Vol. 7, No. 10 July 12, 2007
- Within a few months after Abbas came to power, Palestinians started realizing that he was not delivering. Instead of fighting corruption, he surrounded himself with the same Arafat cronies. There was a decrease of perhaps 30-40 percent in the level of corruption but an upsurge in internal violence.
- The January 2006 election that brought Hamas to power was mostly about: “Let’s punish these Fatah thieves.” Hamas was building schools and kindergartens and clinics, while the PLO was building a casino and villas for its leaders. I believe some 30-35 percent of the Palestinians who voted for Hamas did so as a vote of protest because they were unhappy with the way the Palestinian Authority was running the show.
- Let Mahmoud Abbas and the PLO and Fatah start rebuilding their institutions, reform themselves, get rid of the corruption, and come up with a new list of candidates. Then run in another free and democratic election and offer the Palestinians a better alternative to Hamas.
- The Palestinians do not need more guns and military training. If the U.S. has $86 million and wants to help the Palestinians, then help them build civil institutions, help them build freedom, educate them about good things. What’s the point in taking 200 Presidential Guards to Jericho to train them? Who are they going to fight at the end of the day? In Gaza they were defeated.
- What should Israel do at this stage? Nothing. There is no one to deal with on a serious basis on the Palestinian side. Abbas doesn’t even have control over his own Fatah militias. Israel should just sit and wait. Don’t repeat the mistake of unilateralism, when Israel left Gaza to Hamas and Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda-affiliated groups.
- It is ironic that the West is supporting the guys who are suppressing the moderates and people who want democracy. The West is actually undermining its own goals.
When Abbas Took Over the PA
In the post-Arafat era there was a lot of hope among the Palestinians that the Palestinian Authority would become a better body. There was much talk of reforms and democracy, good governance, and an end to financial corruption. Mahmoud Abbas’ 2005 election campaign was about ending financial corruption and building good institutions. Palestinians saw Abbas’ agenda as aimed at repairing all the damage that Arafat had done.
Within a few months after Abbas came to power, however, Palestinians started realizing that he was not delivering. Instead of fighting corruption, Abbas surrounded himself with the same Arafat cronies. There was a certain decrease in the level of corruption, but it wasn’t enough.
Instead of bringing democracy and restoring law and order in the Palestinian areas, there was an upsurge in internal violence in 2006. For the first time, the number of Palestinians killed in internal fighting was even higher than the number of Palestinians killed in fighting with the Israelis. If a judge can’t issue an order because he’s afraid or if a Palestinian security commander can’t return a stolen bicycle, what kind of an authority is this?
Hamas Wins in Parliamentary Elections
In January 2006 – at the request of the United States, the Europeans, and the international community – there were parliamentary elections and Hamas decided to run for the first time. Hamas actually copied the platform of Mahmoud Abbas from a year earlier and promised the Palestinians reforms and democracy. Hamas’ list was called Change and Reform, and Hamas fielded a very impressive list of candidates that included university professors, doctors, and engineers. If I were living in Gaza back then, I would have also voted for Hamas, not because I support suicide bombings and want to eliminate Israel, but because the January 2006 election was mostly about: “Let’s punish these thieves.” I know Christians, secular Palestinians, and PLO people who voted for Hamas because they were unhappy with the Palestinian Authority.
Palestinians felt they did not have much to lose by voting for Hamas. It is true that Hamas is a terrorist organization and a very dangerous ideological, religious, fanatic group. It’s true that Hamas wants to destroy Israel. Yet when I go to the West Bank and Gaza, I and most Palestinians still see the other side of Hamas, providing a vast network of social, economic, education, and health services. I have seen Hamas doing what the Palestinian Authority should have been doing with the international aid. Hamas was building schools and kindergartens and clinics, while the PLO was building a casino and villas for its leaders. So this is one reason why Hamas won the hearts and minds of many people in the election campaign.
But not all of those who voted for Hamas did so as a protest vote. Of course Hamas has its own supporters, especially in Gaza. There are many who really believe in Hamas’ ideology and that Israel can be eliminated. However, I believe that 30-35 percent of the Palestinians who voted for Hamas did so as a vote of protest against Fatah and the Palestinian Authority.
It is amazing that Condoleezza Rice did not see what any Palestinian child could see on the eve of the elections, namely, that Hamas was going to win. One day before the January 2006 election, I was asked by the Wall Street Journal to write a small op-ed about the elections and I wrote that the Palestinians were headed toward a regime change. Everyone here knew that Hamas was going to win.
So Hamas came to power and again there was some hope among the Palestinians. Maybe the Islamists would succeed where the secular PLO had failed? Maybe the Islamists would at least bring good governance?
Hamas Would Defeat Fatah If an Election Was Held Today
Yet the election created tensions between Fatah, who refused to give up power, and Hamas. I am confident that if we held another free and democratic election tomorrow in the Palestinian areas, Hamas would win again, and this time by a larger majority, because the man on the street is saying that no one gave Hamas a chance to rule. Besides, why should any Palestinian vote for the same Fatah people he voted out of office 18 months ago?
Immediately after the elections, the international community should have come to Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah and told them they lost the election because they are thieves, because their people don’t trust them anymore, because they failed to deliver. Let them start rebuilding their institutions, reform themselves, get rid of the corruption, and come up with a new list of candidates. Then run in another free and democratic election and offer the Palestinians a better alternative to Hamas.
