MESH invites selected authors to offer original first-person statements on their new books—why and how they wrote them, and what impact they hope and expect to achieve. Jonathan Schanzer is director of policy at the Jewish Policy Center and a former counterterrorism analyst for the Office of Intelligence and Analysis at the U.S. Department of Treasury. His new book is Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle For Palestine.
During the violent Hamas conquest of Gaza in the summer of 2007, when hundreds of Palestinians were killed by their own, I was struck by the weak and fleeting media attention, particularly compared to flare-ups of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict over the years. I also noted that Middle Eastern studies professors avoided the subject. With the notable exception of the Jerusalem Post's Khaled Abu Toameh and a few others, it seemed as if observers of the Middle East were only interested in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which is tired and well-worn ground. I quickly realized that there was an important book to be written.
The Palestinians are usually described as one united people with one goal: statehood. My book questions this. In fact, throughout the book, which tracks the histories of both Hamas and Fatah, it becomes increasingly clear that the Palestinians actually lack a coherent vision for their future. The Hamas faction seeks an Islamist polity. The Fatah faction seeks a more secular one. Opposition to Israel is perhaps the only issue upon which they truly agree. Yet, Fatah has elected to engage the Israelis (for now), while Hamas is steadfast in its refusal.
What is surprising to some readers is that the Hamas-Fatah conflict is two decades old, dating back to the outbreak of the first intifada of 1987, when the upstart Hamas organization began to challenge Yasir Arafat's Fatah faction with competing bayanat, or leaflets, on the streets of the West Bank and Gaza.
Over time, what began as a political rivalry gave way to sharp disagreements and acrimony over Fatah's engagement in peace talks with Israel during the Oslo years. Upon the prompting of Israel and the United States, Fatah met Hamas suicide bombings against Israel with Fatah crackdowns. Quietly, a Palestinian civil war was brewing.
After the failure of the peace process in 2000 and the subsequent al-Aqsa Intifada, the Palestinians fell into complete disarray. When Yasir Arafat died in 2004, the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) all but collapsed. Clans, families and tribes controlled the streets of the West Bank and Gaza. Hamas worked assiduously to fill that vacuum.
In the Palestinian elections of January 2006, Hamas won by a large margin. Only after the final votes were tallied, Fatah refused to allow Hamas to assume control of the government. Conflict erupted between the two sides, marking a bitter standoff. After more than a year of sporadic violence and venomous public exchanges, Hamas carried out a brutal, lightning coup that crushed the PA in Gaza. In June 2007, reports emerged of Palestinians being pushed off tall buildings to their death. Some Palestinians shot rival faction members point blank in the legs to ensure permanent disabilities. Human rights groups reported unlawful imprisonments and torture in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
This unresolved conflict has very serious consequences. For one, Washington and Jerusalem lack a legitimate interlocutor. As they negotiate with Mahmoud Abbas of the Fatah faction, they only deal with the ruler of the West Bank (and it is disputable that Abbas even has control of that), and a party that lost the 2006 elections. If they negotiate with Hamas, the rulers of Gaza, they would be negotiating with a terrorist organization, which runs counter to the policies of both governments.
Perhaps a more serious policy challenge is the West Bank-Gaza Strip split. The Palestinians are now represented by two non-states and two non-governments. How can the international community regard them as one political unit?
My new book suggests that it is now the internecine Palestinian conflict—not the Palestinian-Israeli conflict—that represents the first and most obvious obstacle to regional peace. Once this thorny, under-reported conflict is settled, it may be possible to resume productive talks. So long as the Palestinians are a house divided, peace will almost certainly be elusive.