Responding to Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other resistance forces in the Gaza Strip’s rejection of the so-called “ceasefire proposal,” Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas lamented, “The Palestinian factions’ refusal to deal with the Egyptian proposal for ceasefire with Israel has disappointed all of us.”
That ceasefire called for the end of rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip, but said nothing of the Israeli occupation, siege, and blockade from which those rockets were born. It was, in other words, not a ceasefire proposal at all. With his comments, Abbas, the leader of Fatah and the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, distanced himself from the rest of the Palestinian factions.
Since the 2007 Hamas-Fatah conflict, the Palestinian political spectrum has polarized. Divisions between the two main factions are not merely geographical, institutional, ideological, or political. Most centrally, they run along the fault line of their conflicting agendas: resistance and anti-resistance.
Division is not new in Palestinian national politics. Political and ideological disagreements have been features of factional politics within the Palestinian national movement since its inception. However, during moments of resistance to intensified Israeli aggression, these fissures used to close up, to be replaced with a sense of unity and shared destiny.
Unfortunately, recent years have undermined this tendency. Resistance is no longer seen as a unifying umbrella under which Palestinian factions leave behind their disputes.
Western and Israeli media like to depict Abbas as a representative of the most moderate Palestinian political camp. But in the eyes of Palestinians, his hostility to the resistance makes him appear to be an unofficial spokesman of the Israeli government. That hostility is even more problematic given that he presides over a political trend that still presents itself as a “national liberation movement.”
Fatah arguably inaugurated the Palestinian resistance in 1965. It certainly dominated the PLO by the late 1960s. But since the signing of the Oslo Accords, it has abandoned the basic functions of a liberation movement. It became an exclusivist party seeking to impose its hegemony over Palestinian society, as well as monopolize political decision making, financial resources, and the means of violence.
Fatah’s irresponsible politics have diverted the PLO from its anti-colonial mission and subordinated it to the narrow interests of the Palestinian Authority elite. It has divided Palestinian society through a patronage network that has penetrated most institutions and organizations, and which serves as a mechanism of control to both co-opt potential leadership and push opposition to the margins.
Palestinian universities, historically an arena for a dynamic student movement, have become subject to PA diktat through the presence of Fatah security agents. Their role is to report on organizers’ activities, which leads both to the political arrests of students in the opposition, as well odd results in student council elections in favor of Al-Shabiba — the Fatah student movement.
Fatah’s adherence to the Oslo project and its economic normalization and security coordination with Israel have brought to the surface its divergence from the growing popular consensus that favors alternative strategies for the Palestinian national movements — ones based on resistance.
With the recent Israeli aggression on the Gaza Strip and the crackdown on protests in the West Bank protests, the PA and its ruling party have rushed, as never before, to cooperate with the Israeli occupation — a cooperation which verges on alliance. Fatah has systemically aligned itself with the most hostile regimes to resistance, and transformed Palestinian embassies around the world into hubs for plots and cooperation with foreign intelligence services.
The movement has historically contained competing trends — with political agendas that have seemed sometimes conflicting, if not contradictory. For example, during the Second Intifada, Fatah’s military wing, Al-Aqsa Brigades, played a key role in military confrontations with Israeli troops, and often deployed suicide bombers. At the same time, some of its key security leaders collaborated with the Israeli security services.
The most militant trend within Fatah in the West Bank evaporated after the arrest of its symbolic leader, Marwan Barghouti, and the domestication of its members by Abbas. Only in the Gaza Strip is the Fatah military wing still active and indeed highly critical of its mother party in the West Bank.
Fatah has adopted the most hypocritical kind of pragmatism. For example, when Western governments pressured Arafat to create the office of PA prime minister in order to reduce his power and influence, Abbas was the US favorite to occupy the post. Quickly afterward, Abbas came into conflict with Arafat over the control of the security forces, leading to Abbas’s resignation in 2003.
