Last month’s developments in Palestine are no great surprise. Basically, we have seen a political coup by an established, pro-Western political elite against a popular Islamic movement that was growing in power and credibility, and threatened to take a Muslim people and country in a direction unacceptable to Washington and Tel Aviv. The fact that this particular coup has taken place in the particular circumstances of zionist-occupied Palestine, rather than in one of the many Muslim nation-states where similar events have occurred, should not distract from that fundamental reality.
The direction of the Western and Israeli strategy in Palestine has long been clear; only the precise way in which they chose to bring it to its logical conclusion remained to be seen. Ever since Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary elections in January last year, the Israelis and the West have followed a three-pronged approach: to punish the Palestinian people for their temerity in electing a government that their enemies do not like; to undermine Hamas in every possible way; and to bolster Mahmoud Abbas, the discredited Fatah leader, as the only leader who could improve the conditions of the Palestinians and agree a settlement with the Israelis.
A key part of this Western strategy has been to persuade Abbas to join them in attacking Hamas. This is not a new approach, of course, and Abbas did not need much persuasion to accept it; the secular Fatah movement has felt threatened by the increasing credibility and popularity of the Islamic movement ever since the first intifada, when Islamic activists led the Palestinians in the streets of Jerusalem, the West Bank and Ghazzah while PLO leaders sat in comfortable offices in the capitals of other Arab countries. As long as Yasser Arafat was leading the PLO, however, it retained a certain credibility, because of his own standing as a symbol of the Palestinian struggle, despite the repeated failures of the peace process of the 1990s, and the performance of the Palestinian Authority (PA) when Palestinians were given a pseudo-state. Even during Arafat’s life, Israel attempted to use Fatah and the PA that they dominated as tools with which to impose their own terms on the Palestinians; but even Arafat had some limits, which were reached at Camp David in 2000, when he was blamed by the Clinton administration for the failure of what they hoped would be the tarnished president’s crowning success. Arafat’s refusal to accept Israel’s terms at Camp David, and the subsequent attacks on him by the Israelis and the West, gave him a standing he did not really deserve in the last years of his life.
Even before Arafat’s death, Abbas was being groomed by the Israelis as a Palestinian leader that they could work with. Since Arafat’s death, the emergence of Hamas as a political force, despite the efforts of the Israelis to destroy it by assassinating its top leadership in the last years of the al-Aqsa intifada, has made it difficult for Abbas to assume that role. As Abbassuffered repeated setbacks, such as Hamas’s parliamentary election success, and its success in forcing the Israelis out of Ghazzah, the West and the Israelis have been promoting tension between the two movements, as a precursor to precisely what we have seen in the last month: a decisive move by Abbas against Hamas that can only be regarded as a political coup against the Palestinians’ elected government, for which he is now being rewarded by the release of Palestinian funds and Western economic aid that had been withheld from the Hamasgovernment in order to starve the Palestinians into submission.
The question now is what the West and Israel expect from Abbas, having helped him into a position that he could otherwise never have achieved. The answer to that is clear enough: precisely the same as they have always wanted. In other words, recognition of Israel’s “right to exist” on the land seized by Palestinians by ethnic cleansing (a legitimation they seem particularly keen to receive, perhaps because they know they have no right to be there); a concession that those Palestinians driven from their homes since 1948 have no right to return to them; a so-called “two-state” solution in which the Palestinians agree to be effectively a dependent territory of Israel; and, above all, a concession of Israel’s right to rule the whole of al-Quds (Jerusalem) and make it the capital of the zionist state. These the Israelis have determined as their minimum requirement for a settlement, and have repeatedly tried to persuade Palestinian leaders to agree to. Abbas will now be under pressure to concede all these points, while the Israelis will offer nothing in return, confident in the knowledge that they have all the power and can return to an approach of military repression if necessary, without fear of censure from the international community.
So the challenge for the Palestinians, and Hamas as their real leaders, is precisely the same as it has been for the last few years: to prevent the Israelis from achieving their goals, even if they are not as yet able to achieve their own key objectives, namely the expulsion of the zionists from the lands lost in 1967 in the first instance, including al-Quds, and from the whole of Palestine in due course. Hamas has pursued this by a firm insistence on its position, despite the Israelis’ pressure, and been rewarded by the support of most Palestinians and a crackdown by Israel and its local allies, Fatah.
The new situation in Palestine, divided between a Ghazzah which is run by Hamas but is effectively a concentration camp for the millions of Palestinians there, and a West Bank which has been taken over by Fatah, and where Hamas is now being severely suppressed, makes it much harder for Hamas to pursue its line. Nonetheless, it must continue to do so, for that is the only pressure preventing Abbas from selling Palestine to the Israelis. It will be encouraged and helped in this task by the knowledge that time and again the Palestinians have demonstrated that they share Hamas’s approach, and their willingness to stand against Israeli machinations in defiance of any amount of pressure put on them.