July 23, 2007 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 376

The Fatah-Hamas Conflict: Roots and Implications

July 23, 2007 | By Menahem Milson*
Palestinians | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 376

The Events in Gaza

The Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip was the culmination of two separate processes which began years ago. The first is the resurgence of Islam as the primary foundation of individual and collective identity in the Middle East. I will deal with this issue in more detail further on, but at this point I want to emphasize that in Gaza, where the Muslim Brotherhood has been deeply implanted for many years, Islamization has been especially far-reaching. It has included not only Islamist indoctrination in the mosques, but has also occurred through a wide variety of social services – kindergartens, clinics, welfare to the poor – all provided under the banner of Islamic charity.

The second process was the decline in the power and prestige of the Palestinian Authority (henceforth: PA) and its main constituent body, Fatah. This process began as soon as Arafat set up the PA in Gaza and the West Bank. The PLO, and specifically Fatah – Yasser Arafat's organization and the main constituent body of the PLO – failed to make the transition from the phase of "struggle against the Zionist enemy" to the phase of institution-building and governance. Corruption and ineffective leadership in the PA territories created a void that was filled by Hamas. Even though Hamas, like all the Islamist groups, rejects democracy as a matter of principle, it took advantage of the opportunity to participate in the elections to the Palestinian parliament (in January 2006) and won the majority of seats. Subsequently, Hamas formed a government with Isma'il Haniyeh as prime minister. Fatah, defeated in the elections, has refused to turn over power (primarily – public funds and control of the armed forces) to Hamas. The Saudis made an attempt to resolve the dispute by brokering an agreement between the rival movements (the Mecca agreement of last February) – an agreement that has obviously not held up.

The two sides differ sharply in their perception of the crisis: Hamas is convinced that Fatah has been attempting to rob it of the mandate it rightfully won in the elections, whereas Fatah has always viewed Hamas as a deadly rival that questions its very legitimacy. It should be noted that Hamas opposed and opposes the Oslo Accords, or any other peace treaty with Israel; it is willing to consider only temporary cease-fires. The paradox is that Hamas is willing to participate in the Palestinian Authority while refusing to accept the legitimacy of its foundations in the Oslo Accords. This can be explained by Hamas' hope that it will be able, in time, to take control of the entire PA and change its nature.

The violent clashes of the last few months resulted in a total collapse of the PA in Gaza. The 40-thousand-strong security forces of the PA were easily defeated by the five-thousand-strong armed units of Hamas. The PA forces surrendered or disappeared. The PA Fatah leadership fled to Ramalla. Even though the death toll of 125 people, including some 25 unarmed passers-by, was not very high by Middle East standards, the brutality of the killings, images of which were broadcast on the Arab TV channels, was a great shock. (One Fatah operative, for example, was thrown to his death from the top of the highest building in Gaza; a Fatah officer named Samih Al-Madhun was murdered in public after he was already wounded, and his corpse was then mutilated. Other Fatah members were taken prisoner and were shot in the kneecaps, and so forth.)

In response, Abu Mazen dissolved the government headed by Isma'il Haniyeh, as well as the Hamas-controlled parliament, and appointed an emergency cabinet with Salam Fayad, formerly of the World Bank, as Prime Minister.

The nature of Hamas, its modus operandi, its tactics, its strategic goals, and its alliances have become patently clear. It should be noted that prior to these events (that is, when Hamas was formally part of a coalition government with Fatah), Abu Mazen, preferred to obfuscate the irreconcilable difference between his political movement, Fatah, and Hamas – because he hoped that he could work out a modus vivendi with them. But now it has been made painfully clear to the Fatah leadership that such an arrangement is impossible. The two parties were unable to share the power because their worldviews are diametrically opposed. This is a lesson that the neighboring Arab countries – Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia – have also learned.

Hamas in the Gaza Strip stands in one camp with Hizbullah in Lebanon and with various Al-Qaeda groups acting as proxies of Iran and Syria. We see alliances here which, from a strictly religious point of view, would seem improbable: Hamas, a fundamentalist Sunni movement, is allied with the Shi'ite Hizbullah, and acting as a proxy for Shi'ite Iran and for the Syrian Baath regime, which brutally suppresses the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria. As the saying goes, politics makes strange bedfellows.

