The untold story of why the Palestinians are divided

Senior Fatah official Jibril Rajoub in Ramallah discusses with deputy Hamas leader Saleh Arouri, who joined on screen from Beirut (Abbas Momani - AFP)

Ramzy Baroud

Middle East Monitor  /  September 28, 2021

The political division in Palestinian society is deep-rooted, and should not be reduced to convenient claims about the “Hamas-Fatah split”, elections, the Oslo accords, and subsequent disagreements. The division is linked to events that preceded all of these, and not even the death or incapacitation of the octogenarian Mahmoud Abbas will advance Palestinian unity one iota.

Palestinian political disunity is tied to the fact that the issue of representation in Palestinian society has always been based on one party trying to dominate all of the others. This dates back to Palestinian politics prior to the establishment of Israel on the ruins of historic Palestine in 1948; to a time when various Palestinian clans fought for control over the entire Palestinian body politic. Disagreements led to conflict, often violent, although at times it also resulted in relative harmony; in the establishment of the Arab Higher Committee (AHC) in 1936, for example.

These early years of discord duplicated themselves in later phases of the Palestinian struggle. Soon after Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser relinquished his influential role over the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) following the humiliating Arab defeat in 1967, the relatively new Fatah Movement — established by Yasser Arafat and others in 1959 — took over. Since then, Fatah has mostly controlled the PLO, which was declared in Rabat in 1974 to be the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”.

The latter caveat was arguably added to ensure that Arab rivals could not lay claim to the PLO, and thus impose themselves as the benefactors of the Palestinian cause. However, long after the danger of that possibility had passed, Arafat and Fatah continued to control the PLO using the phrase as a moral justification for dominance and the elimination of political rivals.

While it is easy to jump to conclusions when blaming Palestinians for their division, there is more to the story. Since much of the armed Palestinian struggle took place within various Arab political and territorial spaces, PLO groups needed to coordinate their actions, along with their political positions, with various Arab capitals, such as Cairo, Damascus, Amman, and even, at times, Baghdad, Tripoli, Algiers, and Sana’a. Naturally, this has deprived Palestinians of real, independent initiatives.

Arafat was particularly astute at managing one of the most difficult balancing acts in the history of liberation movements, by keeping relative peace among Palestinian groups, appeasing Arab hosts, and maintaining his control over Fatah and the PLO. Yet even Arafat was often overwhelmed by circumstances well beyond his control, leading to major military showdowns, alienating him further, and breaking down Palestinian groups to even smaller factions, each allied and supported by this or that Arab government.

Even Palestinian division has rarely been a Palestinian decision, although the leadership deserves much blame for failing to develop a pluralistic political system that is not dependent on its survival on a single group or individual.

The Oslo Accords of 1993 and the return of some of the Palestinian groups to Palestine in the following months and years was presented, at the time, as a critical step towards liberating Palestinian decision-making from Arab and other influences. While that claim worked in theory, it failed in practice, as the newly established Palestinian National Authority (PNA, now better known simply as the PA) quickly became hostage to other, even greater influences: Israel, the United States, and the so-called donor countries. This US-led apparatus linked its political and financial support to the Palestinians agreeing to a set of conditions, including the cracking down on anti-Israel “incitement” (a deliberately damaging euphemism for pro-Palestine activism) and the dismantling of “terrorist infrastructures”.

While such a new political regime forced Palestinian groups into yet another conflict, only Hamas seemed powerful enough to withstand the pressure amassed by Fatah, the PA and Israel combined.

The Hamas-Fatah feud did not start as an outcome of Oslo and the establishment of the PA. The latter events merely exacerbated an existing conflict. Immediately after the establishment of Hamas in late 1987, PLO parties, especially Fatah, viewed the new Islamic movement with suspicion, for several reasons: Hamas began and expanded outside the well-controlled political system of the PLO; it was based in Palestine, and thus avoided the pitfalls of dependency on outside regimes; and, among other reasons, promoted itself as the alternative to the PLO’s past failures and political compromises.

As expected, Fatah dominated the PA as it did the PLO and, in both cases, rarely used truly democratic channels. As the PA grew richer and more corrupt, many Palestinians viewed the answer to be Hamas. Consequently, its growth led to the movement’s victory in the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006. Conceding to a triumphant Hamas would have been the end of Fatah’s decades-long dominance over the Palestinian political discourse, as well as the loss of massive funding sources, prestige, and many other perks. Thus, conflict was inevitable, leading to the tragic violence in the summer of 2007, and the eventual political division between Palestinians, with Fatah dominating the PA in the occupied West Bank and Hamas ruling over besieged Gaza.

Matters are now increasingly complicated, as crises of political representation afflicting the PLO and the PA are likely to worsen soon with a power struggle already underway to determine Abbas’s eventual successor within the Fatah movement. Though lacking Arafat’s popularity and respect among Palestinians, Abbas’s ultimate goal was the same; he wanted to dominate the Palestinian body politic singlehandedly. However, unlike Arafat who, using manipulation and bribes, kept the Fatah movement intact, Fatah under Abbas is ready to split into smaller factions. The chances are that the absence of Abbas will lead to a difficult transition within Fatah that, if accompanied by protests and violence, could result in the disintegration of the movement altogether.

To depict the current Palestinian political crisis in reductionist terms about a Hamas-Fatah “split” — as if they were ever united — and other clichés is thus to ignore a history of division that must not be blamed solely on the Palestinians. In post-Abbas Palestine, they must reflect on this tragic history and, instead of aiming for easy fixes, concentrate on finding common ground beyond parties, factions, clans, and privileges. Most importantly, the era of one party and a single individual dominating all others must be left behind and, this time, for good.

Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and the Editor of the Palestine Chronicle; his latest book is These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons (Clarity Press)