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The Real Palestinian Majority By: Barry Rubin
Global Research in International Affairs | Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Despite endless talk about how the peace process should proceed, the Palestinian nationalist movement and the Palestinian Authority (PA) continue to disintegrate. Aside from the ongoing violence and chaos in the Gaza Strip, now nominally under full PA control, reporting about the recent third round of local Palestinian elections amply shows how the world is refusing to face the real situation. 

Everyone by now is familiar with the situation of disorder in the Gaza Strip after the Israeli withdrawal. Yet there seems to be some mystical belief that this may be a temporary phenomenon. Of course, transitions are difficult and processes often take time to be effective. Yet the point is that there is no reason that anything is going to be different--or at least better--in the coming months. The PA leadership lacks both the will and political base to do much.

But the news is selectively reported, in large part out of a deterministic optimism and a well-intentioned hope for peace. For example, when a Hamas leader made one statement saying his group would implement a "ceasefire," it was headlines all over the world. By the time the newspapers reached their readers, this pledge had already been broken. The same thing came when there was a single clash between PA and Hamas forces, as if the "government" was going to move against the terrorist group. But there was no follow-up, the attempt to disarm some Hamas militants remained an isolated incident.

This has not been true with events on the other side, as signs of chronic disorder and the timidity of the PA regime have been constant and growing. Much of this challenge has come from within Fatah's ranks, with the rebels including traditionalist hardliners, sympathizers of the younger and grassroots' forces, extremists ready to kill those it accuses of corruption or moderation, PA employees insisting on being paid, and gunmen demanding jobs with the security forces.

For example, dissident Fatah gunmen wounded Bassam Azam, an ally of former security force commander Musa Arafat, himself shot in August. Several dozen PA policemen broke into parliament, firing in the air demanding a tougher stance against Hamas. And so on. So far this year, according to a Palestinian human rights' group, more Palestinians have been killed by activist gunmen than by Israeli forces. That is a statistic that is likely to continue and grow even more pronounced in the future. 

In this context, misunderstanding is intensified by the media's minimizing of Hamas' success in the last Palestinian election. The Associate Press report was headed, "Results Show Fatah Defeats Hamas in Vote." The spin put on the event is typical of the failure to recognize the inevitable feebleness of Abu Mazen and will no doubt be repeated after the January elections.

In the four rounds of voting for local governments (the fourth will take place on December 8 in places including Nablus, Ramallah, Hebron and Gaza City), the recent third round took place in areas where Hamas tends to be weakest. Analysts highlighted the fact that Fatah got 53 percent to "only" 26 percent of the vote for Hamas (some counts put Hamas' total at about one-third), while Fatah was said to have won 51 of 104 councils and Hamas only took 13 outright.

But this is misleading in several respects.

First, since Hamas did not run candidates in many areas, Fatah won almost half the councils where it has a majority without opposition. 

Most of the council seats won by Fatah were in smaller towns and Hamas did better in bigger places, a good indication that future trends may favor Hamas. While Fatah won 55 percent of the council seats, this is misleading. In fact, it gained a real majority in only 38 places with about 230,000 residents. Hamas won what will probably be a leading role in 30 places (about the same number) but with almost double the residents--more than 500,000! Other candidates won in 12 councils with 70,000 residents (very small places where a clan-based list won).

Second, Fatah may be forced into a coalition with Hamas or be dependent on its vote in two or three dozen councils.  For example, in Beitunia, the largest community where this round of elections was held, for example, Fatah "won" with 6 of 13 council seats but Hamas has 5 (independents won 2), which means that to govern the place Fatah is going to need Hamas support much of the time.

Third, as a result of such outcomes, Hamas will hold a majority or control the balance of power in more than half the councils. When combined with other extremist parties, the overall power of explicitly radical forces are even stronger since the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and other hardline groups also hold a share of seats. Together, non-Fatah hardliners directly won about 40 percent of the seats. 

In Bethlehem, the second-largest city where voting was held (and traditionally dominated by Christians), Hamas and Islamic Jihad won five of the 7 "Muslim-designated" seats. Eight other seats were reserved for Christians. But the fact that Hamas now has one-third of the vote in a traditionally Christian, moderate place like Bethlehem shows how strong it is.

Hamas'-dominated councils so far rule far more people than do Fatah-dominated ones. Already, before the last round of elections, at least one in three Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip live under a Hamas local government now. In some cases, this means that Hamas will now be the direct recipient of Western aid money.

This analysis shows that the threat, in the general elections as well, is not that Hamas will seize power but that it will form a large part of a blocking majority which will stop Abu Mazen from conducting serious or successful negotiations with Israel. After all, the majority in Fatah is also hardline. With support for Hamas at about one-third of Palestinians, another 5 to 10 percent supporting radical groups (including Islamic Jihad and PFLP), and the bare majority that supports Fatah largely sympathizing with hardline factions, it is hard to see how he is going to build a support base for stopping terrorism or making the compromises necessary to reach peace with Israel. When one adds to this these militant groups' military power and readiness to seek revenge on anyone deemed too moderate, it seems likely that he will not try very hard.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that there is no basis for a moderate majority in Palestinian politics and thus no serious partner for peace with Israel. This does not mean one should stop trying to achieve a negotiated settlement--that is still a correct policy-- but the controlling variable is certainly not Israel making more concessions to help Abu Mazen. The key factor here is the unlikelihood there is anyone on the Palestinian side who can negotiate seriously or fulfill their commitments at all, no matter what the West or Israel does.

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Barry Rubin is Director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary Center university. His latest book, The Truth about Syria was published by Palgrave-Macmillan in 2007. Prof. Rubin's columns can be read online here.

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