Gaza: a plaything of the international community

Hamas points the guns and Abbas appoints the governments. But it is the US and the EU that are determining the fate of the Palestinians.

Nicholas Frayn

Topics World

Abolishing the Palestinian government and resorting to emergency rule has won Palestinian Authority (PA) president Mahmoud Abbas some significant plaudits. President George W Bush has hailed him as ‘the president of all the Palestinian people’, while the European Union (EU) has agreed to restore aid to the PA’s operations (1). Over at Electronic Intifada, however, US professor Virginia Tilley makes a decent argument that it is in fact Abbas, not his rivals in Hamas, who has attempted a coup. According to Tilley, the activities of Abbas have broken the Palestinian Basic Law, essentially the constitution of the PA, in a number of different ways (2).

But this is neither here nor there. The Basic Law is a recent product of the Oslo Accords, signed in 1993, a period in which the Palestinian cause had already become completely internationalised. The law was essentially the product of international pressure to make the Palestinian leadership ‘accountable’ and democratic, as was the post of prime minister formerly held by Abbas (3). And now, as Hamas settles into its uncontested rule in Gaza, we see the process begin again. International recognition, by the EU, US or Israelis, seems to be a critical factor for the success or otherwise of the Palestinian leadership. And this is a process that continues to rot Palestinian institutions from the inside.

The recent fortieth anniversary of the Six-Day War posed an unfortunate counterpoint to current events. It was that conflict which brought Fatah, the party of Arafat and Abbas, to prominence. Fatah, at that time, was an organisation of tough, uncompromising fighters in stark contrast to the fading stars of the corrupt, incompetent and defeated Arab regimes. This time around, however, it is Fatah’s leaders who are the old men, swept aside by the upstarts of Hamas. The speed with which Hamas overran Gaza was striking, but only proved that this was a rotten wall that could collapse with a kick. As widely noted, Fatah’s chief enforcer, Mohammed Dahlan, was AWOL (having knee surgery in Cairo apparently), while his much vaunted ‘Preventative Security Force’ could prevent nothing. Their lack of élan was hilariously exposed in a scene reported to Newsweek: ‘A group of them detonated a small explosive device that blew a hole in the border fence, [and] dozens of Preventative Security men rushed through a gap, and out of Gaza. “It was obvious they were running for their lives”, says Said Kaman, a Rafah-based taxi driver who witnessed the explosion. “It was like they were flying in the air. They were so scared. I don’t think they’ll ever come back.”‘ (4)

Fatah’s loss of control in Gaza is all the more striking given the recent history of the Occupied Territories. Unlike the West Bank, where residents are confronted by their continued occupation daily, in the form of settlements and army checkpoints, Fatah could claim to have dramatically reduced the Israeli presence in Gaza. The Israelis were, for much of the Oslo period, confined to the three central settlement blocks. While the Erez checkpoint, the gateway to Israel for Gazans, was a grim place in which workers would wait in caged tunnels for hours to be allowed through, the PA’s claim to be building a Palestinian state had some credibility in Gaza (5).

The hollowing out of Fatah’s Palestinian Authority was both a military and political process. For their part, the Israelis continually undermined the institutions that Oslo had brought into being. This included the regular ‘reinvasion’ of areas that were supposedly under Palestinian control, attacks on security and government installations, and the arrest, assassination and immobilisation of key personnel. This latter category included the symbolic confinement of the late Yasser Arafat in the ruins of his Ramallah compound. Any legitimacy the PA might have garnered from its negotiating strategy was stripped away, revealing that the Palestinians were not really in control of events.

At the same time, the actions of international forces politically compromised the Palestinian leadership. Initially, the US and EU focused on Arafat, who was presented both as despotic but also unwilling to be despotic enough in imposing the necessary demands of of the international community on his people. For example, in 2003, even as he sat in that same compound with Israeli guns trained on his quarters, Arafat was blamed for not preventing suicide bombings and was forced to create a new post of prime minister, which was given to Abbas (6). With both Arafat and Abbas apparently in charge, this created a contested leadership with all the attendant problems. Abbas eventually resigned when Arafat refused key compromises but the incident served to further underline just how little control Fatah had over its future.

Arafat died in November 2004 but Fatah’s situation deteriorated further when Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian elections. Abbas attempted to use the widespread international concern over the Islamist victory to his advantage, presenting himself as the thin line between moderation and extremism. International donors were happy to restrict aid to Hamas in an attempt to coerce them into a government of national unity with Fatah. But this was, of course, a suicidal proposition. In seeking outside help, Abbas could only emphasise the fact that he represented very few in Palestinian society. Hamas made decisive gains at his expense as a result. And nothing suggests this trend will stop. When Abbas created the emergency government last weekend, he appointed Salam Fayyad as prime minister – despite the fact that Fayyad’s party garnered only 2.4 per cent of the vote in the election that Hamas won (7). What really matters, it seems, is that Fayyad is popular with Western diplomats, having worked in the World Bank for several years.

It seems unlikely that Israel, let alone Europe and the US, intended this outcome – even though it was a logical consequence of their actions. Their meddling is not interest-driven in a conventional sense. Rather, as argued elsewhere on spiked, it is the product of a contingent politics, one caught in a restless effort to realise itself abroad due to failing legitimacy at home. For Israel, this presents itself as a constant need to assert and defeat an existential threat; for the EU or the US, a need to turn the Third World into a morality play in which they defend the forces of progress against conservatives (8). The consequences are disastrous for weak states like the Palestinian Authority.

What the immediate future holds for Palestine is unclear. I have made the point before on spiked that Hamas represents an unknown quantity that is not necessarily as radical as it is often presented (9). But the situation is not under Hamas’s control. International forces, in the shape of Western largesse bestowed on Abbas or a determined Israeli assault on Gaza, will likely decide what Hamas will do next. While the widespread intervention in their affairs continues, the fate of the Palestinians will be determined by others.

Nicholas Frayn is a writer and researcher based in New York.

Previously on spiked

Nicholas Frayn questioned how much difference the election of Hamas would make beyond Palestine. Brendan O’Neill argued that international intervention in the Middle East actually made things worse while Western media coverage portrayed Palestinians as basketcases. Guy Rundle suggested Israel was far from a united society. Or read more at spiked issue Middle East.

(1) ‘US, EU restore Palestinian Ties,’ BBC News, 18 June 2007

(2) ‘Whose Coup, Exactly?’ Electronic Intifada, 18 June 2007

(3) For an interesting summary of Abbas’ fortunes in this earlier period see: ‘The Quick Rise and Fall of Mahmoud Abbas,’ Electronic Intifada, 10 September 2003

(4) ‘Gaza Takeover’, Newsweek, 14 June 2007

(5) As a summer student near Ramallah in 1998, I remember a palpable feeling of relief in arriving in Gaza from the West Bank. After several weeks living in the shadow of the settlements and watching my Palestinian friends suffer the indignity of accounting for themselves to Israeli soldiers every time we wanted to travel anywhere, the absence of (obvious) occupation forces was elating. That said, as we passed through Erez we had a grim reminder of the prison that Gaza represented. A Palestinian, after waiting under the scorching sun for several hours, had collapsed and died.

(6) ‘Arafat bows to pressure to appoint PM’, Guardian, 15 February 2003

(7) ‘Those who denied poll result were the real coup plotters’ Observer, 17 June 2007

(8) See my article, ‘Behind Sharon’s Pragmatism,’ spiked, 25 November 2005 and ‘Iranian elections: no throwback to ’79’, spiked, 30 June 2005

(9) For instance in ‘All quiet on the Middle Eastern front’, spiked, 27 January 2006

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Topics World


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