From Irish Political Review: January 2008

Reflections On Palestine, Part 7
Abbas's Palestine

The English language Palestine Times used to be a staunchly pro-Abbas paper. Between the General Election, which saw a Hamas-led Government elected, and the Saudi-brokered agreement between Hamas and Fatah, it took a more or less neutral position and reported politics comprehensively and fairly.

When Abbas went back on that Agreement and launched his coup against the Government, he shut the paper down. David Morrison tells me he also shut down anything to do with Hamas. Abbas's coup was not as complete as he would have liked. His confederate Dahlen's military takeover in Gaza was pre-empted by the Palestinian Government using Hamas militias.

The Palestine Times is now published on-line only and is overtly pro-Hamas. Too much so, I think, to be really effective. When I went to talk to a newspaper seller I normally go to in Jerusalem about it, he wouldn't speak but made strange gestures towards a thuggish looking man behind him.

Otherwise I have had no problem speaking to Palestinians in East Jerusalem or the West Bank—except for many previously politically overt people. Some have a physical fear of the Abbas regime, but mostly their problem is money. Most of them are employed directly or indirectly (through Committees for tourism, aid, culture, etc.) by the Palestinian Authority. Their livelihoods are on the line. And for a few mercenaries in government and police positions there are bank accounts opened and well filled for them by the Americans.

The newspapers are now slavishly behind Abbas. Closing down the Times was a warning to them. It is to the credit of the Times workers that they told Abbas to get lost. But for the most part journalists behave like journalists the world over and do what they are told for fees much greater than their pedestrian product deserves.

Hamas is not very greatly affected by all this. It has always been a fish in the Palestinian political and social waters. It continues to be so. It never depended on the PA or whoever was currently backing it for its subsistence, let alone its existence.

But the Abbas/American regime is having an effect. Many people I spoke to believed the main propaganda line of the regime. That is that Hamas and Israel co-operated to undermine Yasser Arafat and destroy his army. And then Hamas started to take over things. There are bits of truth here which help make the big lie believable. But the chronology is distorted and the chronology is every bit as important as the story of particular events that happened in recent years.

For most of its existence Israel saw the Palestine Liberation Organisation as the enemy that had to be destroyed. For that reason it invaded Lebanon and carried out bombing raids and assassinations in Tunisia and elsewhere. When Hamas began as a self-help organisation for Palestinians, the Israelis supported it in the hope that it would be a malleable counter to PLO influence.

In the same way it encouraged Shia political organisation in Lebanon and for the same reason. (Before that the Lebanise Shias were largely indifferent to the political storms around them.) This is more or less known and lends credence to Abbas' propaganda. It is also useful to the politically cowardly and others who want a reason to support Abbas. And for the many who want a bit of peace and quiet.

But things did not work out as the Israelis wished in either Lebanon or Palestine. In the former the Shias became highly politicised and highly nationalist and drove the Israelis out of their country. When, last year, Israel again attempted to interfere in Lebanon, the main Shia organisation, Hezbollah—now with Druze, Christian, Communist,and other supporters—defeated the Zionists on the battlefield.

In Palestine Hamas began to replace some of the influence that the militarily defeated PLO had once wielded. More important, like Hezbollah, it politicised large sections of Palestinian society previously unpolitical. It became the main internal focus for Palestinian nationalism. It also became Israel's number one enemy.

When the PLO returned after the Oslo Agreements it was understood that one of its first objects was the destruction of Hamas. For this reason Arafat was allowed to bring with him a well-trained, if lightly-armed, military force. I don't know whether Arafat understood this part of the deal or whether he choose to ignore it. In any case he refused to implement it.

So the Israelis decided to go for Hamas themselves. They were confronted by Arafat's soldiers (referred to at the time, I remember, as gunmen in The Guardian) and were militarily defeated on the streets of Ramallah. After that they came only with tanks, helicopters and warplanes. Arafat did not like Hamas one little bit but he knew what side he was on when it came down to it.

This was not the case with many of those around him. And it was especially not the case with his Prime Minister, Abbas. Abbas was a slave to the trappings of power and was the one who conspired against Arafat. Hamas did not conspire against Arafat. Israel began a campaign of assassination against Hamas and a military campaign against the PLO.

Warplanes bombed the buildings where Arafat's soldiers were based, causing large casualties. Tanks invaded West Bank Towns and Cities targeting PLO soldiers and these also became daily target practice for Israeli snipers. That is how things actually happened.

Meanwhile Arafat got scant support from Abbas. Abbas was supported by the Americans and their allies as the most important man in Palestinian politics—the Prime Minister. Now that he is President, the Presidency is declared the most important post in Palestine. But the collaborator, now as always, was Abbas, never Hamas. And so back to the present.

Ramallah has been sanitised as far as politics go. Posters, only recently competing with each other as they expressed Palestine's political diversity, have been replaced by adverts for real estate, cars, and the fripperies of American life, decorated with pictures of celebrities from God know's where. The only demonstration a meaningless one by scouts and guides, shepherded by middle-aged "policemen" and newly besuited dignatories.

