... for openness and credibility....

Whither Hamas-Fatah Rivalry

Just as it seemed that Egyptian mediation efforts had succeeded in bringing about an agreement between the two rival Palestinian factions – Hamas and Fatah – after the latter officially signed the proposed agreement, Hamas leader Khaled Masha’al rejected it. 

The latest round of Egyptian mediation between Hamas and Fatah, which began in August 2009, culminated in their consent to sign a ‘reconciliation agreement’ on 22 October 2009.  The agreement would have enabled them to resume co-operation and ‘Palestinian unity’, thereby ending their total split and paving the way for presidential and parliamentary elections on 28 June. According to the agreement, 80 per cent of the delegates to the Palestinian parliament would be elected on a party basis and the remaining 20 per cent by the constituency. A special committee with delegates from all factions reporting to Mahmoud Abbas, the chairman of the Palestinian Authority (PA), would assume control of the Gaza Strip and supervise the elections. Gaza was also to see the return of the PA to the territory and the establishment of a new security force, staffed with members of all Palestinian factions.

More specifically, the agreement called for the return of the Palestinian security forces loyal to Abbas to the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Sinai (Egypt), together with the European monitors who remain stationed there since the US-brokered agreement in 2005. This would enable the reopening of the terminal since its closure more than two years ago. Unofficially, the reconciliation agreement was supposed to lead to a deal between Hamas and Israel over exchanging the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) soldier Gil'ad Shalit, who was abducted in 2006, in return for 400-1,000 Palestinians, who remain imprisoned in Israel on charges of involvement in terrorist activities.         

Like the previous attempt, the formal signing of the agreement was deferred indefinitely. Hamas’ refusal came in a joint communiqué of seven Syrian-based 'rejectionist' Palestinian groups, explaining their refusal by the absence of a clear clause stating the right of the Palestinians to resist the Israeli occupation. The statement left the door open to a future acceptance of the agreement pending its amendment.

However, in view of the depth of the conflict and historical record of relations between the two main Palestinian political movements, there is little reason to believe that a reconciliation and political co-operation between them is a realistic possibility.     

Fatah-Hamas Relation: Rivalry, Accommodation and Split

The two-decade long Fatah-Hamas conflict can hardly be seen as a 'normal' political competition between two movements over the soul of the Palestinian population in the Occupied Territories Bank. This aspect of political competition ostensibly exists – and was temporarily practiced – through agreed-upon formal procedures and institutions of the municipal and parliamentary elections in 2005 and 2006 respectively. Nonetheless, this paper contends that the relations between Hamas and Fatah largely assume a 'zero-sum' nature due to the former exclusivist Islamist ideology and interpretations concerning the legitimacy of power. The Hamas-Fatah relations as a 'zero-sum' game is further aggravated by the overall context of the conflict with Israel which shapes the most basic parameters of political legitimacy and popular support in the Palestinian society. Hence, a careful examination of the historical record of relations between these two movements against the geopolitical backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as the regional political balance, is in order.

The advent of Hamas as the Islamic Resistance Movement in the Gaza Strip in late 1987 was a crucial turning point in the structure of the Palestinian National Movement, which since 1968 had been led by Fatah, the largest and most pragmatic organization among the Palestinian guerrilla groups that had mushroomed since the mid-1960s. Led by Yasser Arafat, Fatah managed to rally most of the Palestinian guerrilla groups under the umbrella of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which along the years acquired an internationally recognized status as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Although Fatah was only one player in this loose and voluntary coalition which also included ultra-leftist and nationalist groups as well as factions subordinate to Arab regimes, its primacy and decisive weight in shaping the PLO's political decision making could hardly be disputed.    

From the outset, the emergence of Hamas as a political and military arm of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in the Gaza Strip, later expanding into the West Bank, came as a challenge to the PLO as a national leadership on both ideological and practical grounds. Nothing could indicate this challenge better than the adoption by Hamas of its own Islamic Charter – thus rejecting the PLO National Charter – and individual policy making during the Intifada (1987-93), which often differed from that of the Unified National Command shared by Fatah and some other factions. The MB had begun flourishing even prior to the Intifada, particularly among the destitute and densely populated refugee camps of the Gaza Strip (constituting over 50 per cent of the population).

The rapid growth and influence of the MB, and later Hamas, can be credited to the movement's social services – originally established by the MB and funded by donations from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies as well as by a network of fundraising among Muslim communities in Europe and North America – and ability to reach out to the masses through an ever-growing network of mosques, preachers and core of dedicated activists. These diverse activities were efficiently supported by a systematic process of institution building, mobilization and training of new cadres.

