. Fatah?
Jonathan Schanzer: When Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2007, the violence was brutal. Hamas was responsible for pushing Fatah members off of tall buildings and shooting them point blank in the limbs. This shattered this vision that I think many had of a unified Palestinian people. I felt that this was a point worth noting and began writing a book shortly thereafter.
NER: Why the violent disagreements between Hamas and Fatah?
JS: Fatah purports to represent the Palestinian people, but there are sharp divisions between Fatah and Hamas over whether there should be discussions and diplomacy with Israel.
When Fatah engaged in the Oslo process with Israel, Hamas disagreed vehemently and began to carry out attacks not only to inflict pain and suffering on the Jewish people living in Israel, but also to make it very clear to the Palestinian people that there were sharp divisions between Hamas and Fatah. In other words, Hamas was able to kill two birds with one stone and this is something that I think was overlooked in the mainstream media.
NER: Wasn't there a time when Hamas and Fatah set aside their mutual dislike of each other and cooperated to fight against Israel?
JS: Absolutely. When Yasser Arafat calculated that the Oslo process would no longer reap benefits for him, he launched a war against Israel in the autumn of 2000. He exhorted Hamas to join him. In fact, he let Hamas terrorists out of jail and openly worked with the Hamas organization to attack Israel through a campaign of suicide bombings and other acts of violence.
What was interesting was that they were able to work together for the better part of a year, but Hamas quickly realized that it didn't need Fatah in order to carry out its campaign of violence against Israel, and the two sides split off again and returned to their traditional positions of enmity vis-à-vis each other.
NER: What led to the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007, and what have been the effects since?
JS: After the death of Arafat in 2004, there was a leadership vacuum. The Fatah organization had weakened significantly, and Hamas continued to gain strength. Finally, by January of 2006, legislative elections were held within the Palestinian territories as part of the U.S. initiative to try to spread democracy throughout the Middle East. Those elections were probably the freest and fairest elections ever held in the Arab world, and they yielded a victory for Hamas.
The problem was that Fatah refused to yield power and refused to join a coalition government with Hamas. For the next year and a half, Fatah and Hamas engaged in a power struggle, which continued until June 2007 when Hamas carried out a violent coup in the Gaza Strip.
Hamas deposed the Fatah organization from the Gaza Strip and effectively took over the media and established different government and security structures to the point now that we actually have essentially two Palestinian entities. We have a Gaza entity run by Hamas and a West Bank entity run by Fatah
The Hamas-Fatah conflict continues. The two sides exchange barbs, fight one another and arrest cadres of the opposite camp in each of the territories. We really are at a point now where it's very difficult to see who speaks for the Palestinian people.
NER: In June 2008, Hamas accepted an Egyptian-mediated tahdiyeh, a period of calm, and in December they terminated it. Why did Hamas accept this period of calm in the first place, and why did Hamas decide to terminate the calm and dramatically increase its rocket fire on Israel?
JS: When Hamas accepted this tahdiyeh, it was never seen as a ceasefire because a ceasefire would mean accepting the existence of the state of Israel. Hamas doesn't even call Israel by its name; they call it the "Zionist entity" or "Zionist enemy."
What Hamas sought to do was to stave off an attack. At that time, there was a lot of talk in the IDF that an invasion of Gaza was going to be necessary because Hamas continued to fire salvo after salvo of rockets into Israel's southern territory. More worrisome was the fact that the rockets were increasing in payload and increasing in range, so it became clear that if this trend continued, Israel's middle would be threatened—not just the south, but rather some of the major population centers.
In an attempt, I believe, to stave off an Israeli invasion, Hamas declared a truce and it really benefited from six months of relative calm. Hamas was able to stockpile more rockets and smuggle in sophisticated weaponry, such as high-powered sniper rifles, night-vision goggles, anti-tank missiles and lots of other things that would help Hamas in its next confrontation with Israel. In addition, Hamas sent many of its members to Iran for training so that they could receive some of the same skills that Hizballah demonstrated in its war with Israel in 2006.
After six months, Hamas elected not to renew the truce. One of the things that we hear on the news is that the truce between the two sides ended. This is incorrect. Hamas simply elected to terminate a truce that it had unilaterally decided to adopt, and Hamas—I think at the prodding of Iran—began to lob rockets back into Israel.
NER: How can Israel's Operation Cast Lead be viewed through the Hamas vs. Fatah lens? What type of outcome does Fatah want in Gaza?
JS: It's important to note that there are really two policies at play here. There is a West Bank policy and a Gaza policy. Israel is ignoring the West Bank right now—it is not interested at all in military operations in the West Bank. This is a departure for Israeli policy. Usually when there is violence against Israel, it's coming from both territories. We're simply not seeing that right now. Israel is really treating the two territories as two separate entities, as it rightly should. There are two different governments run by two different factions.
Fatah is quite openly letting the world know that Hamas has miscalculated, that it is now reaping what it has sown. Fatah probably seeks to retake the Gaza Strip at some point, but there are two problems with that goal. First, the Fatah organization is still extremely weak. Its leadership is fractured and its ability to even govern the West Bank has been called into question. Its military is simply not able to maintain control.
Second, if Israel does reinstall Fatah as the governing body in the Gaza Strip, it will likely be rejected by the Gaza population much like an artificial heart. This would be an organ that Israel would try to transplant and the population there would almost certainly distrust the Fatah organization, simply because Israel tried to install it there.
NER: How should the United States approach the Hamas-Fatah conflict?
JS: The Hamas-Fatah conflict is something that was largely ignored by the Bush administration and has so far been ignored by the Obama administration. The Hamas-Fatah conflict is possibly one of the thorniest issues that the United States now faces with regard to diplomacy in the Middle East.
The fact that you have two separate Palestinian areas that are run by two separate factions that are at war with one another means that there is no Palestinian interlocutor. There is no one address that the United States can call to negotiate peace between the Palestinians and Israel. So until that matter has been resolved, I believe that all other efforts at diplomacy are probably wasted efforts. The new administration must recognize this fact and make it known to the world that the Palestinians need to join together in some fashion to come to the negotiating table—without, however, allowing engagement with Hamas until it accepts the three international conditions: recognizing Israel, renouncing violence and accepting all previous agreements with Israel. Until that happens I believe we're going to spin our wheels.
The danger here is that if the United States brings Fatah and Israel to the table, and Fatah enters into an agreement that is not accepted by half of the Palestinians, it will not be seen as a legitimate agreement. If that happens, you will see more violence and more frustration. The more that agreements falter, the better chance there is of a more dangerous conflict breaking out between the Palestinians and the Israelis.