Another U.S. president is leaving office soon and is worried about his legacy, and you know what that means: another attempt to achieve a diplomatic solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. As such, on November 27, 2007, there will be a summit at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Even though George W. Bush is the first U.S. president to explicitly call for the establishment of a Palestinian state and we could really use some good news in the Middle East right about now, this attempt is even more likely to fail than the last. Here's why.

Hamas wins the elections

Our story begins in 2006, when the "List of Change and Reform" (Hamas) won a large majority in the Palestinian Legislative Council, which is the legislature of the Palestinian National Authority. The latter was established in 1994 following the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Now, Hamas reject all previous agreements made with Israel and as such don't actually recognize the validity of the Oslo Accords; but they're not sticklers for legal nicety. Hamas had refused to participate in the 1996 elections for this very reason, but in recent years their calculus has changed.

Hamas was formed in 1987 at the start of the First Intifada (a mass uprising against Israeli occupation). The main political force in Palestinian life had been Fatah (a secular party) for some time, but Fatah were unprepared for the coming of the First Intifada, which was often led from the pulpit of the mosque; Hamas embodied this new, religious element in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Hamas has never to this day recognized Israel's right to exist, continues to believe that armed conflict is the only eventual solution to the occupation and a legitimate means to bring about the destruction of Israel, and its founding charter makes frequent references to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Hamas has managed to politically outflank Fatah by being so unstintingly radical at a time when Fatah was open to charges of giving away too much to the Israelis and essentially being a self-interested power structure. I read in an Israeli newspaper once of reports that senior Fatah members had been caught selling concrete to the Israelis with which to build the separation barrier being erected between the West Bank and Israel. You don't need to know much about Palestinian politics to realize this was pretty bad publicity. Fatah is widely regarded as corrupt and incompetent, the result of being unchallenged in the political sphere of so long. Hamas saw an opportunity to move in.

In 2005, Hamas performed surprisingly well in municipal elections, and in 2006 it saw the opportunity to do just as well in the legislative ones; and it did. But elections and institutions are dodgy ground for Hamas, who fear being institutionalized and losing the dynamic quality of a "movement" by having to deal with day-to-day governance issues. One must never forget that barring some fundamental reform of Hamas and its guiding principles, it is committed to the destruction of Israel; any hope that eventually the movement will be moderated by the burdens of governance and realities on the ground remain exactly that, hope. In the meanwhile, ceasefires between Israel and Hamas, and co-operation between them on the local level, remain simply temporary ceasefires, or a hudna as the Arabic term frequently used by Hamas goes.

This is the main reason that when Hamas won the legislative elections and formed its own government, the United States, Europe, Russia, Japan and the Arab states froze funds normally provided to the Palestinian National Authority to maintain its functioning and the provision of basic services to the Palestinian people.1 The U.S. and Europe both officially view Hamas as a terrorist organization, whilst the United Kingdom has designated its militant wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, as one. So it clearly wasn't very likely that the West was going to continue to pump money to a government whose stated goal was the destruction of Israel and which used terrorist means to bring this about. But it doesn't change the fact that Hamas were the democratically-elected government of the Palestinian people.

The problems of democracy

The basic idea behind the aid freeze and economic sanctions was to demonstrate to the Palestinian people that Hamas couldn't govern by creating a situation in which (you guessed it) it was impossible for Hamas to govern. Clearly Israel and the Quartet (the UN, the EU, Russia, and the USA) couldn't actually support a government which rejected the basic principles of peacemaking between the Israelis and the Palestinians, which presupposed the continued existence of Israel. From what I remember, before the elections there was this eerie silence, as if nobody wanted to contemplate Hamas winning because they hadn't a clue what to do next (something like the desperate way people like to believe global warming isn't happening). You can't even be certain Hamas actually wanted to win rather than just do very well, and they clearly hadn't planned what to do if they did.

Fatah weren't too pleased either. To be fair to them, they didn't do catastrophically badly: Hamas won 44% of the popular vote, and Fatah won 42%. But the particular way that seats in the legislature are allocated meant that Hamas took home 74 seats to Fatah's 45. So Fatah were pretty pissed off. And they were also very worried: 44% of the electorate had voted for a party which rejected all the gains Fatah had made in their dealings with the Israelis over the years, including the very creation of the Palestinian National Authority which Hamas now led. Fatah and Hamas really don't like each other, a situation which dates back to Hamas' belief that Fatah were collaborating with the Israelis by being too moderate, and Fatah's repeated crackdowns on Hamas during the 1990s when it held political power and Hamas were busy trying to derail any progress in talks with Israel by blowing up Israelis. "Put your house in order," Israel told Fatah, "or sod off"; and so Fatah dealt with Hamas, and Hamas came to believe Fatah were the Israeli's poodles.

Fatah has controlled the Palestinian security forces for a long time, and after the election, Hamas wanted in. Disagreements on policy and how to deal with Israel have got mixed up with issues of personal control and power - Fatah was institutionalized in the organs of violence and civil control, and Hamas wanted in. Hamas started building up what it called the Executive Security Force to supplement the Qassam Brigades, whereas Fatah continued to control a range of organizations including the Preventative Security Service and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. Amidst a climate of economic meltdown caused by the sanctions and distrust born of years of harrassing each other, the two sets of groups soon turned to assassinating each other's leaders.

The fighting continued and eventually got so bad that the phrase "Palestinian civil war" started getting thrown around, and so it was agreed something had to be done. Fatah wanted to be readmitted to the government again, and Hamas wanted a brief spell in which they could build their military power for a confrontation; for Fatah were still strong, and American aid was making them stronger. And it was desperately necessary for the Palestinian people that the sanctions be lifted and the economy be made to function again. So, senior Fatah and Hamas leaders went off to Mecca to make a deal under the auspices of the Saudi monarch, in the birthplace of Islam; not a place in which Arabs like to disappoint Arabs. And so in March 2007 a coalition government was formed consisting of Hamas, Fatah, and independents, and everyone hoped the fighting was over.

There was a glimmer of hope at this point, and some people even claim that the Mecca Agreement was well-written, but badly implemented. This sort of misses the point. Any agreement between Hamas and Fatah could only be short-lived; they could no more coexist in a "unity government" than the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. International donors resumed contact with members of the government that weren't affiliated with Hamas and began sending funds again, but these funds mostly found their way into the hands of Fatah. Violence resumed before the ink on the agreement was even dry.

The Hamas takeover of Gaza

This is when things really started to get, for long-term observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, weird. On the anniversary of the the Six Day War (June 5), Hamas launched a large-scale, clearly premeditated attack on Fatah elements in the Gaza Strip. Their aim was probably just to prove a point to Fatah that they weren't the only game in town on the eve of further talks over power-sharing; but completely unexpectedly, Fatah crumbled and Hamas found themselves in total control of the Gaza Strip.

Fatah's corrupation and incompetence was most at evidence in the Gaza Strip, which was not its natural base. Ramallah lies on the West Bank, and Fatah has strong links to Jordan (where Hamas is banned). The Fatah chief in the Gaza Strip was Muhammed Dahlan, who Hamas regard as one of their bitterest enemies as he spear-headed anti-Hamas campaigns in the 1990s. In a move hardly likely to appease the Islamists, Fatah head Abbas had appointed him national security advisor a day after the unity government was formed. Dahlan ruled the security apparatus of Gaza through patronage and fear, but when it came to the crunch few were willing to die for him. Their zeal was especially quashed by his decision, along with other Fatah leaders, to flee Gaza even before serious fighting had begun. Fatah's corruption and lack of seriousness was again on show.

It was a battle which, according to the Red Cross, killed 118 and injured 550 (often in the most callous circumstances, according to Human Rights Watch and media reports). And it also killed the idea of the classic two-state solution, at least in the short term. After Hamas took Gaza over, the international community immediately opened its arms to Fatah and poured aid into the West Bank; and Hamas was even more isolated. What is slowly happening is that the political divide between Fatah and Hamas and the geographical divide between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is being institutionalized in the following manner by Israel and the West: Fatah, we can deal with; Hamas, we cannot. Given what Hamas is, this is understandable. But there cannot be a two-state solution while half the Palestinian electorate vote for an entity which rejects Israel's right to exist, and while this entity rules the Gaza Strip by force of arms.

Prospects for Annapolis

This is why the prospects for the Annapolis Summit are desperately low. Hamas cannot be expected to pay any heed to what is said or signed there, and Abbas is weakened by the fact he does not speak for all of the Palestinian people. Hamas are the ones changing the facts on the ground, now. Fatah of course hope that the summit will allow them to regain some initiative and deliver concrete gains, and there is much to be said for Israel and the West delivering these gains to shore up Fatah against Hamas. But this is not likely to happen due to the unbearably weak position of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whose coalition will fall apart the second he offers too much.

A reconciliation between Hamas and either Israel or Fatah seems unthinkable. Hamas and the Israeli Defence Force continue to fight one another, and Corporal Gilad Shalit remains in captivity in the Gaza Strip. Hamas fears being outflanked by more radical Islamist groups if it is too "soft" on anybody, and it sees no reason to play nice with a Fatah it just bested in military conflict. To Hamas, Fatah's desparate desire to sign pieces of paper with the Israelis is just further evidence of its desire to collaborate and sell off the Palestinian cause for foreign money and support; and when has a piece of paper ever stopped Hamas achieving what it wished in the past? For Fatah and the Israelis, Hamas is a mortal enemy with which there can be no compromise; and the feeling is returned.

The best we can hope for Annapolis is that it provides for concrete improvements in the lives of Israelis and Palestinians by improving the Palestinian economy or strengthening Palestinian institutions; such moves will have concomitant benefits for Israeli security. It is the confusing combination of bread-and-butter issues and ideological-political ones which makes this conflict so intractable. But in the ideological-political sphere, those who wish for a two-state solution are being undercut at present by those who fear it and have engineered a situation which looks more like three states. There is, sadly, no God-given assurance that any "solution" at all can be found (think of the Balkans); if it is, I doubt it will look anything like what we were expecting.

1. The Arab states view Hamas as an instrument of Iranian influence in the region, which is why they froze aid. This is also why Fatah members shout "Shi'ite! Shi'ite!" at Hamas; Palestinians are almost all Sunni and the Iranians, of course, are not. But this is a whole other dimension which I haven't got time to get into.


I have written this off the top of my head after years of following the conflict in Israeli, American and Arab newspapers. For deep background and analysis one can do much worse than the International Crisis Group (, but beware of their predilections. Specific facts relating to numbers come from their reports After Mecca, After Gaza and The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Annapolis and After; also from Wikipedia. I hope this is not too long and boring, but I'm afraid I don't think you will find anything quite so succint elsewhere on the internet.

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