Expert Q&A: Palestinian National Unity & The Schism Between Fatah and Hamas

September 11, 2014 IMEU
Expert Q&A: Palestinian National Unity & The Schism Between Fatah and Hamas

PHOTO: Khaled Meshaal (left), leader of Hamas's political bureau, and Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the Fatah party and chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization. (Thaer Ghanem/PPO/AFP)


For further reference, see our recently released expert Q&A: The New Palestinian Peace Plan, Ceasefire Talks & Israel's Latest Land Grab, and our recently released fact sheet, 50 Days of Death & Destruction: Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge.”


Diana Buttu, Ramallah-based analyst, former legal advisor to Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian negotiators, and Policy Advisor to Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network.



Mouin RabbaniMouin Rabbani, Senior Fellow with the Institute for Palestine Studies, Contributing Editor with Middle East Report and Co-Editor of the ezine Jadaliyya. Former Senior Middle East Analyst with theInternational Crisis Group.





Q - What caused the split between Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah party, which dominates the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Palestinian Authority (PA), and Hamas? 

DB - The split was caused by a number of factors. First, Hamas long rejected the Oslo Accords and the negotiation process and, as a result of this rejection, Fatah carried out a violent crackdown on Hamas in the mid-1990s in the belief that such measures were needed to ensure the viability of the negotiations process. Palestinian popular support for Hamas grew as the ‘peace process’ floundered, culminating in Fatah’s defeat in the PA general elections in 2006. Although Fatah lost the election, it refused to cede complete control, notably security control, to Hamas. At the same time, the international community refused to recognize the newly elected Hamas government, demanding instead that Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah undertake actions to undermine Hamas’s authority, including a demand that Hamas abide by newly created conditions in order for the PA to continue receiving European, American and Canadian funding. Following an outbreak of violence between the two sides over the control of the PA, Hamas ousted Fatah from the Gaza Strip in 2007. 

“The division between the two sides remains today due to disagreements over the direction of the PA and demands by the Americans and Europeans that Hamas assent to a number of conditions before it will be recognized as a legitimate part of any government. These conditions, imposed by the Quartet, include: (i) renunciation of violence; (ii) agreeing to abide by signed agreements; and (iii) recognizing Israel. The international community continues to insist that any Palestinian government continue fruitless, and in fact counter-productive, negotiations with Israel. It should be noted that Israel has failed to meet these three conditions demanded of the Palestinians, as it has not renounced violence, continues to systematically violate signed agreements such as the Oslo Accords and Road Map for Peace, and has never formally recognized or accepted the creation of a Palestinian state.”

MR - “In 2006, the PA conducted elections for its Legislative Council (PLC). Hamas, which had boycotted the previous elections in 1996, this time participated. At the time, Mahmoud Abbas - Chairman of the PLO, President of the PA, and head of Fatah, and who had been in office for only one year, was seeking to bolster his legitimacy (and weaken rival power centers in Fatah) by integrating Hamas into the PA. Hamas for its part was seeking to translate its increased popularity into institutional power. The expectation was that Hamas would gain a significant minority of seats, which the movement anticipated would give it veto power over major decisions and pave the way for its integration into the PLO. For his part Abbas hoped it would subordinate Hamas and compel it to accept his agenda and policies, and prevent it from opposing them from outside the system. 

“In the event Hamas won, and won big, and as with most electoral victors formed a government. Israel, the United States and European Union abruptly stopped singing the praises of democracy and peaceful transitions of power, and responded with an immediate and comprehensive boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against the PA. Fatah, and particularly Abbas, acting at the instigation and in close coordination with the above, responded by handing over office while refusing to hand over power, and initiated a systematic campaign to deprive Hamas the opportunity to govern or exercise authority within the PA, particularly in the security sector. The point man for the campaign to overturn the election result was Muhammad Dahlan, the Fatah warlord who was at the time Abbas's closest associate. 

“Amid growing tensions and violence, Fatah and Hamas in February 2007 signed the Mecca Agreement, which led to the formation of a PA coalition government. Washington, Brussels and Tel Aviv effectively declared war upon it, and despite the agreement Dahlan almost immediately began preparing for an armed showdown in the Gaza Strip. Hamas beat him to the punch and in June of that year seized power in the Gaza Strip. 

