.. Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh
The Palestinian national project is suffering from an impasse and loss of direction. This has impacted negatively on its ability to function, and benefit from the opportunities and the huge potentials of the Palestinian people and the Arab and Muslim nations.
Currently, there is an impasse in the peace process adopted by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah (both led by Fatah). There is an impasse in the armed resistance path adopted by Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). Likewise, there is an impasse in the path of Palestinian reconciliation, signed by the Palestinian factions. The PLO, meanwhile, is suffering from the absence of its institutions and the decline of its role. The PA is suffering from divisions, as well as from Israeli domination in the West Bank (WB) and the blockade in Gaza Strip (GS), not to mention its financial crises. This is all coupled with a state of frustration in the Palestinian street vis-à-vis the performance of Palestinian political leaders.
On the other hand, there is a problem in the definition of the Palestinian national project per se. After the PLO’s recognition of Israel, and its concessions made as part of the Oslo Accords, including ceding most of historic Palestine and the ensuing polarization and division among Palestinians, some now bitterly ask: Do we have a national project to begin with? On what basis can a project be “national”? Can conceding most of Palestine to the Israelis be a national act or part of a national program? What are the red lines and national fundamentals that no national project can cross, and violating which is considered treason or contrary to Palestinian interests? How can we differentiate between “treason” and “a point of view,” if the fundamentals themselves are subject to interpretation and negotiation?
First: Historical Background
The crisis of the Palestinian national project and Palestinian division is not new. In the days of British occupation of Palestine, there was a contradiction between the Husseinis and the Nashashibis. Although this took on the form of a familial rivalry, it carried connotations closely linked to national action and the relationship with British occupation, as well as the regional climate and the priorities of armed resistance versus peaceful political action. A crisis also emerged upon the founding of the PLO led by Ahmad Shuqairy, and was boycotted by Palestinian resistance factions especially Fatah… which saw the establishment of the PLO an attempt by the Arab regimes to dominate Palestinian national action. Another crisis emerged when the Rejectionist Front was formed, in protest against the PLO’s endorsement of the ten-point program in 1974. Then, after Yasir ‘Arafat visited Cairo in late 1983, the PLO became embroiled in a sharp political crisis that led to a new political division, prompting six Palestinian factions to establish the Palestinian National Salvation Front in 1984, led by the head of the PLO National Council Khalid Fahoum. Moreover, the PLO’s acceptance of peace negotiations and then signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, prompted the creation of the ten-faction alliance opposed to the peace process, which included Hamas, PIJ, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), and others.
However, perhaps what is distinct about the current internal Palestinian division compared to previous divisions in modern Palestinian history, is that both sides of the divide have broad popular support, which makes it impossible to marginalize any side. Secondly, both sides rely on electoral legitimacy in the PA, one through the presidency and the other through the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC). Thirdly, the two sides control respectively parts of the Palestinian territories, governing a segment of the Palestinian people—regardless of the sovereignty they each enjoy. Fourthly, they have conflicting political visions, peace versus resistance), backed by conflicting Arab, Muslim, regional, and international, popular and official, entities. Fifthly, they have disparate ideologies, and all of this makes the current division unique in Palestinian history.
Second: Conflict of Legitimacies and Partnerships
After ‘Abbas won the PA presidency elections on 9/1/2005, and became the PLO and Fatah leader, he sought to open a new chapter that closes the book on al-Aqsa Intifadah. He wanted to improve internal Palestinian conditions under his leadership, assimilating resistance forces led by Hamas, and paving the way for what he believed would be an independent Palestinian state through the “Roadmap.”
Based on the Cairo Agreement signed on 17/3/2005, Palestinians agreed to rebuild and reactivate the PLO, continue de-escalation with Israel, and hold municipal and legislative elections.
The surprise happened when Hamas won an overwhelming majority of PLC seats (74 out of 132, in addition to four other independents on its lists). In other words, Hamas now controlled the legislative branch and had the right to form a government, while Fatah continued to be in control of the presidency as well as the PLO.
Fatah was not accustomed to sharing power in an equal or parallel manner, and feared losing its influence in the PA and the PLO. Fatah feared Hamas’s political positions and resistance activities would disrupt the Roadmap and the peace process chosen by Fatah, and foil the dream of Palestinian statehood, as well as invite Israeli and Western retaliation against the PA and the PLO (should Hamas be admitted as a full partner into the organization based on its popular weight). For this reason, Fatah’s leadership, while stating that it respected the results, practically suspended the efforts for reforming and rebuilding the PLO. A series of measures was taken to increase the powers of the Palestinian president relative to the PLC and the government that was going to be led by Hamas. Since then, conflict and division between the two sides began to escalate.