However, the novelty represented by the advent of Hamas was the emergence of an alternative – yet familiar and close to heart – militant Islamic-nationalist discourse, which redefined collective Palestinian assumptions and objectives in Islamic terms and explanations. Portraying the current PLO as deviating from its own original agenda, Hamas effectively adopted the same assumptions and objectives included in the PLO’s National Charter, albeit phrasing and placing them in Islamic theological and historical context. For instance, the PLO’s article states that historic Palestine (from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River) is an indivisible territorial unit is represented in the Islamic Charter (article 11) by defining Palestine as a Muslim endowment (waqf) for generations until the Day of Judgment; the principle of armed struggle as the only strategy for liberating Palestine turned in Hamas’ Charter into a total Islamic holy war (jihad) until the liberation of every inch of Palestine; or the unequivocal refusal of all the efforts toward peace settlement of the conflict over Palestine.        

Meanwhile, more than sheer ideological change, Hamas offered an alternative Islamic-nationalist vision and practice instead of the failed secular-nationalist strategy represented by the PLO and especially its leading element, Fatah. Indeed, by the mid-1980s, the PLO had lost its Lebanese territorial basis and military option and, without a realistic diplomatic option, seemed to have lost its relevance as a national liberation movement save its last asset of the 'inside' established foothold among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Yet it was precisely where Hamas had an advantage over the PLO and Fatah due to its truly emergence from within and, as an 'inside' movement, was by far more attentive to, and more familiar with the needs and grievances of the Palestinian society, and particularly in the Gaza Strip.

The massive attraction to Hamas during the Intifada years, represented by its growing popularity among professionals, students and workers alike, soon alarmed Fatah's leaders hence Arafat's efforts to exert pressures on Hamas to acknowledge the PLO as the sole Palestinian national framework and join the organization as another member faction. That Hamas conditioned its joining in the PLO on receiving representation equal to Fatah in the representative institutions – which Fatah utterly rejected – was a clear message indication of Hamas’ aspiration to national leadership rather than willingness to accept Fatah's lead. Indeed, attempts by Arab states to mediate between Fatah and Hamas and allow for the latter's joining of the PLO had failed even before the Oslo accord was signed in 1993.

The Madrid peace process witnessed an intensifying ideological competition and political rivalry between Hamas and Fatah, which soon assumed a regional dimension with Hamas allying itself with Iran and Syria, as well as with other rejectionist Palestinian groups constituting the Damascus-based 'Ten Front'. The faltering Madrid process during the first two years indeed benefited Hamas, while the PLO, which sponsored and supported the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip delegation in the negotiation with Israel, was losing ground among the Palestinians in these territories. That Arafat's PLO decided to accept Israel's conditions and sign the Oslo accord – interpreted by many Palestinian commentators as vaguely dangerous and humiliating in nature – can be explained by the PLO's stress due to its loss of popular support in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to Hamas, coupled by its dire economic situation as a result of the Gulf oil monarchies to cease their financial support in retaliation for Arafat's adherence to former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein (1979-2003) during the Gulf crisis over Kuwait.  

The signing of the Oslo accord came as a major psychological blow to Hamas, triggering fears of political elimination by Arafat's PA, but it turned to be a baseless and hence, short-lived fear. It soon became clear that Arafat had no intention of eliminating Hamas and, in view of the harsh critique levelled at him by fellow Palestinians – over the inconclusive and transitional nature of the Oslo accord; the continued Israeli policy of settlement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem; and the lingering progress toward Palestinian statehood – with Israel dominating the pace and contents of the process, all forced Arafat to turn a blind eye – in fact, tacitly agree – to the Islamic opposition's terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians, defined as Jihad. Indeed, during the Oslo years, debates continued even within Fatah over whether to adhere to the original Fatah objective of 'Revolution until Victory,' thereby maintaining the military option for other time and better conditions, or to abandon the armed struggle and focus on state building.   

Indeed, Fatah echelons were on the horns of a dilemma, especially under conditions of frustrated hopes for progress towards Palestinian statehood among broad circles of Palestinians. Acquiescence in this situation seemed, especially among the younger Fatah cadres, tantamount to political suicide; hence, they repeatedly challenged Arafat and his aging 'Tunisian' colleagues who blocked any mobility within the stagnant movement's institutions. Under the 1995 Taba accord, Israel handed full authority over all major Palestinian cities and towns in the West Bank (save Hebron) to the PA This ended up aggravating the sense of frustration among the Palestinians due to meagre economic benefits, and growing and strict limitations on movement of people and goods. Movement was restricted not only between the Palestinian territories and Israel, but also within the West Bank itself, which by now was dissected into districts separated by checkpoints and repeatedly affected by closures and curfews and Israeli military raids for security reasons.