“In sum, Fatah was unprepared to relinquish its monopoly over the Palestinian political system. Hamas for its part acted as if a single election result produced a clean slate and entitled it to replace Fatah's monopoly with its own. So the rejection of power-sharing and political participation by both parties, and by Abbas in particular, is a root cause. That said, the ensuing schism cannot be understood without reference to the primary role foreign powers played in instigating and prolonging it. 

“Additionally, Fatah and Hamas focused their energies on control of the PA within the occupied territories, akin to prison inmates fighting over the top bunk, rather than on the PLO and the national movement as a whole, which remains in urgent need of reconstruction and is more conducive to power-sharing arrangements.”


Q - What have the consequences of the split been?

DB - “The consequences have been grave. Throughout this period of a ‘split,’ Israel has used the schism to claim that it cannot make peace with a divided Palestinian national movement, and has imposed a cruel, draconian blockade on the Gaza Strip, with little pushback from Fatah and the PA. Israel has also continued to bomb Gaza periodically with impunity, while Abbas and Fatah have resisted calls to hold Israel accountable before the International Criminal Court (ICC). Palestinians in Gaza, who have now endured three major Israeli military assaults in six years, cannot rebuild because of restrictions imposed by the Israeli siege. 

“Internally, the division has eroded Palestinian democracy. Once a model for democracy in the Middle East, the division has allowed Abbas to put presidential and general elections on hold indefinitely. Today, the terms of both the PA president, Mahmoud Abbas, and the PLC have expired, and Abbas rules by presidential decree. The PLC has not even met in seven years. In the Gaza Strip, the situation is similar: the Prime Minister there rules without parliamentary oversight and has enacted laws that have also eroded Palestinian freedoms. This is not in the best interests of Palestine or Palestinians.”

MR - “The schism has brought Palestinians to their lowest point since 1967, and enabled the unprecedented political and geographic fragmentation of the Palestinian people and their national movement. It has led both parties to prioritize factional advantage over the national interest, and to invite foreign intervention to resolve domestic differences. As a result foreign influence - more often pernicious than beneficial - on internal Palestinian affairs has never been greater, and rather than maintain the Palestinian cause as an issue that unifies the Arabs it has become an increasingly divisive issue as Fatah and Hamas have become willing participants in rival regional coalitions. 

“The cost of this petty dispute - petty because it is mainly about power, not principle - to ordinary Palestinians has been extraordinarily high, and Israel's repeated offensives against the Gaza Strip and continued Palestinian commitment to the catastrophic Oslo agreements should, in my view, be considered part of that price. In Ramallah, Palestinians have not only advocated for the siege of the Gaza Strip but its intensfication, and at times hoped Israeli offensives against the Gaza Strip succeed beyond Israel's own objectives. In Gaza, Palestinians have taken delight in the extremely costly failures of Abbas's diplomacy. In the meantime the national movement is disintegrating and is put on the agenda only by Israel's actions rather than Palestinian initiative.”


Q -Why have they failed to successfully reconcile, despite repeated attempts and strong pressure from Palestinians to do so?

DB - “The parties have failed to successfully reconcile both because of external pressure that has been exerted on them and for internal reasons. External pressure has largely taken the form of demands by the international community that Hamas abide by the Quartet’s conditions. Internally, the parties are facing their own constraints, with both sides apparently pleased with ‘ruling’ a piece of territory without any democratic oversight.” 

MR - Reconciliation can only succeed on the basis of a rejuvenated national movement that is constructed on the basis of power-sharing, political participation, and a collective national program and political strategy. The focus therefore needs to move away from the PA and towards the PLO, or at least expand to include the PLO. That is not yet happening.”


Q - What will it take for a true unified Palestinian political front between Fatah and Hamas to be realized?

DB - “The parties need to move away from their desire to ‘rule’ and to begin focusing on a larger, comprehensive strategy of national liberation. To date, all discussions have focused on who will control the various ministries of the Palestinian Authority, rather than on how to achieve freedom for the Palestinian people.”

MR - Same answer as above, but I would add that neither the political system nor the national movement can afford to be monopolized by Fatah and Hamas alone. 

“Just as the era of a single Palestinian movement able to monopolize institutions is over, I don't think a situation in which these are controlled by the two main parties, who together have the allegiance of at most half the people, will work either. The Palestinian crisis is so thoroughly deep and acute that only a comprehensive and coordinated mobilization of all available forces can begin to address it.  

“A particular concern is the accelerated disintegration of Fatah, particularly since Arafat's demise. The movement has survived Dahlan, we'll have to see if it also survives Abbas.”