For a few tense days in December, after the attempted assassination of Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh as he re-entered Ghazzah at the Rafah border crossing, apparently perpetrated by gunmen associated with the Fatah movement led by Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, it appeared that Palestine might slide into civil war. As so often in the past, the Palestinians drew back from the brink, knowing that the slightest slip would play into the hands of their enemies. Nonetheless, with Abbas apparently determined to force Hamas from power, despite their electoral mandate, and willing to risk anything to achieve his goal, the gaping chasm now seems closer than ever.
One of the great achievements of the Palestinian movement to date is that, despite having the same division between secularists (mainly pro-western and nationalist) and the Islamic movement that characterises virtually all contemporary Muslim societies, they have managed to avoid the internecine conflicts that have blighted so many others. This is partly because the Palestinians have had a common enemy on which to focus their attention, and partly because Palestinian leaders have consciously avoided internal conflict. It has always been authoritarian regimes, rather than Islamic movements, that have been responsible for the greatest political violence in Muslim societies, because of their ruthless repression of all opposition. In Palestine, similar trends emerged when Yasser Arafat achieved pseudo-state power in the early 1990s; hardly surprising as he was, after all, a secular nationalist in the tradition of Gamal Abdul Nasser, Mu’ammar Qaddafi, Hafiz al-Assad and Saddam Hussain. Arafat was, however, constrained by the popularity of Palestinian opposition groups, particularly Hamas. Hamas, for its part, took care to avoid direct conflict with the Palestinian Authority, despite disagreeing with Arafat over the political direction in which he was taking the Palestinians.
Hamas maintained this political reticence after Arafat’s death, declining to challenge Abbas in the subsequent presidential elections, but was gradually drawn into political involvement because of popular agreement with their approach. At the same time, there was a growing opinion within Hamas that they should accept political responsibility, despite their main focus on resistance. The result was Hamas’s success in the parliamentary elections in January, which forced the confrontation with Abbas that they had previously avoided. The West’s anger with the Palestinians for their effrontery in electing Hamas could have been effectively resisted had Abbas accepted the election results and maintained a united front with the Hamas government. Instead he tried to steer a middle course between Hamas and the West’s demands and ended up working with the West to undermine Hamas, weakening the Palestinian position, possibly fatally.
As clashes between Fatah and Hamas fighters left 14 dead after the assassination attempt, Abbas gave a major speech on December 16 blaming Hamas for the current Palestinian predicament. At the end of a 90-minute attack on Hamas, Abbas announced his intention to call early presidential and parliamentary elections, insisting that it was his right to do so, a claim that most constitutional experts dispute. This is what the US and Israel had been demanding for months, in the hope that the Palestinians’ recent hardships would persuade them not to vote for Hamas again. It is far more likely, however, that free elections would see Abbas replaced as president by a Hamas candidate, which is clearly not what either the West or Abbas have in mind; observers suspect that nefarious means will be used to secure the desired election results. The Israelis, meanwhile, rewarded Abbas by granting him a meeting with Ehud Olmert, announcing the easing of some restrictions in the West Bank, and releasing Palestinian funds to him: all moves designed to reinforce his position.
By demonstrating his willingness to provoke civil war in Palestine, Abbas is effectively blackmailing Hamas. If they stand up to Abbas, they risk igniting an internecine conflagaration that could consume Palestinian society, while Israel watches in glee. If they back down, they surrender the Palestinians into the hands of a leadership that is totally subservient to Washington and Tel Aviv. Meanwhile, Palestinians, the Ummah, and the world wait and watch.