The most recent fighting in the Gaza Strip, which has left many dead, confirms that the internal strife plaguing the Palestinian occupied territories since the rise of Hamas to power in January 2006 was not entirely the outcome of outside meddling in Palestinian affairs. It is, in the most part, violent expression of already existing weaknesses and disunity that have sadly defined the Palestinian political milieu for generations.
Fighting between Hamas and Fatah reached unprecedented levels when 31 Palestinians, including a toddler, were murdered in a matter of five days, starting Thursday, 25 January, raising the death toll to more than 60 since last month.
One year ago to the day, Hamas was elected to power in an impressive landslide victory. By dominating the Palestinian legislature with an absolute majority, Hamas was comfortably able to form and confirm a government on its own. From that critical date, the US and Israel initiated and maintained a campaign of economic boycott and military coercion that has cost hundreds of Palestinian lives and has almost completely crippled an already traumatised economy. The boycott was a sensational success, for it also involved all the forces that traditionally came to the aid of Palestinians, at least morally and financially, including Arab neighbours, the United Nations and the European Union.
There is no doubt the Palestinians are being collectively punished for electing Hamas, whose victory meant that the easy ride that Israel hitherto enjoyed in dealing with the self-serving elites of Fatah would be disrupted. It also indicated that the United States’ regional designs, which were meant to introduce artificial democracy to the Middle East, merely aiming at giving a face-lift to the already corrupt political structure of friendly allies — coupled with regime change for foes — was endangered by Hamas using the same democracy vehicle so touted in Washington.
It was not the religious posture of Hamas that irked the US and Israel — the US’s unwarranted invasion of Iraq, for example, has given rise to all sorts of political religious organisations that seem to fit neatly into the US’s strategy in the war- torn country. Nor was it Hamas’s rhetoric, extremist from the viewpoint of Israel and the US, for the latter knew too well that Hamas is simply not capable of “destroying” Israel, whose security remains a top priority for the US. What irked the US and Israel was that Hamas’s rise was an anomaly at a time that the US was engaged in rearranging the political map of the Middle East so as to marginalise Iran and Syria, the former being a top priority.
Hamas has enjoyed safe haven and financial backing from both Tehran and Damascus. In isolating Hamas, who was subsequently ostracised and deprived of Arab support, the options of the Islamic movement were limited, further radicalising its rhetoric and henceforth increasing Iranian influence over the beleaguered group.
Though the interests of the US and Iran have met on more than one occasion in the past — most notably in Afghanistan and Iraq — the US was wary of the fact that Iran’s influence in the region was reaching unprecedented heights, beginning with the US invasion of Iraq and the rise of Shia political sectarianism there. The astounding victory of Hizbullah against the much more sophisticated US-armed Israeli military in July- August 2006 was another battle that the US was forced to yield to Iran, whose confidence, as exhibited in the speed and intensity of its nuclear research programme, is at an all time high. Hamas’s survival in the face of a decided American-Israeli campaign prolonged and strengthened the Iranian alliance. Expectedly, Iran pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to support the Hamas government, funds that are largely blocked from entering the occupied territories.
Contrary to the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton report, the Bush administration is yet to heed the advice of engaging, rather than isolating, Syria and Iran, despite the fact that the latter’s considerable sway over many Iraqi Shia groups gives it a serious stake in determining the stability and thus future of Iraq. Fearing that such engagement could be mistaken for political concession, and still faithful to Israel’s own regional calculations, the Bush administration braved other dangerous options: doubling its support for the Lebanese government, which is fighting an intense political war against Hizbullah, a major Iranian ally, and also by arming and financing the Palestinian Fatah movement.
Fatah received generous financial help from the US, and President Bush recently requested Congress to approve an additional $85 million, notwithstanding massive amounts of American weapons and training. But even more directly, according to The Washington Post citing senior US officials, the US decided to upgrade its confrontation with Iran by ordering the killing of Iran’s “agents” in Iraq, put at nearly 40,000 individuals. All of these policy revelations coincide with the US announcement of beefing up its naval presence in the Gulf, the surest sign of an encroaching military showdown between the US and Iran.
The lines of hostility have never been clearer between the two countries, where the US is still spearheading a campaign aimed at defeating Israel’s remaining foes, joined by Israel, Fatah and Arab governments who are increasingly uneasy over the Shia political resurgence. On the other side, Iran stands backed by Syria, many of Iraq’s Shia and Hamas — the latter being unwittingly shoved into the alarming equation. Though Iran may seem the weakest link, its strength stems from two important cards, one being the US military failure in Iraq, and the other Israel’s poor performance in its most recent military showdown in Lebanon.
That said, one should not succumb to the analysis that puts the entire blame for this unfolding drama on the active Cold War between the US and Iran. In Lebanon, for example, sectarianism and factionalism, similar to Iraq’s sectarianism and tribalism, has rendered the country nationally fragmented and hardly possessed of the necessary requirements of a nation state, where allegiance is made to the state, not to a sect, clan or tribe. The same is true for the Palestinians, where corruption is rife and disunity has been the longest defining factor of the Palestinian political temperament. While plenty can be said of how physical fragmentation has led to national disintegration in Palestine, and how many Palestinian groups, willingly or otherwise, served the interest of regional powers, the truth is that the Fatah-Hamas clash preceded the US’s ongoing blunders in the region. The US-Israeli backing of Fatah merely exposed the perpetual weaknesses that have marred Palestinian society for generations, by providing political, financial and military requirements to intensify the fight so that Palestinian resistance against the Israeli occupation might fizzle out, an evident outcome of the current fighting.
It is indeed more than disheartening to see that Palestinians have themselves surrendered readily to the Israeli and American designs, allowing their revolting factionalism to morph into a near civil war that has already harvested many lives. Those responsible for the violence — blame that can no longer be placed on a cluster of individuals — must have forgotten that their infighting is taking place in an occupied land, besieged by Israeli fences and walls, and under the watchful eye of Israeli intelligence, who must be brimming with glee as Palestinians are shamelessly slaughtering one another, a job that has for a long time been reserved for Israel and for Israel alone.