Recent Israeli and U.S. policies have considerably strengthened Hamas, although it’s labeled a terrorist organization by both countries. This has been achieved by making concessions in response to Hamas’ violent resistance to Israeli occupation, while simultaneously punishing rival Fatah for pursuing a solution through peaceful political means.
Since 2007, Palestinian authority has been split into Hamas-controlled Gaza and the Fatah-controlled West Bank. The split occurred after the surprise victory by Hamas in Gaza elections supervised and certified as free and fair by international observers, including former President Jimmy Carter.
The election results caught U.S. and Israel by surprise. They strongly favored Fatah. In response, while heaping additional financial rewards on Fatah controlled West Bank, they applied punitive economic sanctions on the people of Gaza, including one of the harshest blockades on civilians anywhere since World War II. My November essay “The human-rights-tragedy in Gaza” gives a taste of what life is like under the Israeli blockade.
The split between Fatah and Hamas is of great strategic value to Israel. For decades it has been under international pressure to negotiate a two-state solution with the Palestinians. But thanks to the split, Israel has been able to justify avoiding meaningful negotiations, arguing that it has nobody to negotiate with, as long as the Fatah-Hamas power schism continues.
Cynically, key Israeli and U.S. policies are designed to continue the split indefinitely. For example, via The Palestinian Accountability Act Congress links Fatah’s financial support to guarantees it will not reconcile with Hamas. Financial handouts are critical to West Bank Palestinians, given that the Israeli occupation makes it impossible for the people to develop a self-sustaining economy.
Last November, a flair up of violence occurred between Israel and Hamas. During the violence, Israel launched more than 1,500 raids (missile and bombing), killing more than 150 Palestinians and causing massive damage to Gaza infrastructure. Israel claims that Hamas launched over 1,500 homemade missiles, killing 5 Israelis and causing minor infrastructure damage.
Despite the lopsided casualties, Hamas leveraged the conflict to bring international attention to the human-rights tragedy of the Israeli blockade. As part of the ceasefire, Israel agreed to lift some of the more onerous parts of the blockade that have been in place for the last 5 years. This includes permitting:
- Palestinian fishermen access to some of Gaza’s rich fishing grounds 6 miles off the coast (85% were blockaded according to a UN report (pdf);
- Palestinian farmers access to their farms near the Israeli border, increasing Gaza farmland by 35% according to the same UN report; and
- Importation of concrete-grade gravel, allowing safe and major construction in Gaza for the first time.
The Palestinians in Gaza considered the conflict a great victory, with numerous celebrations in the streets. Hamas’ political strength and popularity has jumped as Palestinians consider the recent results a validation of Hamas’ strategy of violent resistance to the occupation.
Meanwhile, another event in November has hurt the quality of life for Palestinians living in Fatah’s West Bank. That month, UN members voted overwhelmingly in favor of granting Palestine non-member observer state status . This milestone is the singular achievement of Fatah’s strategy to resist the Israeli occupation through a non-violent political process.
Given that the U.S.’s stated objective is a two-state solution, one might reasonably expect that it supported and celebrated Fatah’s success. Nothing could be further from truth. The U.S. made an all out effort to turn out the no-vote in the United Nations, while simultaneously threatening Fatah with economic retaliation if it followed through on its UN statehood application.
In fact the U.S. and Israel have made good on their threats to punish Fatah’s strategy of pursuing nonviolent means. Their economic retaliation has driven the Palestinian West Bank government to the edge of financial collapse. The U.S. has now withheld $450 million dollars in retaliation. Israel, on the other hand has responded by withholding $100 million dollars per month that it collects in taxes on behalf of the Palestinian Authority.
Additionally, within days of the UN vote recognizing Palestine as a non-member observer state, Israel announced major new West Bank settlement programs.
During the last 5 years Israel has continued to rapidly expand Jewish housing in the occupied West Bank while Fatah has pursued a two-state solution through peaceful dialogue with Israel. By contrast, all Jewish settlements were removed from Gaza more than 7 years ago after Israel concluded that maintaining security for them was too risky and costly.
In short, Hamas’ strategy of violent resistance to the Israeli occupation has led to concessions, while Fatah’s strategy to pursue peaceful political means has led to punitive retaliation. The Palestinians will certainly consider these facts when evaluating the way forward.