Palestine: Fatah, Hamas, Israel and the West

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In the last weeks of 2006 Palestinian Authority (PA) chairman Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah faction finally launched their much anticipated attempted coup against the democratically elected Palestinian cabinet headed by the Islamic organisation Hamas and prime minister Ismail Haniyeh.

This followed days of deliberately engineered interfactional violence.

Karma Nablusi, a former leading Fatah activist, has incisively attacked her former party on the authoritative Palestinian website, Electronic Intifada, for allowing themselves to become a Western puppet.

"Fatah were told they were still in power, and told by the 'international community' they had to play this role... What we are witnessing today is the horrific and inevitable outcome of a process of deliberate coercion, designed to force an occupied people to surrender their elected representatives. That this coercion is being carried out by the iron fist of military occupier Israel - which is withholding vital Palestinian taxes - and its neocon backers, the US administration, is to be expected - and to be resisted."

This is not to dismiss the Fatah rank and file. On the contrary, for all the failings of the current leadership, we should not forget that Fatah began life as an armed resistance movement in the refugee camps. They called their campaign "The Return". The Naqba, the "Catastrophe" of the expulsion, would be avenged - the refugees would return home. It may have dropped this demand for the moment but the vast majority of its supporters will never forget it.

Indeed there is a sound argument that Hamas should form a unity government with Fatah, but it cannot as long as Abbas insists on trying to impose the US/Israeli condition that Hamas recognise Israel. This is the key issue and it has been deliberately and cynically skewed when reported in the Western media.

When Hamas was elected one year ago it offered Israel a long term truce in return for comprehensive negotiations. If the West was serious about peace and democracy in the Middle East it would have forced Israel to accept this offer.

The excellent statement from Khalid Mishal, the Hamas leader, exiled in Syria, issued at the time of the Hamas election victory is essential reading, (Guardian online, 31 January 2006), and makes clear just how serious Hamas were about negotiations. It is also interesting that the Jewish Chronicle at the time reported that the "Israeli public seems more flexible than its leaders... 48 to 43 percent are in favour of talking to Hamas".

There are many precedents from resolving the other hangovers of British colonialism, not least in South Africa and Ireland. Of course, the ANC's nationalist leader, Nelson Mandela, did not recognise the apartheid regime as a condition for negotiations. And even as leaders of the Irish Republican movement prepare for the bizarre power-sharing experiment with Protestant extremist Ian Paisley in Northern Ireland, they have not had to recognise the British occupation of the six-county statelet.

And it is an open secret that Israel has been negotiating about terms of a wider peace with Qatar and Saudi Arabia, even though neither of the these Arab states recognise Israel.

Hamas are entirely justified in refusing to recognise Israel. Fatah and former Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat's decision to recognise Israel in return for the 1993 Oslo peace talks created havoc in the Palestinian movement.

Thomas Friedman, of the New York Times, described Arafat's letter to Israeli premier Yitshak Rabin recognising Israel as "not simply a statement of recognition. It is a letter of surrender, a typewritten white flag in which the PLO chairman renounced every political position on Israel he has held since the PLO's foundation in 1964."

In the period between Oslo and the start of the second intifada in 2000 the number of Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank had actually doubled to over 400,000. The West Bank and Gaza Strip were supposed to form the basis of a Palestinian state.

But the most catastrophic result of Oslo was the way it allowed US president Bill Clinton to undermine the principle of the Palestinian refugees right of return. Clinton reversed longstanding US support for UN Resolution 194 which affirms the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. The Clinton administration's argument at the UN in 1993 was that, following Oslo, past resolutions were "obsolete and anachronistic". It claimed the Israelis and Palestinians would settle the question through direct negotiations, despite Israel's insistence that the refugees would never be allowed to return home.

This is the acid test for any serious peace process. The potentially explosive row about "recognition" conceals the West's refusal to stand up to Israel over it.