Shi'ite Iran, in its efforts to establish itself as a regional power, does not shun any ally that it can use as a proxy in order to fight, threaten, or destabilize its enemies and rivals, namely regimes which are allied with its archenemy, the United States, its regional rival Saudi Arabia and, of course, Israel. And thus we see Shi'ite Iran aligned with secular Syria, with the Shi'ite Hizbullah, with Sunni Al-Qa'ida terrorists and with Hamas.

It is then obvious that the Fatah-Hamas Conflict is not merely a rivalry between two Palestinian factions. I will try to clarify its regional implications and larger global ramifications.

The Broader Context

Islam as a Political Factor

Most of what I have just said could be read in the daily papers of the last few weeks. But in order to truly understand the meaning and the implications of these developments, we must trace the broader regional fault lines, identify the regional allies of the two sides and what they stand for, and, above all, examine the significance of Islam as a political factor.

Islam, in principle, is both a religious faith and a political community. Obviously, in modern times, this is not the reality of life for most Muslims, but from an Islamist point of view this is the ideal: one Islamic nation (umma) ruled by Allah's law. The confluence of Islam and politics is not just a characteristic of the Islamists. Even among those Arab regimes that are not Islamist, the close connection between Islam and politics is ubiquitous: every political move has its Islamic connotation.

While the ideal of Islamic unity is central to all believing Muslims, Islam is, and has been from its early history, divided between two bitterly antagonistic branches – Sunni and Shi'ite. The great majority of Muslims in the world (some 90%) are Sunnis. In the Middle East, however, the Sunni majority is not so overwhelming. The Shi'ites have an important presence, not only in Iran (which is mostly Shi'ite) but also in a number of Arab countries: in Lebanon, where they are probably the largest community; in Saudi Arabia, where their true numbers are kept a state secret; in the Persian Gulf states; and in Iraq, where they are the majority.

Thus, the rivalry between two critical regional powers – Iran and Saudi Arabia – has a distinct religious dimension. This aspect of the rivalry was less significant prior to the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, because the Shah was anything but religious, and because both countries were in the American orbit. But with the Islamic Revolution, things changed dramatically.

The takeover of the U.S. embassy and the taking of U.S. hostages by Iranian students on November 4th, 1979 was greeted throughout the Muslim world as a victory of Islam over the infidels. These Iranian students – one of whom is believed to have been Ahmadinejad – managed to humiliate the great American superpower. This was a confirmation of the Islamist belief that by acting fearlessly in the name of Islam, Muslims could defeat the infidels. The fact that it was a victory by Shi'ites, a minority group in the Islamic world, did not detract from the sense of achievement among Muslims in general. In the grand division of the world into two camps – believers and infidels – there was a near-universal Muslim solidarity with Khomeini's Iran.

For the Saudi regime, however, the prestige earned by the Islamic Revolution in Iran posed a problem. In their view, it is the House of Saud, the Defender of the Two Holy Places – Mecca and Medina – that is the rightful guardian of true Islam – that is, Sunni Islam, in accordance with the Wahhabi doctrine. In their view, it was they who deserved to lead the Islamic awakening – not the heretical Shi'ite Ayatollah Khomeini, whom they considered not much better than an infidel. The religious aura of the House of Saud was a political asset in the pan-Arab and international arena, and even more so within its own kingdom. In order to preserve their religious status, they had to win the struggle for primacy as the champions of Islam throughout the world. This was a struggle for the heart and mind of all Muslims.

Therefore, in response to the challenge posed by the Iranian Revolution, the Saudis took a dual course of action: they embarked on a jihad against the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and they launched a far-reaching operation for the propagation of Islam. To this end, they invested billions of dollars through Islamic charities in order to build mosques and religious seminaries (madrasas) throughout the world. Obviously, these madrasas and mosques were venues for the propagation of Jihadi Islam. Although this process cannot be quantified, its effects have become evident in far-flung Muslim communities, ranging from Manchester to San Diego, from Durban to Copenhagen. One of the beneficiaries of the Saudi largess was Hamas, a Palestinian offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1987.

The 1989 Soviet debacle in Afghanistan was a great victory for Islamism. A decade after Khomeini's Islamic Shi’ite revolution in Iran, Sunni Islam triumphed over the infidel Communist power. The U.S. believed at the time that they had effectively manipulated Islam to deal a blow to the Soviets. But for the Islamists this was only a single battle in the global drama that would unfold until the ultimate victory of Islam, which would include the trouncing of the U.S.

The Turning Point of 9/11

The next major Islamic victory was 9/11 – a historic turning point for the entire world, but even more so for the Middle East. It made clear that Islam is a major factor in the politics of the region in the 21st century. This is something that Westerners find difficult to fully understand – be they Israelis or Americans, ordinary people who follow the news or Middle East experts. To be sure, ever since 9/11 we have all learned that there is Islamist terrorism and that Islamist fanatics are ready to perpetrate any atrocity for the sake of Allah. Nevertheless, the notion that religious concepts and religious feuds dating from the 7th century constitute a significant component of today's politics – this notion is difficult for people in the West to accept. Yet it is a fact. Hamas truly believes that Allah will give it victory over the godless Fatah and help them remove Israel from the face of the earth; and the president of Iran, Ahmadinejad, truly believes that he has been destined to pave the way for the coming of the Mahdi, the Islamic Messiah, who, according to Ahmadinejad, will arrive in two years or so.

The Saudi Split Personality

9/11 was a turning point for the Saudis in a very specific sense: They came to realize that their twenty-year campaign of Islamic resurgence had spun out of control and was turning against them. This was brought home to them by a series of terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia itself. Jihad – that fundamental principle of Wahhabi doctrine that the Saudies had done so much to promote in other countries, had now been turned against them. The Saudis were now forced to reexamine their own public discourse and educational curricula, and attempt to interpret their official Wahhabism in a way more compatible with their own survival and with their vital international alliances.

This reevaluation is a process that is still ongoing, and it is too early to render a final verdict on it. On the home front, the Saudis are very earnestly and ruthlessly combating domestic Islamist terrorism. They have also sided with Abu-Mazen against Hamas in Gaza. However, at the same time, they support Sunni terrorists attacking Shi'ites in Iraq. The same paradox is evident in the fact that members of the Saudi royal family fund the leading liberal Arab electronic media, but these media are blocked in Saudi Arabia itself. And so on.

The struggle for the Saudi soul is symptomatic of the struggle for the soul of the Middle East as a whole – a struggle that has been brewing for decades, but has come to the fore since 9/11. This struggle pits Islamist movements in alliance with Iran and Syria against governments that, while not truly secular or democratic, have the merit of being less fanatical and more open to the West. The staging grounds for these battles are many and varied – including Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq and elsewhere – but the underlying conflict remains the same.

As you notice, I carefully avoid characterizing the two sides, as "the good guys" vs. "the bad guys," because all that one can honestly say is that on one side there are the fanatics and on the other there are those who are less fanatical and more open to the West. Hence they represent the lesser evil.

The complexity of the situation is illustrated in a striking way by the case of Qatar. This small Gulf Emirate, with approximately one million citizens, hosts the largest American military base in the region, and maintains economic and even low-level diplomatic relations with Israel. At the same time, the Emir of Qatar founded and continues to control Al-Jazeera, the most influential Arab television station, whose coverage is clearly biased in favor of the Islamist axis of Al-Qa'ida, Hamas, Hizbullah, the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran.

This bias, which seems to belie Qatar's image as an American ally, is usually explained by the desire of Al-Jazeera to achieve and maintain high ratings by pandering to the proverbial "Arab street." This is true, and very revealing in itself, but it is only a partial explanation. The full explanation is that this bias of Al-Jazeera reflects the paradoxical truth that Qatar, allied to America though it is, pursues a patently pro-Hizbullah, pro-Syria, pro-Iran and pro-Hamas policy in its international relations. For example, it was the opposition of Qatar that foiled the U.S.-sponsored Security Council proposal to express support for Abu Mazen's emergency government and to condemn Hamas' violence. Qatar also attempted – but failed – to foil the Security Council resolution requiring the establishment of an international court for the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Al-Hariri. In both these cases, Qatar was in the camp opposing the U.S., and in the same camp as Russia.

The Global Context

With this I come to the global context (and to the end of my presentation): Russia, seeking to reestablish itself as a major player in the Middle East, has adopted a position supporting Iran and the whole Islamist axis. That's the reason behind the bizarre international concordance between Russia and Qatar.

The U.S., whatever one may think of its specific policies, is clearly in the right on this matter: it stands by the forces representing the lesser evil – it supports the less fanatical forces against the tide of Islamist millenarianism.

Menahem Milson is professor emeritus of Arabic Literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the chairman of The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).

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