In the anthology Negotiating in Times of Conflict, Anat Kurz describes the Israel-Palestine dispute as ‘a three-way conflict.’
There is, of course, the more well-known two-way tussle between the Israeli state and the government body in West Bank and Gaza. These Palestinian-majority regions came under the control of a partially self-governing body in 1994, after an agreement was signed in Oslo between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), the largest Palestinian political entity. The reason Kurz explains the tussle as a three-way conflict is because of the presence of another influential Palestinian party, Hamas.
Hamas, which has had a problematic relationship with the PLO, appeared in 1987 as an ‘Islamist’ variant of the Palestinian nationalist movement. The PLO, ever since its inception in 1964, is of course an umbrella organisation comprising various secular Palestinian nationalist outfits. The PLO’s largest component party was always Fatah, headed by the late Yasser Arafat. Initially, the PLO was highly militant in its outlook and was involved in armed attacks against Israel. Many of its component factions were supported by the former Soviet Union and radical Arab nationalist regimes in Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Libya.
However, from the mid-1970s onwards, when most Arab countries began a process of repairing ties with Saudi Arabia and the US, Fatah decided to work towards building itself as a ‘legitimate’ face of Palestinian nationalism, recognised by the UN. In 1987, a spontaneous uprising erupted against Israel’s occupation armies in various Palestinian-majority regions. The uprising, called the intifada (rebellion), caught the PLO by surprise.
The uprising did not have a core group navigating it. It was mostly driven by young stone-throwing Palestinians, confronting heavily armed Israeli occupiers. Yet, the intifada had enough nuisance value to get the Israelis to talk with their main nemesis, Fatah, in Oslo. A deal was signed that handed over West Bank and Gaza to a partially autonomous government of Palestinians. During the 1996 elections here, the electorate handed the PLO a landslide victory and the mandate to rule West Bank and Gaza.
Crushed between Israel’s intransigence as an occupier and Benjamin Netanyahu’s electoral opportunism on the one hand and the belligerence of Gaza’s Hamas on the other, is the rational space that the PLO’s Fatah wants to explore
Hamas was the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood — a pan-Islamist movement headquartered in Egypt — but one with a history of deriving clandestine support from Israel when the Brotherhood was being repressed by the Arab nationalist regimes in Egypt in the 1960s, and in Syria in the early 1980s.
According to Andrew Higgins, in the January 24, 2009 issue of the Wall Street Journal, Israel propped up Hamas to use it as a ‘counterweight’ against the PLO. The roots of this manoeuvre can be found in the late 1970s, when the Israeli state began to patronise an Islamist outfit called the Mujama al-Islamiya, which described itself as a charity organisation.
According to Higgins, the Egyptians had sidelined and banned the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist outfits in the Palestinian regions that were under Egyptian control till the 1967 Arab-Israel War. But once these regions fell in the hands of Israeli forces, the Israelis allowed the Islamist groups to operate, as long as they were anti-PLO.
With Israeli support, the Mujama and other such groups began to undermine the PLO’s influence. They organised charity programmes, establishing small clinics, schools and mosques and, in return, were able to recruit a large number of disillusioned Palestinians. Hamas treaded the same path until 1994, when the PLO agreed to recognise Israel as a country and, in exchange of which, Israel handed over the West Bank and Gaza to the Palestinians.
However, thus began campaigns of suicide bombings, assassinations and rocket attacks against Israel by Hamas, drawing vicious Israeli reprisals. The PLO had swept the 1996 elections, but Hamas won the 2006 elections. It received 44.45 percent of the total votes to the PLO’s 41.43 percent.
Fatah’s Muhammad Abbas had replaced Yasser Arafat as president of Palestine after Arafat’s demise in 2004. Tensions between the Fatah-led PLO and Hamas had been simmering since the 1990s. The PLO had agreed to end its policy of armed resistance and, as a result, the PLO’s presence and government were recognised by the international community. The PLO now favoured a settlement through negotiations and by providing jobs, education and security to the Palestinians.
The activities of Hamas in this context are focused more on the most impoverished areas of Palestine, especially in Gaza. Here, Hamas provides charity services and gains new recruits. It also amasses weapons that include rockets made in secret workshops by the locals. Hamas does not recognise Israel as a legitimate state. Its militant actions are often criticised by President Abbas who accuses Hamas of dragging Palestinians into a war that can be settled through negotiations.
In June 2007, fighting broke out between PLO and Hamas militants in Gaza. The fighting was intense. Over 600 people lost their lives. The conflict saw the ouster of the PLO from Gaza. This means there are now two governments in control of the Palestine territories. Fatah/PLO governs the West Bank region whereas Hamas is in control of Gaza.
Things became even more complex with the 2009 election of the populist Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s Prime Minister. Netanyahu toed a hard line and refused to stop Jewish people from settling in occupied Palestinian territory. Such settlements are against international mandates and opinion.
Interestingly, Netanyahu’s popularity in Israel has been decreasing. His conservative Likud Party has had to form shaky coalition governments. There have been four indecisive elections in Israel between 2019 and 2021. Netanyahu has also faced two criminal investigations against him.
The Israeli military’s recent attacks in Gaza that have killed hundreds of Palestinians were in retaliation to rockets fired towards Israel by Hamas from Gaza. But the tipping point was Netanyahu’s refusal to stop Israeli settlers from taking over Palestinian properties, and a brazen raid by Israeli soldiers against Palestinians worshipping inside the historic Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.
It is likely that Netanyahu believes his hardline approach will reconfigure his dwindling electoral fortunes in Israel as he presents himself as a saviour of the Jewish homeland. To Hamas, Israeli violence and the outfit’s rocket attacks against Israel ‘prove’ that Palestine can only be liberated through an armed struggle.
Once again, crushed between the two is a more rational space that Fatah wants to explore. This is also the space that former US President Barack Obama favoured. But the current US president, Joe Biden, is busy sorting out differences of opinion on the dispute within his own multicultural government.
Some of his cabinet members are asking him to take the Obama route. But unlike Obama, till the writing of this piece, the Biden administration seems reluctant.
Published in Dawn, EOS, May 23rd, 2021