Within the context of a U.S.-Israeli determined campaign to remove the elected Islamic Resistance Movement from power, the best of the Palestinian mainstream anti-occupation activists of Fatah and Hamas are being polarized into a deadlocked divide that is already threatening an historic national unity with a looming civil war as a result of either risky brinkmanship tactics or what Hamas says a coup d’etat.
Either way the external campaign has succeeded in mobilizing an array of a minority of local would-be losers of any change to the pre-Hamas status quo to exacerbate inter-Palestinian disputes into a crisis by launching their own campaign to bring about the downfall of Hamas, using brinkmanship tactics that could hardly be distinguished from a coup d’etat.
Aside from the external influences but by necessity linked to them, this factor is the most fraught with the ingredients of a civil war among other internal ideological, historical and strategic factors that have contributed to the evolving crisis.
So far President Mahmoud Abbas could not distinctly dissociate from this minority and its risky brinkmanship tactics.
He however on Wednesday, during a joint press conference in the West Bank with the visiting U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, declared a very important point of departure with the adventurer minority that was gearing the political divide up towards a civil war by ruling out from the start the only credible breakthrough of a national unity government with Hamas.
A national unity government is his “preferable best choice,” declared Abbas.
However he again blurred the distinction between his agenda and theirs when he announced that “all the options are open except only the civil war,” leaving a wide space of manoeuvring for the reckless minority to continue fishing in the Palestinian troubled water.
This minority represents marginal cross-faction down to earth interests that had mushroomed to the verge of corruption; it identifies with the goals of the external anti-Hamas campaign and rules out any dialogue with Hamas even if that leads to infighting until the ruling Islamic group strictly, publicly and unconditionally commit to the U.S.-adopted Israeli conditions; it postures as a self-proclaimed “peaceniks” using the slogan of peace as a per se justification for its dangerous agenda.
Its role is oversized by preying on the Hamas-Fatah divide and the presidency-premiership conflicting agendas to conceal both its own agenda and underlying interests. This role is public knowledge to the rank and file of both Fatah and Hamas as well as for Palestinian public in general. It is also public knowledge to foreign “donors” and backers who nonetheless make use of this minority until they settle things with the key players in the tragic Palestinian drama.
However a lot of its image depends on its posturing as the power base and the mouthpiece of President Abbas; that’s why his point of departure with it on Wednesday was very important although it was shortcoming.
Those self-proclaimed “peaceniks” rule out any middle ground agreement with Hamas, but advocate consistent contacts with the occupying power even without agreement; they are big mouths in urging Hamas to commit to PLO’s signed accords with Israel, but keep mum on Israel’s non-commitment to the same accords.
Citing an Israeli argument, they are inciting the PLO to take on the Islamic movement, allegedly to eliminate a major obstacle to kicking off the peace process.
All the alternative proposals for a breakthrough out of the crisis emanated from this minority and all of them serve the same goal: Removing Hamas from power.
First a referendum was proposed on the “prisoners’ document,” which was drafted by well-meaning leading detainees in the Israeli jails. Then proposals for holding legislative and not presidential elections were floated, to be followed by proposing a government of either technocrats or independents.
Worse still, this minority has been recently calling publicly and irresponsibly on President Abbas to declare a state of emergency, dissolve the Hamas-led government and form an emergency cabinet; the proposal boils down to a call for an outright presidential coup d’etat.
While practically this is possible in the West Bank where the Palestinian security forces could easily gain control in the Israeli-reoccupied territory, under the watching eyes of the reoccupying army, it is impossible without a civil war in the Gaza Strip, the major power base of Hamas where the Hamas-led government has fielded its own security executive forces.
All the foregoing proposed alternatives are doomed and would only exacerbate the crisis.
All of them go against the national consensus on national unity as well as the “prisoners’ document,” which promotes national unity, calls for a national unity government and incorporating Hamas and Islamic Jihad into PLO, and reforming the security forces and banning security officers from political activity.
While giving it a lip service, the minority of the civil war provocateurs are undermining the only credible alternative of the unity government by their brinkmanship tactics.
The choice they are incessantly and insistently throwing into Abbas’ face is not a breakthrough but only a recipe for what he has dreaded all throughout his leading career and did his best especially recently to avoid: Sack the Hamas-led government, dismantle its infrastructure and risk civil war or do nothing and watch the current crisis snowballing to the abyss.
