Thursday, 15 November 2012

The fight for the West Bank

Over and above Israel's "Pillar of Defense" action against Hamas, the Palestinian body politic itself is engaged in a fratricidal struggle for the hearts and minds of the Palestinian “man-in-the-street”.

In one corner sits the Fatah party, which controls the Palestinian Authority (PA) and is the effective government of the Palestinian area of the West Bank. Its leader, President Mahmoud Abbas, whatever his ultimate ambitions may be, declares himself in favour of a negotiated peace settlement with Israel based on a two-state solution.

In the other corner, in volatile and belligerent mood, crouches Hamas, which seized power in the Gaza strip in 2007 and has been the de facto government there ever since. Hamas refuses to recognise the State of Israel, condemns any peace settlement which does so, and believes in “the armed struggle” designed to remove Israel from the map of the Middle East.

Whether the two groups are all that far apart in their ultimate objectives is a moot point, for Fatah’s official emblem portrays crossed rifles and a hand grenade superimposed on a map of the old Mandate Palestine, with no indication of Israel’s existence. Not surprising, perhaps, since the word “Fatah” means “conquest by means of jihad.”

Yet Fatah and Hamas are in a fight, perhaps to the death, for ultimate control of the Palestinian cause.

Fatah, founded in the early 1960s by Yasser Arafat, initially concentrated on terrorist raids on civilian Israeli targets. In 1968 it took over control of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (the PLO), and it was the PLO that was party to the peace negotiations that led to the Oslo Accords in 1993 and 1995.

The original idea was that the Accords would last for a five-year interim period, during which a permanent agreement would be negotiated. In fact, they are still the effective basis of the governance of the West Bank.

If the PA can claim legitimacy, the same cannot be said of its president, Mahmoud Abbas. His status is challenged, indeed denied, by Hamas.

Abbas, who became president of the PA in 2005, was elected to serve until 9 January 2009. But as the time drew close, Fatah and Hamas were unable to agree the details of new elections. So the due date came and went, and Abbas, by diktat, extended his presidential term for a further year.

When this second deadline also expired without a further election, the PLO simply declared that Abbas would remain president until new elections, whenever that may be. Hamas refused to recognise this indefinite extension, or to regard Abbas as legitimate president. So the de facto Hamas government in the Gaza strip declared that in their view Aziz Duwaik, Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council since January 2006, was acting PA President. Duwaik won his spurs, in Hamas’s eyes, by having served a three-year term in an Israeli jail for his involvement with the terrorist organisation.

And still no date has been fixed for new Palestinian elections. Details would need to be agreed between Fatah and Hamas, and the two bodies seem further apart than ever.

Hamas, always seeking to extend its power base beyond Gaza to the West Bank, has been emboldened by a number of factors. The Arab Spring, and especially its outcome in Egypt with the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), boosted its self-confidence, for Hamas is itself an offshoot of the Egyptian MB. President Morsi may not have become a second Ahmadinejad, endorsing the most extreme of terrorist activities against Israel − indeed, rather the reverse − but Hamas’s direct and indirect support of jihadist actions in Sinai and out of the Gaza strip, have increased since his election.

More recently, responsibility for the continuous barrage of rockets fired into Israel from Gaza is being claimed by a new grouping of extremist Sunni Islamists, the Mujahideen Shura Council of Jerusalem (MSC). Hamas appears content - for the moment, at least - to turn a blind eye to their activities, and those of other salafist jihadis operating from within Gaza, since they boost Hamas's credibility with their own constituency.

Then, President Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad have been facing major internal problems in the West Bank. With the rising cost of living as the catalyst, riots have been occurring throughout the West Bank. Dozens of police officers and civilians were injured in clashes involving several thousand protesters, roads were blocked by burning tyres and rubbish bins, and strikes by taxi and bus drivers paralysed the West Bank's public transport system. Palestinian security forces, who kept a low profile during the first days of demonstrations, began using teargas and stun grenades to disperse demonstrators.

Battening on these propitious signs, Hamas has recently stepped up its activities in the West Bank aimed at challenging the Fatah government, both by direct action, and perhaps via elections, if or when they eventually occur. It has been infiltrating supporters into the West Bank, recruiting university students through a program called "Kutla," which entails spreading jihadi ideology among them and, through its “Da'wa” social aid program mixed with indoctrination, attempting to enhance its standing among the general population. Last week Israeli security forces arrested around 30 Hamas activists in the Ramallah area, suspected of heading a command cell aimed at increasing the strength of Hamas in the West Bank.

The PA itself, equally opposed to Hamas’s attempts to increase its influence in the West Bank, arrested dozens of Hamas activists in the area in September. For Mahmoud Abbas realizes that until he prevails in this struggle with Hamas, he stands on the world stage with one arm tied behind his back. When he addresses the UN General Assembly later this month, he will be speaking only for West Bank Palestinians; his writ does not run in an integral part of any future Palestinian state. The fight against Hamas is one conflict he simply cannot afford to lose.

The paramount question for Abbas is, how does he regain control of Gaza?

Published in the on-line Jerusalem Post magazine, 15 November 2012:

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