A Fractured Front: Understanding the Fatah-Hamas Dispute

Despite the horror of what both sides have endured in the areas they control, neither has overcome this division, which has turned into a separation with time. Each side sees itself as right and the other as wrong.

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Ismail Haniya, Hamas’s leader, at a rare news conference in Gaza City recently. [ Photo credit Mohammed Salem/Reuters ]

Fatah, which established the Palestinian revolution, and then led it for decades, would not have maintained its leadership during the most critical phase in the history of the Palestinian people if it had not transformed the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Indeed, it was Fatah that turned what had been a largely bureaucratic political body into a framework for managing the battlefront that incorporated all Palestinian armed factions and so-called independents, and represented all sectors and segments of the Palestinian nation, both at home and in the diaspora.

The legitimacy of the PLO was consolidated through the total Palestinian, Arab, and international consensus around it. Gaining this legitimacy is its most consequential achievement, as it granted the PLO the status of a symbolic or political homeland pending the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Fatah was the backbone of the representative, authoritative, and legitimate political entity that was the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Speaking of its leader and symbol, Yasser Arafat, the late George Habash famously said: “We can disagree with him, but we do not disagree about him.” This sums up the attitude that the Palestinians had about the organization nicely. The consensus around Arafat and the PLO’s legitimacy allowed factions and members of the organization to fundamentally differ over programs and what direction the movement should take. Disagreement was permissible, but questioning its legitimacy was not, even if some temporarily withdrew from the PLO or openly opposed its agenda.

In this era when all Palestinian factions were united, the people were divided into two fronts. One was the rejection front led by the Popular Front For the Liberation of Palestine, and the other, Fatah-led front, supported the peace process. The Palestinian cause and the Palestinians’ national struggle were not harmed by this split, as it did not go so far as fragmenting the organization and undermining its legitimacy and role.

Things continued to move along this course. There had been no fears for the organization or threats to its existence and legitimacy, even when it made its most difficult decision, recognizing Israel’s right to exist, and when the leader of the revolution and the organization was seen shaking hands with Rabin in the White House. Some opposed this step and warned of its repercussions, and others agreed with it. Everyone addressed the issue their own way, and the leaders of all factions engaged with this difficult experience on home soil, including the historically rejectionist PFLP, whose Secretary-General was martyred in Palestine and whose successor was imprisoned in Israeli jails.

The real systemic shift began when Hamas started to compete with Fatah. Although it entered this competition through the gates of the Oslo Accords, taking part in the second elections, the Islamist movement built its influence on the back of the failures of Fatah’s course and the peace process. History recorded, through developments that unfolded every day, that every setback faced by the peace process- and there were many- weakened Fatah and strengthened Hamas.

Then came the decisive moment, which Hamas had long prepared for. It dealt a devastating blow when it turned against Fatah and launched a coup that divided Palestine and the Palestinians. The intra-Palestinian split has trapped the Palestinian cause, people, and their rights in a labyrinth. The most dangerous problem, here, is that no party can impose its program and make decisive national achievements. The side that chose to negotiate has no achievements to boast of, and the side that chose to fight has failed to fulfill its promises. Under these circumstances, little is achieved for Palestinians and much is lost.

Despite the horror of what both sides have endured in the areas they control, neither has overcome this division, which has turned into a separation with time. Each side sees itself as right and the other as wrong.

The discourse of Fatah is built around its role in building and instigating the armed struggle, which saved the Palestinian cause from disappearing into oblivion. The discourse of Hamas is built around what it sees as its correction of the course of Palestinian history, which it claims saved the cause from inevitable erasure.

This kind of conflict offers neither party any hope for victory, as national unity is an essential prerequisite for the success of any national movement resisting occupation. In the Palestinian case, there is not only a lack of unity, unity is totally absent, and its absence has had extremely negative repercussions.

The Palestinian people and their cause were in the arena before the emergence of Fatah, which instigated the contemporary revolution, or Hamas, which modeled its armed resistance on that of its vanguards in Fatah. Without understanding and acting upon this fact, no party can negate the opposing party or portray itself as the superior option for the present and future. The inevitable path to making progress on national objectives is unity.

To ensure the proposal I am presenting here is not merely a wishful theoretical idea, we should look back on the experience of the PLO: how it emerged, developed, and was led. We must reflect on how it was brought to ruin and decline, which left the Palestinian people without a reference point that represented them all. This exercise would lead us to the conclusion that remaking the PLO into what it had been at its height is the solution. Otherwise, these futile conflicts over the past, present, and future will continue, and the losses will keep accumulating.

Nabil Amr

Nabil Amr, former information minister (2003) in the Palestinian National Authority, and previous ambassador to the USSR and Egypt.

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