In a thinly-concealed threat that questioned Abbas’ qualifications, a Fatah leader said: “All the doors have been shut in his (Abbas’) face…I believe he has one last chance to prove he is qualified to lead the Palestinian people or it will be his political end.”
Skilfully and opportunistically exploiting the plight of about 16 hundred thousand unpaid public employees, they exploited a general strike and escalated it into an almost armed civil disobedience, inviting the ruling Hamas to respond in kind and ignite what could be the first salvos in the dreaded civil war, which claimed more than 12 lives last week.
The smell of the taboo bloodletting did not deter the provocateurs to desist from incitement against Hamas and used the let blood as a new war cry against it.
The general strike is legitimate and has legitimate goals were it not open-ended, exploited for political ends, enforced on the populace and embroiled the security personnel in provocative and threatening armed protests, some of which torched t he headquarters of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) and the premises of the premiership, in a symbolic gesture indicating a determination to burn Hamas out of power by force if needed.
Abbas in a televised appeal for calm ordered the security personnel protesters out of the streets and back to their barracks, indicating publicly that he who had campaigned against the militarization of the uprising against the Israeli occupation could not tolerate any militarization of protests against en elected Palestinian government that is besieged by Israel.
However Abbas has contributed to the crisis by not firmly distancing himself from the civil war provocateurs and by encouraging them to float their coup d’etat proposals, first by adopting their referendum idea, then by not ruling out publicly their proposed state of emergency measures. Bypassing Hamas in his international relations also sent the wrong message that he indirectly subscribed to the anti-Hamas campaign and allied himself with the provocateurs’ agenda, which he has yet to confirm.
True Abbas wants Hamas either out of power or incorporated in the PLO strategy, but even Hamas has publicly acknowledged that he never resorted to force to do so. Even before Hamas assumed power Abbas for two years has fended off Israeli-U.S. pressures to forcefully disarm Hamas and successfully opted for dialogue and diplomatic pressure to clinch from Hamas a truce and a pledge to join the Palestinian Authority political process.
With the self-proclaimed friends like his Abbas needs no enemies; and for sure the Israeli occupying power is watching joyfully on the sidelines while preoccupied undisturbed with its colonial expansionist policies, leaving to Palestinian mouthpieces to promote its message without even paying for the translation from Hebrew into Arabic.
The so-called friends are making Abbas’ mission more critical and uncomfortable and weakening his chances both to defuse the inter-Palestinian divide and to arrange his domestic cards in a way conducive to meeting international conditions to jump-start a moribund peace process.
If Hamas opts not to be dragged into military confrontation, removing it from power would entail two alternatives, pushing it back to resistance and bringing back an internally corrupt and politically deadlocked status quo, the main two factors that brought Hamas to power in the first place in a popular yearning for changing the status quo. But nothing so far indicates Hamas will resort to this option and everything indicates it will honor its public pledge that it will defend the people’s democratic choice which carried it to power, and this is exactly the prescription to civil war.
One could not but wonder whether the real Israeli-U.S.-backed provocateurs’ aim is to bring about the downfall of both Abbas and Hamas in order to maintain and sustain a pre-Hamas comfortable status quo, where their interests and privileges are preserved and the interests of their backers are ideally served.
Abbas - a founding father of the PLO alongside late Yasser Arafat – has been a veteran man of dialogue, peaceful negotiations with the Israelis even at the high days of armed struggle, historically opposed the militarisation of the national struggle, always believed that diplomacy would in the end prevail to translate the UN legitimacy into national dividends on the ground, and accordingly has always defended the Palestinian international assets to offset the overpowering Israeli military superiority.
For how long can Abbas afford to coexist with the current status quo, hold on to a middle ground between Palestinians and Israelis, war and peace, moribund peace process and truce-bound armed struggle, and internally between dialogue and infighting, factional polarization and national unity, restive population under occupation and non-delivering political elite, pro and anti-dialogue wings inside his own former ruling movement, Fatah?
It won’t take too long to know the answer!
Nicola Nasser is a veteran Arab journalist in Kuwait, Jordan, UAE and Palestine. He is based in Ramallah, West Bank of the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories.