By Mortimer B. Zuckerman
It is futile to put a gloss on what has been happening in Gaza. The prospects are grim—in fact, worse than they look. The brutal Hamas coup is the first Islamic takeover of an Arab country in the past 35 years and the first in that period by military putsch: It was not a conflict waged or won by a majority of the population but one fought by a tiny armed faction with the political will to destroy a fragile government. The fear in the region is that it is a harbinger of turmoil affecting Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan. The takeover has already destroyed the Mecca agreement mediated by Saudi Arabia between Fatah and Hamas, undermined the moderating role of Saudi Arabia, and sabotaged the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Hamas seized Gaza by the methodical, barbaric exercise of terrorism. Opponents were made to jump off high-rise buildings; young children were shot in cold blood, often in front of their parents, or the reverse: Mothers and fathers were shot execution style in front of their children. Other Palestinians were permanently crippled with shots fired from the back of the leg so that the kneecap shattered when the bullet exited. Clerics, mosques, and churches were attacked. The presidential palace and the home of Yasser Arafat were looted, not sparing even Arafat’s Nobel Peace Prize medal. Hamas-controlled Gaza is now an “Islamist emirate,” a new power center for Iran and Syria. Gaza is a new location for every brand of radical Islamist from al Qaeda to Hezbollah to meet and conspire now that the “treacherous apostates,” i.e., Fatah, are defeated. The radical extremists are on the march, and the West is in retreat.
Look at the hot spots:
Egypt. Next door to Gaza, Egypt has much to fear from Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the major opponent of President Hosni Mubarak’s regime and has ties to Iran. Mubarak will have to get serious about stopping the arms flow from Sinai into that terrorist enclave.
Lebanon. The Syrians—backed by Iran militarily, politically, and financially—are inciting Palestinian terrorist groups to fight the Lebanese Army, even as they continue to assassinate their Lebanese political opponents and help rebuild the military capacities of Hezbollah. Lebanese President Emile Lahoud will leave office in September. He is a Syrian puppet and will nominate—with the blessing of Hezbollah—a caretaker government to rival the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, which currently has a parliamentary majority. Two rival stalemated governments are likely in that tormented state, with Hezbollah resorting to antigovernment violence inspired by the resurgence of the Islamists in Gaza and by its patron, Iran.
Jordan. The Jordanians are menaced by Islamic extremists on their border with Iraq and now must fear that an Islamist Hamas will end up in control of the West Bank on the other side of the Jordan River.
No wonder then that Egypt, Jordan, the United States, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel seek to work together to contain the influence of extremist Islam. Every Arab state knows it might soon be well within the range of Katyusha rockets, Kassams, Scuds, and other arms, which are multiplying every day within the extremist camps. (Incidentally, just think how imperiled the West Bank now would be if Israel had gone along with Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton’s U.S. plan of several months ago to allow truck convoys carrying Hamas fighters to connect Gaza and the West Bank.)
Could the West Bank prosper under Fatah and Gaza fail under Hamas? That is the hope. Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad, a former World Bank official well liked in the West, will receive hundreds of millions of dollars in western and Israeli support. As a political gesture, Israel has released 250 prisoners and will also remove some of the internal checkpoints in the West Bank.
The trouble is that Fatah is a broken reed. It lost elections in Gaza because of rampant financial corruption, abuse of power, mismanagement, and weak leadership. Its leadership is likely to go on in the same style with fancy villas and chauffeur-driven Mercedeses. Abbas is a pathetic figure. He has always found it hard to take decisive action. He even failed to order his Presidential Guard to fight back in Gaza when it had more than twice the number of guns as Hamas. When he finally ordered his men to fight, the die had been cast. Fatah’s divisions, and its corruption, began with Arafat, but Abbas must bear responsibility now. Indeed, he is a part of it. At the time of the Gaza crisis, he was about to leave for Qatar, his usual refuge in stormy times, where he carries on his multiple lucrative private businesses. He has never proven himself as a leader in easier situations, so why should we suddenly expect him to display strong leadership now?
By contrast, Hamas enjoys a clear-cut and decisive political leadership. Its lifestyle is simpler, more in touch with the people. Conceivably, it might be able to end the chaos and anarchy engendered by the varying criminal gangs in Gaza and secure a safe day-to-day life for the average Palestinian. That would have a powerful effect on the West Bank.