Although Arafat's PA repeatedly failed to fulfil its obligations to Israel concerning security co-ordination – often used as a bargaining chip towards Israel –, the former demonstrated a harsh and unequivocally repressive policy toward Hamas and the Islamic Jihad in the short intervals of close security co-ordination with the latter. This was particularly true in the immediate aftermath of the massive suicide bombings in Ashqelon, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in February-March 1996 and in the late 1990s, hundreds of Hamas echelons, especially of the military arm, Izz al-Din al-Qassam Battalions, were arrested and tortured and dozens of them were eliminated. Nonetheless, with the eruption of the al-Aqsa Intifada in early October 2000, the Islamic opposition led by Hamas received a 'green light' to resume their attacks on Israel. Consequently, Fatah's young echelons fearing losing ground to the Islamists, joined the fray under a semi-Islamic banner – the al-Aqsa Martyrs Battalions.
Nonetheless, the perceived failure of the Oslo process and stained image of Fatah's leadership as dysfunctional, corrupt and stagnant, Hamas' popularity soared to an unprecedented level. This was further augmented by Israel's military retaliation to Palestinian terrorism and systematic destruction of the PA bureaucratic infrastructure, culminating in 'Defence Shield' operation in March-April 2002. At the same time, fearing a high toll of casualties – both Palestinian civilians and Israeli soldiers – Israel refrained from a similarly decisive operation in the densely populated Gaza Strip and its refugee camps, thus leaving much of the Hamas military and civil institutions realistically intact. Under these conditions Hamas managed to increase its military capabilities and armaments, including the increasing use, as of mid-2002, of home-made Qassam rockets, with a range of around six to nine kilometres. Hamas indeed thrived at the expense of Fatah. By early 2003, large areas of Gaza Strip were out of reach for the PA’s police and security apparatuses and came under effective, even exclusive, control of Hamas.

From the outset, Hamas adhered to a policy of differentiating itself from other organizations, particularly Fatah, in both ideology and practice, and presenting itself to the Palestinian constituency as the only legitimate political compass, though it missed no opportunity to promote its status and influence. Hamas maintained a strict policy of avoiding infighting, as long as the very existence of its institutions was not jeopardized. Hamas also welcomed co-operation with other Palestinian groups as long as they were willing to rally behind its own strategy and concepts. These policies were clearly meant to win public support and legitimacy, but most of all, to protect the movement’s institutional infrastructure as long as Hamas was too weak to repulse potential assault by stronger organizations. During the Oslo years (1993-2000) Hamas adhered to a policy of official boycott of the political process conducted by the PA on grounds of its resistance to the Oslo accords as a whole. In fact, Hamas did encourage its supporters to take part in the 1996 elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), gaining five seats in this institution. Conversely, Hamas repeatedly stated its willingness to participate in municipal elections, which would not draw on the Oslo process and allow the movement to fulfil its social services to the populace.

The decease of Arafat in November 2004 and consequent decision to conduct new presidential and parliamentary elections found Hamas willing to take part in the latter elections, attributing this change of attitude to the independence of the new elections from the Oslo accords. The local and municipal elections in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, held between December 2004 and December 2005, indeed indicated the rise of Hamas to primacy in Palestinian society. In hindsight, Hamas victory could be explained by the general Palestinian frustration of the failure of the Oslo process, which had been identified with the PA and, more specifically, with Fatah as the ruling political movement. Furthermore, Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in August 2005 denied the PA and Fatah of the political prestige of achieving this as part of the Oslo process and emphasized the success of violence conducted by Hamas and other militant groups in forcing Israel out of this area. In addition, the well-organized campaign and the efforts conducted by Hamas to socialize itself as a functional, decent and dedicated to social needs heralded its unexpected – and undesirable by Hamas leaders – victory in the 2006 parliamentary elections.  

The electoral victory of Hamas represented not just a change in government, but a regime change, which shocked the already tense Hamas-PA/Fatah relations and entangled the other protagonists of the Oslo accords. Although Hamas welcomed a unity government with all other Palestinian factions, including Fatah, the latter refused the offer leaving Hamas alone to cope with its new responsibilities toward the constituency, Israel and the international community, and effectively expecting its fall. Officially, the PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas could not deny Hamas the right to establish and lead the new government. At the same time, representing the core of the Palestinian national movement from its very inception, Fatah in fact never acquiesced in the rise to power of Hamas. However, the underlying feud between them could hardly be concealed as both claimed exclusive authority over the security apparatuses and financial resources. The dispute resulted in a de-facto split of authority, with the Hamas government establishing its own security force, mostly from its own military ranks. This was followed by a process of escalating violence at the grassroots level, which culminated in the military takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas forces in June 2007 after a short and brutal clash with the PA and Fatah loyalists.   

The takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas, by what the PA/Fatah officials called a 'coup', created a new reality of two separate regimes in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, thus adding a new factor into the geopolitical reality of territorially separate Palestinian areas. Indeed, the Gaza Strip was essentially disadvantaged in relation to the West Bank, especially in terms of size, economic resources and development opportunities; population density and social conditions; and political tradition of the Egyptian military rule over the Gaza Strip, on the one hand, and the Jordanian annexation and integration of the West Bank into the East Bank, on the other. The total government split of the PA from the Gaza Strip  has been severely deepened in the period since June 2007, which might constitute a major obstacle for any future political and economic reunification of these two territories. 

The Socio-Economic Factor

The different origins of the two movements underpinned significant socio-economic and cultural differences which were to play an apparent role in their respective social and political attitudes. The MB and Hamas emerged primarily from a highly traditional and religious population of the Gaza Strip refugee camps and poor urban neighbourhoods, with a high rate of low-middle class professionals among their leaders. Fatah echelons, on the other hand, represented a largely secular and urban upper-middle class fostered by decades of relatively well-funded national movement, with broader regional and international perspectives through direct exposure to western culture and society. With the establishment of the PA these differences came to the fore in terms of personal style and way of life conducted by senior Fatah members, many of whom from established, non-refugee families in the West Bank.

The 2007 takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas, coupled with the abduction of Shalit the previous year, brought Israel to apply a total siege over the Gaza Strip, thus bringing the already shrunk economy of this region to a standstill (zero percent economic growth in 2007). The sanctions applied by the Quartet on the Middle East meant that the Gaza Strip could no longer receive international aid, leaving its population with only humanitarian aid by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and other international agencies. According to the World Bank data, 80 per cent of the population lived under the poverty line (of $2 per day) and unemployment was 41.3 per cent in 2007. In contrast, the improved security conditions in and across the West Bank in the last three years has resulted in a continuous economic growth (three per cent in 2008; seven per cent estimated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 2009). The visible economic growth of the West Bank has emanated from the removal of some 170 roadblocks by Israel, enabling more freedom of movement of goods and people within the West Bank, as well as from and into Israel (including 23,000 permitted workers in Israel). In addition, this has led to a reduction in unemployment from 31 per cent in 2002 to 15 per cent in 2009, a discernible growth in tourism (One million in Bethlehem alone, more than 50 per cent in 2008), a resumption of international investments in new industrial projects, and establishment of a new city –Rawabi – between the cities of Ramallah and Nablus.

The discernible economic growth in the West Bank might explain the meagre protest by West Bankers during Israel's devastating military operation ‘Cast Lead’ conducted in the Gaza Strip from late December 2008 to early January 2009. The severe destruction of infrastructures, private homes and public institutions, further contrasted the growing distance between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Pledges by the international community to donate substantially for rebuilding Gaza have never taken off the ground due to differences over how, and mainly by whom, and for what purposes these resources should be administered and used.


Hamas' consistent refusal to meet the conditions presented by the Quartet, namely, renouncing terrorism and recognizing Oslo and the State of Israel despite the siege and consequent economic hardships can be explained primarily by the movement's combative ideology and practice which, for the last two decades, has differentiated it from Fatah's practice and served as an efficient strategy for mobilization of power. Another factor is the internal split between inside and outside leadership as well as between political and military factions that stifles the movement's capability to give in its main cards. In addition, the last four years witnessed the emergence of a number of ultra-militant Islamist groups that represent a constant threat to Hamas' legitimacy and prestige if it accepts the international conditions. Finally, the ability of the movement to maintain a constant flow of financial resources, military and civil supplies, coupled by Iranian and Syrian support, enable the Hamas government to survive politically and impose its authority over the population.

It is not entirely clear whether Hamas and Fatah are at all genuinely interested in reconciliation and 'national unity' because in fact each of them yearns for the fall of its rival. Regardless of kinship ties and national identity, the main implication of the continuous separation between the West Bank and Gaza Strip is their growing distance and deepening entrenchment of each regime in its own reality. Thus, while Gaza Strip's Hamas is identified with poverty, violence and hopelessness, the West Bank's renewed economic growth after years of violence and misery might signal a true intention to embark on state building in accordance with PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's vision. Moreover, with all the improvement achieved by the PA security apparatuses in the last two years, and Fatah's ability to appear as more unified following its General Council's meeting in August 2009, it is doubted whether the PA would be able to sustain future attempts by Hamas to take over the West Bank as well without the IDF as its overall guardian.

Dr Avraham Sela is the A Ephraim and Shirley Diamond Professor of International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel and is the co-author of The Palestinian Hamas: Vision, Violence and Adjustment (2006).

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views/positions of the MEI@ND.

Editor, MEI Occasional Paper:  P R Kumaraswamy