Recent TV news has featured gun battles between Palestinians in the Gaza strip. The Islamist Hamas party has taken control of the institutions of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Gaza. What has been going on?
This infighting is rooted in the establishment of Israel in 1948 and its 1967 war of expansion. In 1947 when the UN resolved to partition historical Palestine Israeli militias began to expand Israel’s boundaries well beyond the 55 percent promised under the partition. At the end of 1948 Israeli forces controlled 78 percent of the land. Israel has never formally stated its final boundaries.
The Arab population was left with two separated areas: the West Bank (of the Jordan) including East Jerusalem, and the tiny Gaza strip. Some 800,000 Palestinians were exiled from their homes, many becoming refugees. After 60 years these refugees number several million.
The colonialist establishment of Israel by western powers caused deep unhappiness in the Middle East. President Nasser of Egypt began a pan-Arab movement to raise Arab pride. The Israeli military saw this as a threat and in June 1967 they attacked Arab forces.
By the end of the six-day war Israel had crushed those forces and invaded East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza, Egypt’s Sinai Desert and Syria’s Golan Heights.
Gaza a prison
This situation largely stands. Israel did withdraw from Sinai but the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights are still occupied. The settlers are gone from Gaza but, because Israel controls virtually all access, Gaza is more than ever a prison. The occupation has become progressively more brutal, involving numerous Israeli settlements, checkpoints, land confiscations and defiance of international law. It is financed by massive ‘aid’ from the United States.
Palestinian resistance was led for a long time by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. The PLO’s main faction was the secular nationalist Fatah party led by the exiled Yasser Arafat. However, in 1987 Palestinians in the occupied territories rose up in the first Intifada (uprising).
Tough questions addressed
The Intifada led Israel to try and divide its opposition. In the occupied territories it started giving more scope to the small Islamist Hamas movement. Through offering negotiations to the exiled PLO leadership, Israel sought their help against emerging leaders in the occupied territories. This led to the 1993 Oslo Accords establishing the PA under Arafat.
Arafat hoped Oslo would bring an independent Palestinian state but this was never promised in writing. The hard questions were to be tackled last: the boundaries of a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem, the return of Palestinian refugees. These were tabled at the Camp David summit in 2000. Israel offered a non-state without control over its borders, airspace or water. The talks collapsed.
The Oslo Accords advantaged Israel. The number of Israeli settlers in the occupied territories grew dramatically, more Palestinian land was lost and Israel controlled vital water sources. The PA was corrupted by aid money while being charged with controlling Palestinians on behalf of Israel. Palestinians became increasingly angry. A second Intifada began in 2000.
Hamas meant welfare
Fatah’s corruption and the PA’s inefficacy meant Palestinians looked for leaders of integrity who were able to provide necessary help. Hamas offered this through its welfare organisations and its strong stand against the occupation. Israel kept Arafat under house arrest while demanding he control terrorism (meaning Hamas and Islamic Jihad). After Arafat’s death the US called for new elections for the PA in January 2006.
When Hamas won the elections the USA and EU immediately boycotted the PA to undermine support for Hamas. Teachers, doctors and civil servants went unpaid. The UN documented the resulting stress especially in Gaza where Hamas was strongest. When suffering did not lead to popular rejection of Hamas Israel allowed greater arming of Fatah forces to suppress Hamas and stepped up its own rocket attacks. Hamas also armed itself with weapons smuggled or bought from corrupt Fatah officials. Squeezed by Israel and Fatah, Hamas attacked and took over Fatah offices in Gaza in June 2007.
Gaza and the West Bank are now even more split. Israel still controls these areas and the fact that it, the USA and EU will deal only with President Abbas of Fatah compromises Abbas and Fatah. Such manipulation is dangerous.
Fr Gerard Burns is a member of the Wellington Palestine Group.