Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Hamas Split and the Palestinian Political Mess

By Barry Rubin

There’s a serious split in Hamas reflecting the growing civil war among Islamists along Sunni-Shia lines. Each side is radical but the fact that they’re fighting among themselves weakens both of them.  

The issues involved are tactical, not strategic.  Indeed, what is ironic is that Khaled Mashal, who historically has been described as the radical, is following the approach that will seem moderate to the naïve while Ismail Haniya, described by the naive as the moderate is leading the ostensibly more radical faction.

Mashal signed a deal with Palestinian Authority (PA) leader Mahmoud Abbas for a coalition between Hamas and the PA. Of course, neither partner trusts the other in the least. Mashal wants to take over the PA; Abbas wants to tame Hamas and recapture the Gaza Strip or—at least—present the Palestinians to the world as united in order to demand a state now without any need to make peace with Israel.

In contrast, Haniya claims that this deal is a sell-out to the PA cowardly compromisers. Haniya was just in Tehran where his hosts repeatedly warned him against the “compromising’ traitors in Hamas’s ranks.  Of course, the deal with the PA is nothing of the sort.

What lies behind this split is the broader conflict between the Sunni and Shia Islamist camps. Haniya is siding with the Iranians, who have a lot of money but are Shia; Mashal is linking up with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which borders on the Gaza Strip, is Sunni, is now gaining power in Egypt, and belong to the same organization as Hamas.

I’m putting my money on Mashal. The Iranians can provide money but only the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood can ultimately be a real patron on the ground, forwarding money, men, weapons, and material goods to the Gaza Strip. If Hamas goes to war with Israel again it will be Egypt, not Iran (even if it has nuclear weapons) that will matter in the battle.  

But there’s another irony here that makes sense. Mashal has spent most of his time outside of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Thus, he has had more contact with Iran. Haniya has been actually running the Gaza Strip to a large extent and thus has more contact with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. I guess familiarity breeds contempt. Each man is trying to escape the orbit of the powerful big brother he has been dealing with all these years.    

The PA will not dominate Hamas and take over the Gaza Strip. Nor will Hamas be able to seize power in the West Bank, in part because Israel won’t allow that to happen.  And here’s still another irony. Since Haniya is against the deal, he and his allies will make sure that Fatah cannot campaign freely in the Gaza Strip.  

The projected PA elections will never come off and the Hamas-PA deal will break down, probably within the next six months. Yet the battle between the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (aided by the Jordanian branch) and Iran over influencing Hamas will continue.

In short, all of Hamas remains hardline and the only difference is over how best to wipe out Israel and commit genocide against the Jews. The Palestinians also remain badly divided. None of the leadership can deliver peace with Israel and none of these leaders want peace (and a Palestinian state based on a two-state solution) enough to make the compromises necessary to achieve it.

There is still another important element in Palestinian politics receiving almost no attention: the future leadership of the PA and Fatah.  Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is a relatively honest, relatively moderate technocrat. All of Hamas and most of Fatah loathe him. He only holds his office because the Western donors want him there. Can he last out this year or the next?

The problem is that a PA-Hamas deal requires either that Abbas or a Hamas leader becomes prime minister. Remember that the post of prime minister was originally created due to Western insistence that someone be in a position to stop Yasir Arafat, Abbas’ predecessor, from stealing the money being donated.

Then there’s Abbas himself. He has been ailing and while his periodic resignation threats have been phony ways of preserving his leverage and getting things he wants, his retirement is only a matter of time. It is hard to believe he will still be leading Fatah and the PA by, say, December 2013.

Who will replace him? You can throw around various names but don’t bother. No one has the slightest idea. There is not a single serious candidate. Presumably, the Fatah barons will make the choice. Abbas originally got the job precisely because he was so weak. None of the Fatah warlords or bosses felt threatened by a man with no popular or organizational base of support.

It was also advantageous that Abbas was the most relatively moderate of the Fatah leaders and would have the best image with the Western governments and media.

Of course, when I say relatively moderate that should be considered within the spectrum of Fatah leadership. Abbas is relative more aware of the potential benefits of  compromise peace with Israel and more realistic about Fatah’s inability to wipe out that country. Still, he is dead set on the idea that unless Israel agrees to take back any Palestinian who can trace his ancestry to pre-1948 residence there can be no peace.

If he is a tiny bit more willing to compromise on borders or anything else a combination of his weakness, intransigence, and knowledge of public opinion and his colleagues’ views prevents him from ever doing anything.

Abbas’s successor is almost certainly going to be more militant. There are two main factions in Fatah, and hence in the PA. The Arafat cronies, who are more corrupt and satisfied with the status quo, and the Fatah radicals, who’d like to see another round of fighting because they still believe in the group’s revolutionary ideology. The latter group includes both older and younger—notably Marwan Barghouti (he’s 53 years old but considered leader of the "young guard" which tells you something, doesn’t it?)—people who don’t work together.    

In short, Palestinian politics are a mess. There are fewer real moderates proportionately than you’ll find in any Arab state, where they are also small minorities. Nobody can deliver peace; no one will actually struggle to achieve a compromise peace agreement with Israel.

The international “peace process” delusion is built on never actually examining the real Palestinian political scene.  Yearning for peace is completely understandable; supporting a two-state solution is just fine. But pretending to oneself that there’s any basis for these things actually happening is quite unrealistic.  

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center. His book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. He is also editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, and Middle East editor and featured columnist at PJMedia His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). GLORIA Center site is His articles published originally outside of PajamasMedia are at <>

Note: This article will be published in a different form in the Jerusalem Post. I own the rights and ask you to read and link to this verion..

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