Palestine and Democracy

19 December 2006

Palestine and Democracy

By Gwynne Dyer

The Palestinian territories may have descended into full-scale civil war by next week. If not, it will be mainly because Fatah realises it is too weak to win against Hamas, especially in the Gaza Strip. Democracy does not seem to be serving the Palestinian people very well.

In last January’s elections, a majority of the Palestinians voted for Hamas, the radical Islamic movement that refuses to recognise the state of Israel. This came as a great shock to Fatah, Yasser Arafat’s old party, which had ruled the occupied territories ever since the Palestinian Authority was set up there after the Oslo Accords in 1993, and an even greater shock to Israel and its friends overseas. So the latter decided that Palestinians must be shown the error of their ways.

Until then, the Palestinian Authority’s income had come mainly from customs duties that Israel collected on its behalf (there are no functioning ports or airports in the occupied territories) and from foreign aid from the United States, the European Union, and other donors. Once Hamas formed a government in March, almost all of that was cut off. Most of the PA’s employees, whose incomes supported about a third of the Palestinian population, have not been paid since March, and government services have collapsed.

Ten months later, the results are dramatically visible in the form of uncollected garbage, empty schools, collapsing hospitals and widespread malnutrition in the occupied territories. The Palestinians have been “put on a diet,” in the words of an Israeli government adviser, until either Hamas changes its policies, or the Palestinians change their minds about electing Hamas. As President George W. Bush put it: “We support democracy, but that doesn’t mean we have to support governments elected as a result of democracy.”

Israel and its foreign friends demand that Hamas recognise Israel’s right to exist, accept existing Israeli-Palestinian agreements, and renounce violence before they will lift the blockade and accept a Hamas government as a legitimate representative of the Palestinians. “Anyone who thinks Hamas will change is wrong,” replied Khaled Mashal, the organisation’s exiled leader, and in fact it has hardly budged despite all the pressure.

Hamas’s only concession has been to offer a ten-year truce with Israel (forty years in some versions), but the jihad must continue and Israel must ultimately disappear. Even the truce depends on the Israelis withdrawing from all the occupied territories including East Jerusalem, dismantling all the settlements, and allowing Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to their ancestral homes throughout what is now Israel.

Accepting a Palestinian “right of return” would reduce Jewish Israelis to a minority within their own country, so it is not going to happen. Hamas’s other territorial demands are not far from what a final peace settlement would have to contain, but its commitment to jihad is real. It observes truces faithfully, but it will not abandon its ultimate goal of destroying Israel, nor will it join any Fatah-led “national unity” government that recognises Israel. For decades, Israel has claimed that it has no “partner for peace.” It is finally true. Stalemate.

The Israeli and foreign response has been to try for another election and a different outcome, on the assumption that many people who voted for Hamas were attracted mainly by its incorruptibility (in stark contrast to Fatah), and don’t really think that Israel could be destroyed. Now that they are starving because of the blockade that Hamas has brought down on them, perhaps they will change their minds. Maybe they will, but it certainly isn’t guaranteed.

Hamas is not going to give up its parliamentary majority without a fight: shoot-outs between Fatah and Hamas gunmen have proliferated in the past few weeks as it became clear that President Mahmoud Abbas, a Fatah loyalist, was going to call a new election (although he has no explicit constitutional power to do so), in the hope that Hamas would lose this time. He did exactly that on Saturday, and by Monday the violence was spinning out of control.

In a last-ditch attempt to avert civil war, both organisations agreed late Monday to pull their fighters off the streets, but it may not work. In Palestine’s case, democracy has drastically raised the probability of civil war (as it did also in Iraq, where the two elections of 2005 confirmed and radicalised the country’s ethnic and sectarian divisions). Is democracy just not appropriate for Arab countries?

Of course not. Both Iraq and Palestine are occupied countries, and foreign military occupation does not usually produce either solidarity or moderation among the occupied. Think of the vicious ethnic, religious and ideological struggles among the Yugoslavs resisting German occupation in 1941-44, or the bitter clashes between rival Angolan and Zimbabwean liberation movements in the 70s and 80s, or the ghastly mess that the Soviet occupation produced in Afghanistan.

Hamas is deeply unrealistic in its goals, because it would require direct divine intervention to achieve its goal of eliminating Israel, but that is not why the Palestinians are on the brink of civil war. It’s because foreigners are ruthlessly manipulating them and their democracy with the aim of getting them to switch their votes and produce a more amenable government next time.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 7. (“Ten months…democracy”; and “Accepting…stalemate”)