This remains the main issue for the Palestinians: reforms and good governance – even more than ending the occupation. There is a feeling that members of the Palestinian security forces are responsible for a lot of the anarchy and chaos on the Palestinian street and this also applies to Gaza.
Palestinians Need Good Governance, Not Guns
The Palestinian Authority continues to be the largest employer in the Palestinian areas. Many institutions are continuing to function including the Ministry of Health and the Foreign Ministry. The Palestinians have 79 ambassadors around the world – much more than Israel. The real problem with the Palestinian Authority is not the civilian aspect as much as the security and judicial systems. This is where we have seen a near total collapse. The Palestinian security forces behave more like militias. Their loyalties are not known. In the fighting in Gaza, many Palestinian security officers refused to participate and there are reports that hundreds defected to Hamas during the fighting.
We didn’t have this under Arafat because he was a strong and charismatic figure who brought the Palestinians together. There was a feeling back then that you don’t mess around with the Palestinian Authority because Arafat is ruthless. But today you have Abbas who is very hesitant and weak and unwilling to carry out serious decisions. So people no longer relate to the Palestinian Authority in a serious fashion.
If the U.S. really wanted to help, the Palestinians do not need more guns. Everyone has guns, there are too many guns on the streets. The Palestinians don’t need more military training. If the U.S. has $86 million and wants to help the Palestinians, then help them build civil institutions, help them build freedom, improve their education system, teach them something positive. What’s the point in taking 200 Presidential Guards to Jericho to train them? Who are they going to fight at the end of the day? In Gaza they were defeated. Palestinians need good governance, better media, freedom and democracy, and to rebuild their civil institutions. They don’t need more guns, militias, and Force 17s. This is what I hear in the Palestinian street.
Arafat used to tell the international community: “Give me more millions and I will kill Hamas and Islamic Jihad; I will prevent all the suicide bombings.” He took the money and under him Hamas became even stronger. Hamas is in power today because of Arafat and Abbas. Giving Abbas guns and more millions of dollars is not going to help. Indeed, just by announcing that the West is going to give Abbas money, this is backfiring and causing him a lot of damage on the Palestinian street. It makes him look like a puppet and makes Hamas even more popular.
Al-Qaeda’s Limited Penetration of Gaza
In Gaza we are seeing attempts by some Palestinians to imitate al-Qaeda more than the actual penetration of al-Qaeda. Various groups in Gaza are operating al-Qaeda-style. One is the Army of Islam, another is the Righteous Swords of Islam. Yet there is no real evidence that al-Qaeda itself is in Gaza, but some of these groups may be funded by al-Qaeda-linked organizations or global Jihad institutions. In the past six months over fifty Internet cafes have been bombed in Gaza. Women have had acid thrown in their faces. Four women were killed by Islamic groups in Gaza in the past four months. There is reason to worry because the border with Egypt is practically open and there are all these elements coming in and out.
Some of the reports about the presence of al-Qaeda bases are exaggerated. We saw how Fatah lied when it said it raided the Islamic University in Gaza and claimed that it found an Iranian general there. Some of these reports are being spread by Fatah as part of the war against Hamas and to frighten the West – “If you don’t give us money, look what you’re going to get in Gaza.”
Iran and Fatah
We hear about Iranian money coming into Gaza, but we don’t see any Shi’ite influence. There were individuals in Gaza and even in the West Bank who tried to establish Shi’ite groups, but we don’t see any impact.
Hizbullah is also involved, but most of the people taking money from Hizbullah are from Fatah in the West Bank. According to Hamas literature, Hamas doesn’t like Shi’ites and doesn’t like Hizbullah either, so Hamas is not taking money from Hizbullah. But I’ve interviewed several armed Fatah groups, especially in Nablus, and most of them were on the Hizballah payroll and said it openly. So money plays a very important role.
What Should Israel Do?
What should Israel do at this stage? Nothing. Israel should stay away from the internal affairs of the Palestinians. There is no one to deal with on a serious basis on the Palestinian side. Abbas doesn’t even have control over his own Fatah militias, so what are you going to talk to him about? Israel should just sit and wait. Don’t repeat the mistake of unilateralism, when Israel left Gaza to Hamas and Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda-affiliated groups.
I’m one of those who argued before Israel’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza that this would send the wrong message to the Palestinians and empower Hamas. Hamas came to power a few months after the unilateral disengagement because the man in the street was saying: “This is wonderful. Hamas has managed to drive the Jews out of Gaza with rockets and bombs, while the PLO has been negotiating with the Jews and they didn’t get as much. Look at what Hizbullah did in Lebanon. Kill them and they’ll give you more.” This is what worries me. Israel’s unilateral disengagement undermined the moderates throughout the Arab world.
I also don’t see any Arab country willing to send forces to maintain order in Gaza. The feeling in the Arab world is to try to disengage from the Palestinians
The Palestinians need to get their act together and find a way to resolve their problems, and then Israel can talk with them. But under the current circumstances, if I was Israel I wouldn’t pull out from one inch of land because there is no strong and reliable partner on the other side.
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Khaled Abu Toameh is Palestinian Affairs correspondent for the Jerusalem Post. He has also served as a correspondent for US News and World Report. He has also produced several documentaries on the Palestinians for the BBC and other international networks. This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on his presentation at the Institute for Contemporary Affairs in Jerusalem on May 24, 2007 – before the Hamas takeover of Gaza in mid-June.