Terrorists or not, it is clear that as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad make their rise the West will gradually lose its already-weak influence over decision-making processes in the Palestinian political landscape.
Since the ’Arab Spring’ began in the December 2011, geo-political experts across the world have anticipated (and sometimes prophesised) the coming of changes to the Palestinian political landscape. However the popular uprisings that toppled governments in Egypt, Yemen as well as Libya and are trying to do so today in Syria, have eluded the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Yet it seems political commentators have self-caused the idea of the Arab Spring passing the Palestinian political environment to become axiomatic. By expecting to see such mass protests against the ruling regime in Occupied West Bank or Occupied Gaza Strip, what these commentators have missed is the more subtle and behind-the-scene change in Palestinian political dynamics – one that has been fuelled by the regional changes originating from the ‘Arab Spring’ events.
Palestinian political landscape is silently going through its own ‘Arab Spring’ moment with old gerontocratic leaders finding it difficult to assert the same power they have been wielding for such long time. At the same time new (Islamist) political forces are establishing themselves in politics, while other organisations are re-asserting themselves as new (and often more extreme) resistance forces.
Fall of Fatah
The ’old guard’ of Fatah led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and technocrat Prime Minister Salam Fayyad seems to have its back against the wall. Firstly the economic situation of the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank is on its last legs and according to the latest World Bank report will face a $ 400 million budget deficit that needs to be covered (as always) with the finances coming from international donors. The West Bank Palestinians are realizing that the current government cannot fill their expectations regarding improvement of quality of life or making progress in reaching peace with the Israelis that would lead to an independent Palestinian state. Of this bears witness the fact that numerous protests against both the rule of President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad took place in various West Bank towns throughout the last summer. Possibly the first nail in Fatah’s coffin is the latest poor showing at the West Bank local elections where the party won just two-fifths of the seats it contested for. What is more it lost its control over such key West Bank towns as Ramallah, Nablus and Jenin to former Fatah members who had seceded from the party.
It is of course too early to write off Fatah completely. Mahmoud Abbas has launched for the second time a Palestinian initiative in the United Nations and this time the Palestinian leader might succeed in what he is seeking. Abbas aims to change the legal status of the Palestinian entity to a non-member observer state at the United Nations and currently it looks that he is going to accomplish that as 150 to 170 countries supposedly will vote in favour. But this victory could turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory for Abbas. In reality not much will change for the Palestinian leadership – Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories will continue and can realistically be ended only through bi-lateral negotiations. And certainly nothing will change for the common Palestinian living in the West Bank or Gaza Stip. He or she will continue to face economic difficulty and Israeli occupation. Fatah leaders, by raising the hopes of Palestinian people and then returning from the General Assembly with nothing more than a legal piece of paper and no real benefits, might do disservice to themselves.
New political rise of Hamas
Misfortunes of Fatah have opened up opportunities for other Palestinian political actors. Hamas has been a central player in Palestinian politics, at least since the movement won Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2006 and possibly even before that. The political changes of the Arab Spring have furthermore fuelled Hamas’s ever-accelerating accent – a political rise that is seriously threatens Fatah’s role as the premier Palestinian political actor.
Hamas like many other organisations found its position at the beginning of Arab Spring weaken as its relationships with its traditional backers Iran and Syria chilled. With the Syrian Alawite regime gradually cranking up violence against its Sunni subjects Hamas leaders distanced themselves from the al-Assad regime and eventually outright condoned the brutal crackdown. This subsequently entailed Hamas’s external bureau leaders leaving their traditional headquarters in Damascus as well as drying up of Iranian financial assistance and arms deliveries. But Hamas soon found new patrons – Turkey, Egypt and Qatar.
Somewhat surprisingly it has been the small but rich Gulf state that has proved to be the most supportive and possibly valuable ally to Hamas. Hamas leaders at first must have expected Egypt to become premier supporter of the Palestinian Resistance Movement. But the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has been wary when dealing with Hamas and in numerous accounts has done less than Hamas leaders would expect from him vis-à-vis supporting the movement. Qatar seems to be more open regarding its support to Hamas, something that became clear just recently with Qatar pledging $400 million for different projects in the Gaza Strip that was followed by the Emir Hamad bin Khalifah Al Thani’s visit to the Palestinian enclave.
