Monday, August 3, 2009

The Fatah Hamas Divide

Last week Howard Schneider, the Washington Post's Jerusalem bureau chief, named the Hamas-Fatah/Gaza-West Bank divide as the single biggest impediment to Arab-Israeli peace. With rival Palestinian governments there are no common positions and no one else knows who to talk to. Israeli hardliners use it as an excuse to avoid peace talks altogether, saying there is no partner to negotiate with. It is widely believed that support for Hamas has ebbed since the 2006 parliamentary victory, their violent takeover of Gaza, and the Israeli blockade and attacks on the Gaza Strip. With elections supposed to be held next January, there is hope that a strong Fatah showing may reenergize prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement.

Khalil Shikaki, a respected pollster at the Palestine Center for Policy and Survey Research, regularly polls Gaza and the West Bank. His most recent poll, while a bit dated (it is from the end of May, before Obama's Cairo address, amongst other things), is perhaps the most reliable data we have. It shows that support for Fatah and the West Bank administration of President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayad is increasing, while support for Hamas has fallen. Still, Abbas and Fayad are not especially popular and Hamas still retains a lot of support.

Had the elections been held in May, 41% would have supported Fatah and 33% Hamas, with 49% supporting Abbas in a Presidential contest and 44% Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Both Palestinian parties have credibility issues. Hamas won a plurality in 2006 not due to their Islamism or violence, but from their "throw the bums out" anti-corruption message. Almost 42% of Palestinians felt that the short-lived Hamas government of all Palestine was either "good" or "very good." But since then has come a disastrous conflict with Israel this past winter and a crippling blockade in Gaza.

Fatah is seen as being perhaps a bit too close to Israel and the West. Palestinians were especially disappointed by the performance of Abbas, Fayad, and Fatah generally during Israel's winter attack on Gaza, with over 40% feeling each handled themselves negatively during the crisis. Corruption in the Fatah administration, a major driver in Hamas' electoral victory, is still seen as being prevalent by over two thirds of Palestinians, with almost half believing it will only worsen.

Fatah's West Bank governing apparatus has been making reforms. These, coupled with loosened Israeli restrictions, have been helping return a sense of normalcy to the West Bank that stands in contrast to isolated Gaza and may bolster Fatah's position. An increasingly professional police force, trained in Jordan by the US and EU, now have unity of command and are keeping order, while neutralizing remaining Hamas elements. Israel has removed many checkpoints, turned more areas over to Palestinian control, and plans to soon open the Allenby Bridge to Jordan permanently.

All this should make the lure of moderation that much stronger. Schneider believes this may be the way some settlement does come about: not by a big break through, but incremental, confidence building steps, something Schneider likens to a "bureaucratic process" towards peace.