I don't know how long there have been hordes of Muslim beggar-women in Ramallah. I have never seen any before this visit and I have been there plenty of times.

This is the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. It held a noisy cavalcade around Bethlehem—escorted by the police. The PFLP is still part of the PLO and has been its most secular section after the Communist Party.

I listened in to a discussion about the desecularisation of Palestine in recent years. The common view of those speaking was that it was caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union as something for secularists to have behind them. There is truth in this. But the PLO always emphasised its secular and Christian elements when it showed its face to the world.

The really important change has been the politicisation of the majority of Palestinians by Hamas. In recent years the PLO has been wrapping itself in the flag of Islam as a means of countering the influence of Hamas.

On 7th of December police in Bethlehem gave chase to a suspicious van. Too late they discovered that it contained Israeli Special Forces on an assassination mission. The Israelis opened fire and killed one of the policemen.

The Abbas regime gave no indication that they were very bothered by this killing. Three days later an unauthorised but peaceful demonstration against the regime took place in Hebron. The Palestinian Authority police attacked the protesters, killing one and injuring twelve.

I got talking to a group of Abbas' mercenaries and they agreed to have their picture taken. Their uniforms and weapons were immaculate. But they were local men with no interest in soldiering and certainly no desire to confront anyone. Their officer tried to stop the photo being taken and then hid in their Israeli-provided armoured jeep. One of the men muttered something about Jordanians. This is the Palestine of Abbas.

Meanwhile the Israelis nightly continue to shoot up towns, harass Arabs, confiscate homes and land, and build settlements at an ever increasing rate. So what is Abbas all about? Even admirers, or at least supporters, have been unable to convince me that there is anything else but money involved, nor have they tried very hard. Money in one shape or another accounts for the behaviour of people at the top of the Palestinian Authority and the many people who depend for their livelihoods on approval from the PA. But there is a widespread confusion in the West Bank which makes people fed up with the whole thing, or makes them accept or even support Abbas.

There are several serious divisions within Palestinian society which lead to a lack of understanding between areas and social groups. "Educated" Muslims tend to look down on "uneducated" Muslims, and to exclude them from their calculations. Groups such as Fatah and the PFLP have traditionally been of the elite or have seen themselves as such. Hamas was the group that began to address this problem. But the PLO still thinks it knows best for everyone.

Then there is the tendency of Christians to see Muslims as backward. They are often appalled by the lower orders as represented by Hamas. They are the ones that speak of preferring an American peace to an Iranian peace.

Then there are the territorial and clan differences. I was astounded how an ordinary Palestinian in Nablus could tell me in accurate detail about events in America, Europe and elsewhere and not have a clue about what is going on in Ramallah or Hebron.

People who I know voted Hamas, though they were not part of that movement, and who celebrated the purge of the gangster Dahlan by Hamas in Gaza, are now prepared to accept the coup by Abbas and much of his propaganda against Hamas. The most extreme version is a statement by Abbas that Hamas want to create an Iraqi type state of chaos in the West Bank and Gaza.

People I met in Nablus expressed outrage at the recent attack by Israel on the local refugee camp—some of the same people who have in the past blamed the refugees for outbreaks of hooliganism in the city—and welcomed the arrival of 500 Abbas troops as necessary to bring order. They will admit, when pressed, that these troops concentrate on Hamas who were anything but hooligans, but then return to their comfort zone where they can support the troops.

Most Palestinians are unaware of the extent of US control of things in the Capital, Ramallah. They had to be shown. Ramallah is awash with USaid money and posters and hoardings boasting about it. These show smiling US nurses caring for the people, smiling US builders in hard hats showing the natives how to build, smiling US farmers demonstrating the art of planting crops to agog local farmers.

Every major town in the West Bank had a very special memorial to Israeli aggression. This was the ruins of the local military and police and government compound destroyed by Israeli bomber planes in the Arafat era. The first thing to happen under the new American influence was the clearing and levelling of these sites. In Ramallah there is a sign boasting that this is the work of USaid. In Nablus the sign accepts local responsibility. This is similar to something that happened in Lebanon. There was a prison there run by the Israelis, and their allies the South Lebanon Army, where Resistance prisoners were maltreated. Like the Barracks-ruins in Palestine it had become a central attraction for visitors. When Israel attacked Lebanon last year, this prison was their first bombing target.

There are three reasons why Palestinians are wilting under Abbas's pressure. First are the internal divisions which most of the movements see as operating in their favour. Second there is no overall directing movement which can prepare the people for either war or peace, like Sinn Fein in Ireland for example. Thirdly, there is a huge over-estimation of the power of the Israelis. For example, it is not understood that at the moment the Israelis and the Americans are barely on speaking terms as the US is determined to impose its settlement regardless of what anyone else thinks.

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