Hamas, a Palestinian organisation that throughout its history has aspired to replace Fatah as the prominent Palestinian movement, will benefit Qatar’s recent generosity and Emir’s subsequent visit in numerous ways. Firstly the injection of cash will improve the living conditions of Gazans and will provide many unemployed people with much needed work. Of course even with this financial boost Gaza is still a long way from a comfortable and modern place to live, but that might not be the point. For Hamas and especially Gazan leaders they will be able to show that Hamas (irrespective of this being through foreign investment) is improving the living conditions of Palestinians in Gaza, while the Fatah led-government is pursuing populist goals at the time when the West Bank population is languishing in economic hardship. Hamas looks to win some political points with the West Bank Palestinians and could very well succeed through this strategy.
The visit of Qatari Emir is important also from an international perspective. It is widely publicised that Emir Al Thani was the first head of state to visit Gaza Strip since Hamas took power in June 2007. The real importance of the visit is however that it challenges the long-held monopoly by Fatah and the PLO as being accepted by the international community as the sole representative of Palestinian people. While Hamas officials have been on political visits to different Arab (and occasionally non-Arab states) the visit of the Emir, at least de facto if not de jure, confirms Hamas’s positions as the official ruler of the Gaza Strip and thus representative of (some) Palestinians. Moreover Qatar opened a diplomatic mission in Gaza while not doing so in the West Bank – a development that could reinforce the idea that the Gulf emirate sees Hamas as the new dominant Palestinian political force.
Hamas itself has for long sought to be accepted as a more credible political actor, but has struggled to relinquish its image of a resistance movement. The new Qatari recognition and financial injection into Gaza might very well help Hamas to move away from violence against Israel and commit more extensively to ruling the Gaza Strip. Firstly Qatari visit and the opening of the diplomatic mission might open the door for other (first Arab and later non-Arab) states to establish official contacts with the Hamas government inside Gaza Strip. Secondly when the Qatari-funded skyrises, hospitals and schools start to be built in the Palestinian enclave, Hamas has every incentive in limiting violence from the Gaza Strip that could incur destructive Israeli retaliation. There is no point in building a new hospital one week if it is destroyed the next. Hence Hamas’s internal security services will step up their actions to curb violent attacks by other Gazan-based militants groups against Israel. By providing Gazans with better life conditions Hamas can palliate itself from focusing less on the continuation of the armed resistance. It is unlikely however that armed resistance will stop altogether – nature abhors a vacuum. While Hamas is moving away from violence and becoming more involved in non-violent political and ruling process, another Islamist movement is posed to take its place as the quintessential Palestinian resistance movement.
The Resurgent Palestinian Islamic Jihad
Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) has long been living in the shadow of its rival Hamas. Although being one of the first movements participating in the First Intifada, the PIJ as an Islamist movement was forced to take the back seat after the creation of Hamas and has since then been seen as the supportive ‘little brother’ of the former. That is until recently.
The PIJ has become more critical of Hamas and has accused the later of selling out on the idea of resistance to Israeli occupation. True enough Hamas has scaled back its armed attacks against Israel following the 2007-2009 Gaza War that proved painstakingly destructive for Hamas and the Gazan population. Increasingly critical of Hamas, the PIJ has stated that it will continue the armed resistance against Israel even if Hamas decides to abandon such action. More importantly it seems that the PIJ actually possesses the necessary means to do so. Abu Ahmad, the spokesperson of the military wing of PIJ, said in an interview to Reuters in late 2011 that the organisation had at least 8000 fully equipped fighters under its command and that there was no shortage of new recruits wanting to join. Iranian connection to the PIJ was also mentioned during the interview and taking into account the fact that Hamas has fallen from the good graces of Iran it might be the PIJ that has come to replace Hamas as the main recipient of Iranian military assistance. In the light of this the alleged Israeli Air Force air strike against the Yarmouk arms factory in Sudanese capital Khartoum on 23 October might have destroyed 40 containers of weapons meant not for Hamas, but for its rival the PIJ.
Although the Palestinian civil society has not gone through a large-scale popular uprising as we have seen in other parts of the Middle East there is rock-solid evidence that Palestinian political dynamics are changing. And from a Westerners perspective the change (like many other political changes brought on by the Arab Spring) are worrying. Fatah, the long-time Western ‘go-to guy’ in Palestinian politics is fast losing its authority and might be on its way out as a political player. With the other two up-and-coming Palestinian political entities – Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad – the West largely lacks any meaningful connection, much to do with the fact that they are considered terrorists. Terrorists or not, it is clear that as these two groups make their rise the West will gradually lose its already weak influence over decision-making processes in the Palestinian political landscape. Instead it will be the various Arab and non-Arab states in the Middle East that will see their influence increase. Will these states exert their influence over these Palestinian entities to pursue peace or to pursue war? Only time will tell.
Photo Credit: No Lands Too Foreign