In the last session of the former PLC, in which Fatah had the majority, held after the results of the elections, the council adopted a number of decisions and constitutional amendments aiming to increase the powers of the president, and weaken the government and the elected PLC. The session gave the president absolute powers, when it came to forming the Constitutional Court and the General Personnel Council. The outgoing PLC also approved a presidential decree appointing the PLC Secretary General in lieu of the PLC secretary, who should have been an elected deputy, from outside the council. Hamas considered this at the time a “coup” and “constitutional corruption. The new council overturned all these decisions later.
The president issued a decree placing all the media arms of the PA under his direct supervision. At the security level, the president issued a decree creating a special committee to run the border crossings, chaired by Fatah former minister and deputy Saeb Erekat. The Rafah crossing, meanwhile, was placed under the control of the Presidential Guard. The president issued another decree appointing former head of Preventive Security Services Rashid Abu Shbak as director-general of Internal Security Forces in the Ministry of Interior, thus heading Preventive Security, Civil Defense and Civil Police Forces, three agencies previously under the control of the Interior Minister. Suleiman Hillis was also appointed head of National Security Forces.
By doing so, the president imposed his control on all security services. Therefore, the new Palestinian government that took over in 2006 had no full powers, whether in terms of controlling the security forces of the PA, or in terms of controlling the body of civil servants, who are the backbone of the PA, now controlled by the president.
When Hamas formed the tenth PA government in March 2006, it found itself in an almost impossible work environment. It found an uncooperative presidency working to remove its powers, and rushing to hold new legislative elections to get rid of it. And it found itself dealing with ministries and institutions dominated by Fatah cadres, especially in the security forces, which meant that it was very easy to disrupt the work of the government and instigate tension and lawlessness. The government also found itself facing an Israeli and international siege, pressuring it to accept the conditions of the International Quartet (which meant abandoning all its principles) in order to be dealt with. Above all, Hamas’s insistence on resistance and carrying out the “Dispelled Illusion” Operation on 25/6/2007, in response to Israeli crimes, invited fierce and wide scale Israeli military and security response. Dozens of Hamas ministers and PLC deputies were detained, effectively paralyzing the PLC.
With the agreement reached by the Palestinian factions that concluded the National Reconciliation Document of Palestinian Prisoners inside Israeli Prisons (June 2006) and the Mecca Agreement (February 2007), it was possible to reach a temporary consensus and form a national unity government led by Isma‘il Haniyyah. However, this government faced immense difficulties, especially with the fact of lawlessness instigated by Fatah-affiliated elements. The Interior Minister in this government Hani al-Qawasmi (independent) complained of the dominance of Muhammad Dahlan and Rashid Abu Shbak over the security forces, accusing the latter of controlling the three main agencies and preventing the interior minister from contacting them. The Palestinian presidency also removed his financial and administrative powers. Qawasmi resigned, saying he did not even have the power to summon a police officer except with the permission of Abu Shbak.
Escalation of lawlessness reached an extent that threatened to destroy everything, and spread to every place including mosques and hospitals. On 11/6/2007, the office of Prime Minister Isma‘il Haniyyah was attacked. This prompted Ezzedeen Al-Qassam Brigades to intervene to support the prime minister, who also took over the powers of interior minister. The Brigades were able to impose order in GS, after bloody confrontations with members of Fatah and security forces.
This new situation, which Hamas said events had forced without any intention on its part, led to the political and geographic division of the PA. President ‘Abbas subsequently deposed Haniyyah’s government, and appointed Salam Fayyad to form an emergency government, in contravention of the Palestinian Basic Law. The Basic Law requires that the Haniyyah government become a caretaker government until a new government is formed with confidence from the PLC.
‘Abbas tried to shore up his legitimacy and the legitimacy of his government in Ramallah through presidential decrees, and by resorting to the Fatah-dominated PLO Central Council. He did not go to the relevant authorities that have the power to confirm his government, namely, the Hamas-dominated PLC.
For its part, Hamas said that its actions were not tantamount to a coup, and that as long as it controlled the government and its agencies, and has a PLC majority, there would be no justification for a coup. As Hamas leader Khalid Mish‘al said: “We are the legitimate [government], so how can we stage a coup against ourselves?”
In truth, the person who issued orders to suppress the lawlessness in cooperation with the Al-Qassam Brigades was the prime minister/interior minister… so those events do not constitute a coup. Hamas afterwards continued governing Gaza through its caretaker government, which considered itself the legitimate government of the Palestinian political system.
 This paper was presented at the seminar “The Future of the Palestinian National Project,” organized by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, Doha, Qatar, 14–15/11/2015.
 Associate Professor of Palestine Studies and the General Manager of al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations.