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Palestine Unravels


University of Pretoria Centre for International Political Studies (CIPS)
No. 31/2007
Palestine Unravels
By Hussein Solomon

Months of lawlessness on the streets of Gaza prompted Palestinian President Abbas, on 13 May 2007, to station thousands of troops on the streets. Hamas viewed this as a provocation as it was not consulted. What followed was a week of fighting between militants from rivals Hamas and Fatah, in which at least 50 Palestinians were killed whilst scores of others were wounded.

The fact that the fighting started despite the existence of a Unity Government and despite the fact that various political leaders called for an end to the violence raises several important questions. How much control does the political leadership of either Hamas or Fatah have over their fighting men? Not so long ago, for instance, Prime Minister Ismail Haniya had asked his Hamas fighters not to fire rockets into Israel and they simply ignored his call. The fact that independent Palestinian Interior Minister, Hani al-Qawasmeh, resigned because neither Hamas nor Fatah fighters were willing to listen to him, should give one further cause for concern. The fighting also raises important questions as to whether the alternative political visions between Hamas and Fatah can be bridged through a Unity Government.

At the heart of these questions is the fate of the Palestinian Authority itself. Will it collapse? Under the failure of Palestinian leadership, Palestinians like Ali Jarbawi of Birzeit University say it would be better to end the fiction of a Palestinian Authority. Such a scenario, of course, would be the death knell of the peace process. As Steven Erlanger notes, "How would any Israeli government consider pulling out of the West Bank -- as it pulled out of Gaza-- with no authority to whom to hand the territory?" Under the circumstances the Jordanians are considering some form of stewardship over the West Bank, whilst there are hopes that Egypt would do the same for Gaza.

By 20 May, it seemed that a new truce between the Palestinian factions was holding. But, it is important is to ask the question, how did this truce come about? The truce came about within the context of Israel launching five consecutive days of airstrikes in Gaza. As Hamas spokesman, Fawzi Barhoum, stated, "No one would accept to fight one another while the Israelis are shelling Gaza." In other words, the semblance of Palestinian unity is the direct result of Israeli aggression! This is the bizarre but uncomfortable truth - Palestinians have defined themselves by what they are against as opposed to what they are for. In the process, they have given Israel the power to define Palestinian national identity. The Palestinian infighting as well as the ineffective governance of the Palestinian Authority illustrates that a successful nation-state is one that demands answers to the question: what are we for?

In this country, many people have drawn similarities between Israelís occupation of Palestinian territory and the apartheid regimeís own policies. However, there were crucial differences. The anti-apartheid struggle shows up key differences between Palestinians and the African National Congress (ANC). The ANC in exile spent decades thinking, debating and conceptualising its policy documents for the inevitable post-apartheid order. The Palestinian leadership needs to engage with their constituency and ask themselves what their economic policies are within the context of a globalising world. What is the role of religion in politics? How are proper civil-military relations to be maintained? What are the basic principles to guide their foreign policy? How does one respond to environmental degradation? How does one create a responsive state so that the needs of ordinary citizens are met?

Until the Palestinian leadership starts thinking along these lines, a viable Palestinian state will never take root. Fear and hatred of the other is an inadequate basis for effective governance.

The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Centre for International Political Studies (CiPS) or the University of Pretoria

Professor Hussein Solomon lectures in the Department of Political Sciences, University of Pretoria where he is also Director of the Centre for International Political Studies (CiPS).

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