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GAZA: UNDERLYING CAUSES
by Amir Taheri
Arab News
June 16, 2007

"Madness!" This is how the president of the Palestinian National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, describes the fighting between rival factions in Gaza.

However, even if Abbas is right, what we witness in Gaza is madness with a method. The notion that Hamas and Fatah have suddenly jumped at each other's throat for no good reason is fanciful, to say the least.

Talk of a Palestinian civil war is also premature.

Despite the savagery of the battles in recent days, and the mounting casualty figures, the current struggle concerns relatively small groups with the majority of Palestinians standing back, watching in horror. So far, Hamas has kept the bulk of its mini-army out of the conflict, while the national police and army, loyal to Fatah, have also remained on the sidelines.

The fighting has three causes: Immediate, midterm, and long-term.

The immediate cause is the desire by Hamas, which has a majority in both the Parliament and the "national unity" Cabinet, to bring Fatah's security apparatus in Gaza under its own control. Months of negotiations, part of which took place with the help of at least two Arab countries, failed to persuade Fatah to put its security forces in Gaza under government, which in practice means Hamas, control.

Hamas regards the Fatah security machine, led by Muhammad Dahlan, as little better than "the Zionist enemy", and has been trying to break it for years. Dahlan, for his part, knows that, without his machine, he would have little chance of making his bid for the presidency when and if Mahmoud Abbas bows out. At the same time, Dahlan runs a major protection racket in Gaza covering important business interests that contribute to Fatah's funds. Kicked out of the strip, he could end up a much weaker, and poorer, figure.

Although Gaza has been Hamas' principal support base for a decade, the presence of Fatah's armed units and security networks has prevented the pan-Islamist movement from reshaping it according to its ideology.

By expelling Fatah, Hamas will have exclusive control over an area that accounts for almost half of all Palestinians in the occupied territories.

The midterm reason for the fighting is Hamas' desire to push the wooden nail into the heart of the Oslo accords, a Nosferatu that haunts Palestinian politics with the tantalizing but ever-elusive promise of a two-state solution.

Fatah bought into the two-state philosophy in the 1990s.

Hamas never did.

Hamas' constitution commits it to striving for a single state in the entire Mandate Palestine. For Hamas, Palestine is a cause. For Fatah, it is a political project. Here we have a classical case of idealism versus realism.

By imposing its exclusive control over Gaza, Hamas hopes to forestall attempt at creating a mini-Palestinian state that, covering less than 5000-square kilometers, may prove unviable.

While Fatah regards Gaza and the West Banks as pieces of a jigsaw that, put together, would make an independent Palestinian state, Hamas sees them as bases from which the struggle for the liberation of the entire Mandate Palestine could be pursued for as long as necessary.

From the mid-1990s onward, Fatah dropped its dream of annihilating Israel in favor of a new dream: Hateful coexistence with the Jews in distinct statehood. Hamas, however, has clung to its position as a "liberation movement."

The longer-term cause of the current fight must be sought in the deep ideological divisions in Palestinian society. Hamas is part of the Muslim Brotherhood, a pan-Islamist movement dedicated to creating a single global Islamic state. For it, Palestine is no more than a small corner of the Dar Al-Islam (The House of Islam) which must one day defeat the Dar al-Kufr (The House of the Infidel) and unite mankind under its banner.

In a conversation with students at Tehran University a few months ago, Hamas' Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh warned Muslims against falling into the trap of "nationalism" which he described as a "Zionist-Crusader conspiracy "to divide Muslims across national lines".

To be sure, Haniyah wants a Palestine as much as Abbas wants; but not just any old Palestine. Haniyah wants a Palestine that covers the entire 22,000-square kilometer of the old British Mandate. He also wants an Islamic Palestine in which Shariah, and not Western-style law, is in force.

This is why Hamas has launched a major drive to "Islmicize" Gaza, starting with forcing women to wear the hijab, and men to grow mandatory beards. It burned down the last beer factory in Gaza, and has banned the sale of alcoholic beverages throughout the strip. Bands of youths calling themselves "Brigades of Enforcing the Good and Combating Evil" have been raiding homes in search of alcohol, playing cards, Western videos, un-Islamic T-shirts and other "sinful items." Young men and women found together in public or even in their cars are topped and searched to make sure that unmarried couples do not violate Shariah rules.

While Hamas is religious, Fatah is secular. Hamas is pan-Islamist, Fatah Palestinian nationalist. More importantly, perhaps, Hamas is optimistic while Fatah is pessimistic.

Hamas is convinced that time is running out for Israel.

Hamas is also encouraged by the fact that, for the first time in a decade, several regional powers including the Islamic Republic of Iran, Syria, the Sudan and Libya, support its "one-state" strategy.

Fatah's pessimistic analysis, however, is based on the assumption that the longer the "two-state" solution is delayed, the smaller the chances of creating a viable Palestinian state.

As things are shaping up, Gaza could end up as Hamas-land while the West Bank becomes Fatah-land. And, that, if anything, looks like a three-state scenario: A Jewish one in Israel, a secular Arab nationalist one in the West Bank, and an Islamist one in Gaza. And that could mean even greater tragedies for all concerned.

 

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