The drive for Palestinian self-determination has been split between two general tactics: armed resistance and diplomacy. The Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas each represent one side of this debate. The PA, dominated by Fatah officials, is rooted primarily in diplomacy and negotiations. Indeed, the PA was born out of a negotiations process, namely the Oslo Accords, and its raison d’être is to carry out and realize those Accords. Hamas, by contrast, has followed the path of armed resistance. Founded in the early 1980s to fill an organizational vacuum in the Occupied Territories, Hamas grew in prominence and strength during and after the First Intifada. Obviously, Hamas and the PA cannot just be reduced to these two strategic practices – both parties have utilized the rhetoric of resistance and diplomacy in order to score political points in different circumstances.
As the push for self-determination goes on, the time has come to examine why these groups have pursued their chosen strategies. Recent events in the region are illuminating. Regional intifadas, the leaking of the Palestine Papers, and the rise of Turkey and Iran have forced both Fatah and Hamas into competition over the disenchanted, weary, and besieged Palestinian populace. With this goal in mind, each organization has used its preferred mode of conflict resolution to score political points with this constituency. For Hamas, this came in the form of the Prisoner Swap Deal with Israel. For the PA, it was obtaining a seat at UNESCO. Respectively representing the fruits of armed resistance and diplomacy, an examination of these two events provides insight into how and why Hamas and the PA pursue these tactics.
More specifically, they demonstrate that each group uses armed resistance and/or diplomacy primarily for its own personal political gain, and not because of any ideological commitment to these strategies. As such, Hamas and the PA’s recent ‘milestones’ have done little to further the Palestinian cause. Instead, these tactics, which may lead to short-term political gains, are making each side increasingly irrelevant.
The Threat of a Palestinian Uprising
Until the Fall of 2011, Hamas and the PA were threatened by increasing Palestinian discontent with their lackluster governance.
After years of Israeli bombardment and blockade of the Gaza Strip, Hamas’s standing among Palestinians has gradually decreased. This discontent has been further exacerbated by Hamas’ repression of political dissent and opposition to its rule. The group’s standing slipped further as attempts for national unity with Fatah sputtered along. The recent uprisings in Egypt and Syria also had a varying affect on Hamas’ image. The removal of Hosni Mubarak, whose opposition to Hamas was well known and the resurgence of an Egyptian body politic strongly vocal against Israel, offered the organization hope for the future. At the same time, however, Hamas’ decision to remain neutral in response to the growing uprising in Syria left its relationships and support base in Damascus in question.
For its part, the PA’s already tarnished reputations has been significantly damaged by the leaking of the Palestine Papers and the fall of Mubarak, who was a staunch supporter and patron of the PA. The complete deadlock in negotiations with Israel and its continual encroachment into the West Bank, among other actions, has made the PA’s devotion to the two-state solution seem unrealistic at best and suicidal at worst. The PA’s commitment to diplomacy with a recalcitrant Israeli government has caused many to question the PA’s long-term viability. Internally, the PA is known to be utterly corrupt and brutally repressive towards Hamas members and other Palestinian organizations. Within territory under its control, the PA has whole-heartedly embraced a neo-liberal economic policy that has damaged a battered economy that has long struggled under Israeli manipulation and domination. With the PA’s credibility in tatters, its recent decision to apply for UN recognition of a Palestinian state has been seen by many as a desperate attempt to salvage its reputation and reassert its relevance.
The Prisoner Swap
After five years of sporadic talks, Israel and Hamas announced a surprise deal to exchange prisoners on October 11, 2011. Coming on the heels of the UN statehood bid and Abbas’ well-received UN speech, the timing of the prisoner swap was interesting to say the least.
The deal itself is far from perfect. Although one-fifth of Palestinian prisoners were supposedly freed, approximately 4,000 men, women, and children were left within Israeli prisons. In addition, approximately 200 Palestinian prisoners were deported as a condition of their release. Meanwhile, Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip has not waned and Israeli authorities continue to detain and harass Palestinian civilians.
The Prisoner Deal was, nevertheless, well-received both inside and outside Palestine. The deal released Palestinian prisoners from different political factions, as well as Palestinians within Israel and Syrians from the Golan. The Hamas celebrations that followed the release of the first batch of prisoners emphasized Palestinian unity and stressed the importance of armed resistance in winning the swap. Assuming a defensive posture, Mahmoud Abbas greeted those prisoners returning to the West Bank with claims that the PA was secretly negotiating with Israel for another prisoner release and promises to continue the push for statehood, which had stagnated in the UN.
The UNESCO Seat
In contrast to its statehood project, the PA’s bid to join UNESCO has been a victory, albeit a symbolic one. The standing ovation and cheers at UNESCO after the votes were tallied emphasized the PA’s achievement. Drawing upon this momentum, the PA quickly announced plans to seek membership in other UN agencies.
However, other than the minor benefits of UNESCO membership, this achievement offers little tangible, on-the-ground benefits for the Palestinians. UNESCO cannot, for example, bring enforcement proceedings for Israeli violations of Palestinian cultural, educational, or scientific sectors. Despite the hollowness of this victory, the United States reacted to Palestinian membership in UNESCO’s by pulling funding from the organization and vowing to do the same to any other UN agency that gives the Palestinians a seat. In supporting this move, the U.S. argued that recognition of Palestinian statehood can come only from negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel.
It is a truism at this point that these negotiations have and will continue to be stalled as long as Israel continues to build settlements, and the Quartet fails to sanction Israel for its actions. For its part, the PA has made clear that its UN/UNESCO strategy is little more than an indirect attempt to restart the negotiations. Mahmoud Abbas, and other PA officials have maintained that the UN bid does not conflict with the negotiations and that they would continue discussions with Israel if the settlement building ends. Some PA officials went even further by saying that the bid would be dropped altogether if talks were restarted. Negotiations, therefore, remain the Palestinians’ goal, suggesting that the PA has no comprehensive plan should this strategy fail.
Both Hamas and the PA have appropriated and manipulated diplomacy and armed resistance to maintain their relevance and importance in the Palestinian scene. In reality, however, each side has only achieved short-term political gains. As Israeli aggression and colonization persists, both Hamas and the PA will become increasingly irrelevant unless they overcome their differences and engage in a serious and comprehensive debate over the merits of armed resistance and diplomacy in achieving Palestinian self-determination.
*Yazan Al-Saadi is a staff writer for Muftah.