As a result of this incident, Abbas was seen by the majority of Fatah members as the “Karzai of Palestine,” implementing US and Israeli agendas and conspiring against Arafat. He disappeared from the political scene. However, after the death of Arafat, somehow Abbas was reborn as a heroic visionary, and the most qualified to replace Arafat as the PA president, the leader of Fatah, and the chairman of the PLO.
Given growing popular anger against the PA, several Fatah members have distanced themselves from its positions. This move has not been accompanied by critical voices demanding radical change within the movement. It is now normal to hear conflicting statements by Fatah leaders and members. But during critical moments, they appear to surrender to central decisions, even if they run counter to the core interests of the Palestinian cause.
Since the early 1990s, the Islamic Resistance Movement — Hamas — has become the main political competitor of both Fatah in particular and the secular PLO in general. Unlike Fatah, which is endorsed by Western governments, Hamas is listed as a terrorist organization. Its growing popularity in the 1990s stemmed from its fierce opposition to the Oslo Accords, which had been translated on the ground into a series of suicide bombing attacks inside Israel.
Hamas also enjoys popular support among the marginalized poor due to its well-established network of social and charitable organizations and ability to mobilize its constituents.
During the Second Intifada, Hamas joined other resistance forces in attacking Israeli troops and settlers. It also carried out massive suicide bombings inside Israel. However, by the end of the Second Intifada, Hamas began to moderate its position, hinting at accepting the two-state solution, announcing the end of suicide bombings, and declaring its willingness to join the formal political process.
In 2006, Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections with an overwhelming majority, a victory which threatened Fatah’s historical dominance of the national movement. In response, the international community, led by the United States, boycotted the democratically elected government and halted financial aid to PA institutions.
The rising tension between Hamas and Fatah, fueled by Western and Israeli backing of Fatah, ended in a semi-civil war in the Gaza Strip in 2007 and the subsequent divide between the de facto Hamas government in the Gaza Strip and the Fatah-led PA in the West Bank.
After the Hamas takeover of the Strip, Israel imposed a crippling siege on it, waged three destructive wars on its population, and invested extensively in sustaining the Palestinian internal division.
There are many who understandably dislike Hamas’s conduct. Its dominant position in the Gaza Strip has frequently been subject to harsh criticism concerning its authoritarian mode of governance, imposition of conservative social rules, and occasional suppression of opposition groups and journalists.
However, influential resistance outfits such as the Islamic Jihad, PFLP, and even some Fatah militant branches appear to favor Hamas rule over the Gaza Strip because they are granted freedom of military training and armament.
And yet, Hamas’s participation in the 2006 elections and its later use of formal political institutions in the Gaza Strip has led some observers to argue that Hamas has begun to take the route of Fatah, and its engagement in a political process with Israel is only a matter of time.
This perception became more widely accepted when Hamas abandoned its historic regional allies — Hezbollah, Iran, and Syria — which for years had aided it militarily and bolstered it financially, and allied itself with an emergent regional axis following the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, supported by other regional actors, particularly Qatar and Turkey, under the tent of US hegemony.
However, the collapse of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the capture of power by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi have undermined Hamas’s power as well as its ability to govern the Gaza Strip. These events have generated an existential crisis for Hamas, forcing it to accept a reconciliation deal with Fatah that contains several concessions that would not previously have been conceivable.
Reckoning with how this happened is crucial and unavoidable. Indeed, even putting such matters to the side, many of us have over time disagreed with Hamas ideologically and politically. We still disagree, and we will continue to disagree. But in the face of Israel’s deadly aggression, it has become increasingly clear that Palestinians share the same destiny.
In such critical moments, the systematic anti-Hamas propaganda engineered by some Palestinian trends does not specifically target Hamas as an organization. It in fact targets the concept of resistance itself, as a practice, an idea, a consciousness. The alternative on offer is not resistance through different tactics. It is its antithesis, an alliance with colonialism.
For this reason, we must now be clear. It would be a mistake to perceive all the existing factional agendas as part of the national liberation movement. Supporters of the Palestinian struggle ought to be aware that by now some have proven themselves to be enemies of the Palestinian struggle for liberation and self-determination.
[This article was originally posted at Jacobin magazine.]