Hamas: The new Fatah?

Borrowing a page from Fatah’s playbook, Hamas is criticizing Fatah militants who are shelling southern Israel from Gaza as acting against the Palestinian national interest by risking the shaky truce begun June 19 with Israel.

Years ago, it was Fatah – then led by Yasser Arafat – that was signing agreements with Israel and criticizing Hamas for undermining the Palestinian national interest by firing at Israel (see this statement from 2003). Now the tables are turned.

In those days, Israel took actions to bolster Fatah against Hamas, and in the 1990s Israel provided the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority with weaponry to secure its dominant position in Palestinian affairs.

Leaving aside for the moment that it didn’t take long for Palestinian police to turn that weaponry against the Israelis who gave it to them – and that they’re doing the same now, in Gaza – this is yet another sign that the ideological differences between Fatah and Hamas are academic, if they exist at all.

Put simply, these are two Palestinian factions (and not the only two), each of which has a beef with Israel and with each other. Historically, Israel has dealt only with Fatah – described these days as “relatively moderate” but with a bloody history of terrorist attacks against Israelis and Jews – but now Israel is pursuing peace with Hamas (June 19 cease-fire agreement) while pursuing the terrorists in Fatah (see this week’s IDF counter-terrorist operations in the West Bank).

Does this mean Israel now should bolster Hamas against Fatah? Or, was this strategy of picking sides in the Palestinians’ internal conflict flawed from the get-go?

Perhaps rather than choosing favorites regardless of their popularity or power on the Palestinian street (Palestinian Authority President and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas is virtually powerless and largely discredited among Palestinians), Israel should let the Palestinians sort out their internecine conflicts on their own and then deal with the victor, whoever it is.

Israel cannot choose the face of the Palestinians for them; the Palestinians must do it on their own. They are doing it through violence and through the ballot box: Hamas scored victories in January 2006 (ballot box, in Palestinian legislative elections) and in June 2007 (violence, when Hamas routed Fatah from Gaza).

The international community and Israel reacted by roundly ignoring these developments and crowning Fatah the representative of the Palestinian people.

But, as Israel has learned over the past year or two, this doesn’t really work. Hamas’ power continues to grow, and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority is as ill-equipped as ever to deliver on its promises of peace to Israel, or on its promises of increased freedoms for Palestinians.

Israel can’t be blamed for wanting to bring this matter to a head, and quickly. After all, Israel is the target of all these Palestinians factions, and they will continue to attack Israel in a bid to win popular support and consolidate their power among Palestinians.

Yet Israel’s suffering notwithstanding, it may not be within Israel’s power to bring it to an end. Alas, that power may lie only with the Palestinians.

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