The United States must not fall for the simplistic assumption that the West Bank is totally controlled by Fatah while Gaza is totally supportive of Hamas. Yes, Fatah gunmen now control the streets of the West Bank, but many Palestinians are fed up with them and disgusted by their humiliating performance in Gaza. The Fatah leadership of the Gaza armed forces fled weeks and months before the battle—including the commander, the deputy commanders, and 30 lower-level commanders. The West Bank Palestinians saw Fatah leaders leaving their soldiers behind to fight and leaving behind the weapons that the American military advisers persuaded the Israelis and the Americans to send to the Presidential Guard. Many of the weapons fell straight into the hands of Hamas. Nor did it help that when Abbas mounted punitive operations against Hamas operatives in the West Bank, he used the armed terrorist gangs of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades rather than Fatah’s legitimate security organizations. This enraged many Palestinians, for it raised the specter of the rule of armed gangs—even if this time they were pro-Fatah. For example, for a few days Fatah gunmen in black masks ruled the streets of Nablus—a city of 180,000 in the West Bank—abducting rivals, looting and burning their property, and intimidating elected officials in the Hamas-run City Hall. Now, al-Aqsa, Fatah’s longtime military wing and terrorist appendage that has killed and maimed hundreds of Israelis in a relentless wave of suicide bombings, has rejected Abbas’s decree that it must disband and disarm and reaffirmed that it will not be committed to a truce with Israel.
Fatah is despised and discredited in the West Bank, as much as it was in Gaza. This was apparent even before the coup. In Ramallah, where the Fatah government sits, Hamas won a decisive victory in the last elections: four seats in the parliament for Hamas and only one for Fatah. In all the cities of the West Bank, Hamas won 40 parliamentary seats while Fatah got 12—and Hamas won a plurality of the vote in all the West Bank as well.
The only remedy for this lack of support is with Fatah. But throwing money at Fatah will not give it a missing spine. As we saw in Gaza, most of the corrupt Fatah officials just took the money and sat out the crisis with their wives and mistresses in their villas and flats in Cairo, Ramallah, Jerusalem, Paris, and the French Riviera. Discipline, command, and conviction are what matter, and Fatah and its security services just do not have them.
Unless there is a way to rebuild Fatah as a cleaner, more legitimate organization that can realize the aspirations of its people and improve their day-to-day realities, Fatah will fail. If elections were held tomorrow morning in the West Bank, Hamas could win. There is a high probability that this is what will happen when the next election is held a year from now. That would end the Palestinian national dream, since Hamas is dedicated only to the destruction of Israel, not to the two-state solution. A revealing poll by the respected Khalil al Shakaki showed the weakness of Fatah; 41 percent of Palestinians support the idea of dismantling the Palestinian Authority, while 42 percent support a confederation with Jordan. The current Fatah government does not represent the Palestinians; it represents instead the illusions and hopes of the West.
What Fatah needs in the West Bank is radical re-form. It must convince the Palestinian people that it has rooted out corruption. Hamas does not yet have sufficient power in the West Bank to challenge Fatah, given the Israeli presence and arms. But if the money provided to Fatah ends up in the pockets and bank accounts of the same Fatah crooks who lost Gaza or ends up in the pockets of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Fatah’s political position will be dramatically compromised.
We should not be fooled by the rhetoric of Abbas. His words are cheap. It is doubtful that he has it in him to be what he should be for the sake of the Palestinians—a strong leader willing and able to take a stand for peace and confront Hamas. Investing in Abbas is like investing in Enron. The militias and the thugs associated with the PLO’s 13 security services control Abbas, not the other way around. To cede financial and military assets to an unreformed Fatah is to take the huge risk that they will end up in the hands of the terrorist groups associated with Fatah or eventually in the hands of Hamas, just as they did in Gaza.
Tony Blair, the former British prime minister whose task will be the restoration of the Palestinian economy, must demonstrate to Abbas that massive corruption, as well as terrorism and incitement to hatred and violence, is an unacceptable cost and that continued aid must be tied to performance in this key dimension. The West must understand not only that any sovereign government based on the rotten foundations of the Palestinian Authority is doomed but also that, unless there is a transformation in Palestinian governance and policy that will one day create the basis for pragmatic compromise, there is no way Fatah can make the historic concessions to reach agreement with Israel.
The stakes are high. This is a time not for rolling the dice but for prudent, tough-minded diplomacy—and realism. Or else we are doomed to repeat the past failures.
This story appears in the July 23, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.