Issue 175 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review

A tale of two movements

The Hebron massacre in February was a truly awful reminder of the racism that infests Israeli society. But these killings may be remembered less for what they say about Zionism than for their importance in accelerating the break up of Palestinian nationalism. Phil Marshall reports

Palestinians were already sceptical that last year's Washington 'peace' deal signed by PLO leader Yasser Arafat could bring any benefits. When Israel refused to withdraw troops from Gaza and Jericho, as it had promised, many Palestinians concluded that they had been sold another phoney agreement. As a result, Arafat's authority was crumbling when the Hebron outrage took place; his refusal to lead protests against the killings and his willingness to renew negotiations with Israel has produced further fury among Palestinian activists. Al Fatah, Arafat's base within the PLO, is now collapsing throughout the Occupied Territories.

The long predicted advance of Islamic activism is becoming a reality as Hamas ('Zeal') becomes the main attraction for Palestinian youth. This was highlighted by the bomb attacks on Israeli citizens carried out by Hamas recently.

Since Fatah launched its armed struggle against Israel in 1965 Yasser Arafat has been 'Mr Palestine', an apparently irrepressible nationalist whose 'survivability' guaranteed loyalty among the mass of Palestinians. But Arafat's obsession with the Washington deal has driven many activists to despair.

While his PLO negotiators jet from Washington to Oslo, Paris and Cairo, the Israeli army maintains a relentless repression to which the people of the Occupied Territories are compelled to respond. At the same time, conditions in the Gaza camps are worsening; unemployment stands at 50 percent and repeated curfews prevent migrant workers travelling to Israel.

Arafat has received clear signals that even the Fatah cadre have had enough. In January Fatah lost control of the Gaza Engineers' Association, a professional body which has been a bastion of PLO support. For the first time Islamic candidates gained almost half the vote. One activist in Gaza observes that Fatah has 'imploded'--that the political apparatus Arafat intended to use for his proto-government under the Washington deal has largely disintegrated. Fatah is likely to have serious problems assembling even a skeleton administration for the 'limited autonomy' zones it is due to take over in Gaza and Jericho.

Radical nationalist opposition to Arafat has always been ineffectual and has long since been overtaken by the Islamists. Hamas has the advantage of being seen as relatively 'clean'. Fatah built its influence in part by buying loyalty, with the result that its most influential members often lived well, taking comfy villas in the wealthiest neighbourhoods. Although most Hamas leaders are also middle class, they are far less ostentatious. Many of its cadres are poor camp dwellers who have built a following amongst the 'intifada generation'--youth who were radicalised by the uprising which began in 1987. These activists are now the core of Hamas's guerrilla organisation, which has become the strongest armed Palestinian force, scoring a number of successes against the Israeli army. According to the Israeli paper Al Hamishmar, Israeli intelligence in Gaza is genuinely worried about Hamas and the military command has decided that it must back Arafat in any confrontation with the Islamists. It is Israel's fear of Hamas's advance that seems finally to have prompted troop withdrawals from Gaza and Jericho.

But how is an enfeebled PLO to combat the Islamists? As part of the Washington deal Arafat was to assemble a Palestinian police force which would, in effect, mediate Israeli rule in Gaza and Jericho, targeting more intransigent elements such as Hamas. Such is the speed of Fatah's collapse, however, that by April no more than a few hundred of the expected 25,000 trainees had been recruited.

One reason for this failure may be that Arafat's coffers have finally emptied. Between 1969 and 1990 Fatah received huge sums of money from the Gulf states: in Saudi Arabia, for example, the state provided its own funds for Arafat and levied a poll tax on every Palestinian worker which was channelled directly to the PLO. The deal was that the PLO would operate a principle of 'non-interference', desisting from political activity within Saudi Arabia.

The world economic crisis and a falling oil price hit all the Gulf economies and by the late 1980s the PLO was feeling the pinch. But in 1990, when Arafat aligned with Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War, all funds were cut off. In addition, many Palestinian workers in the wealthiest states were expelled--in Kuwait they were hounded in a sustained racist attack on the 300,000 strong community. Arafat lost his financial lifeline and with it much of the PLO's direct influence in the Occupied Territories.

During the Washington peace talks last year the PLO was promised huge sums to operate the new administration and start basic development. The World Bank has since estimated that a minimum of $2.4 billion is needed over five years; the PLO's own Palestine Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction wants 15 billion dollars. To date, the PLO has promises of less than 250 million dollars, of which almost nothing has arrived. Arafat cannot even guarantee basic welfare--in December teachers at the Fatah backed al-Aznar College in Gaza went on strike because they had not been paid for seven months.

The PLO's whole project for a semi-autonomous Gaza/Jericho--an 'Arafatistan' occupying less than a fifth of historic Palestine--is in the balance. At the same time, a more coordinated form of resistance to Israel is emerging across the Occupied Territories. In January Islamic activists and radical nationalists combined to reform the Unified National Leadership of the Uprising (LTNLU)--the body which had coordinated the intifada. In March UNLU responded to the Hebron massacre by issuing its first leaflet, arguing for mobilisation against Israeli occupation throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip--a call to relaunch the uprising.

Israeli repression may prevent an upsurge on the scale of 1987-88 but the Occupied Territories remain in a volatile state. Last year's talk of a 'breakthrough' raised expectations which have been dashed by Israel and Arafat's feeble compromises. Events in Hebron raised the temperature, provoking fury first towards Israel and then at the PLO's passivity. Yet most Palestinians cannot see a way forward. Many view the PLO with a mixture of sorrow and disgust and are drawn towards Hamas. But many are also rooted in a secular politics which has combined Muslims and Christians in collective action and is wary of the prescriptive formulas of religious fundamentalism. The mass of Palestinians are not calling for sharia law, rule by the clerics or restrictions on women's dress--all part of the Hamas programme which accompanies its call to free Palestine from Israeli rule.

In Egypt at the moment the Islamic militants' assaults on the Mubarak regime are combined with a communalism that promotes attacks on the country's large Christian minority, fatally disabling the opposition movement. Such divisions among Palestinians would spell disaster.

In the face of the PLO's retreat, Hamas may look an attractive alternative, but across the Middle East political activists are discovering that Islam divides as well as unites--and that in the end it always compromises. There are already signs that if Arafat can cobble together the means to run his micro-state in Gaza and Jericho, there are sections of Hamas prepared to compromise in order to secure a stake in power.

This reflects the roots of both the PLO and Hamas in the politics of Arab capitalism, each organisation expressing the aspirations of the Palestinian middle class to run an independent state, and each tied to one or other of the Arab states. Thus for over 25 years Fatah was in hock to Saudi Arabia; Hamas, with its ties to both the Saudis and Iran, is similarly dependent on forces which are hostile to the interests of the mass of Palestinians.

The PLO has failed, yet Hamas seeks to emulate Arafat by adding an Islamic gloss to his strategy. In the crisis which faces Palestinian nationalism a far more radical approach is needed, one based on the prospect of challenging Arab capitalism as a necessary part of the struggle against Zionism.


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