The Effect of Public Opinion in Palestine
by Beverley Milton-Edwards and Stephen Farrell
(2010 Polity Press)
Book Review – Part II
Milton-Edwards’ and Farrell’s 2010 book Hamas makes it strikingly clear that money and public opinion polls have influenced Palestine Liberation Army (PLO) and Hamas policies far more than lofty political goals. The primary reason the PLO abandoned their pledge, in 1993, to liberate Palestine through armed struggle was that they were nearly bankrupt with the loss of their Gulf donors. Their decision to negotiate a peace with Israel made them enormously unpopular with one million Gazan refugees. Still intent on returning to the lands they had lost in Israel, they had no interest whatsoever in creating a Palestinian state.
The response from Hamas was to issue a fatwa (death sentence issued by Islamic religious leaders) against the Fatah-led PLO. Determined to derail the negotiations, they also launched a massive campaign of violence, incorporating or the first time a new tactic known as “martyrdom” (i.e. suicide) bombings. Each martyrdom bombing resulted in a payment of approximately $25,000 to the suicide bomber’s family, financed mainly by Saddam Hussein and Saudi Arabia.
The Creation of the Palestinian Authority
The 1993 negotiated settlement, known as the Oslo Accords, granted the West Bank and Gaza limited autonomy under Israeli military control. It also created the Palestinian Authority (PA), a shrewd move the US and Israel employed to split and crush the Palestinian resistance. By making the Palestinian leadership the civil authority, they shifted much popular anger away from Israel and towards the PLO.
Arafat and the PLO leadership returned from exile to run the Palestinian Authority (PA). Owing to a continuing embargo by Gulf donors, Arafat had to lay off hundreds of public sector workers and slash social services to prevent a total meltdown of the Palestinian economy. Israel, meanwhile, made Arafat responsible for controlling Hamas militants. His solution was to put thousands of them in prison and torture them. There were numerous reports of prisoners being beaten, forced to shave their beards and sodomized with coke bottles. Moreover PA security services routinely blackmailed families, with offers to release prisoners in return for bribes of $10,000 or more. All this occurred as Israel was continuing to destroy Palestinian homes and olive trees to build more Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.
The Second Intifada
In 2000, Palestinian anger at their extreme poverty and repression boiled over in armed insurrection, the second Intifada. In 2002, the Saudis put forward a peace proposal which would have normalized Israel’s relations with the Arab world in return for their withdrawal from the occupied territories. As before Hamas, which still demanded the right of return (to their homelands in Israel) for all exiled Palestinians, tried to derail peace negotiations with a wave of sniper attacks and car and suicide bombings. These were directed against the PLO security services, Jewish settlers in Palestine and civilians inside Israel. Instead of retaliating against Hamas, Israel punished Arafat by sending tanks into the West Bank to bombard his headquarters, commencing a military siege that kept him prisoner until he died in 2004.
Hamas Enters Electoral Politics
Hamas boycotted the January 2005 presidential elections, giving the Fatah candidate Mahmoud Abbas an easy victory. In May 2005, the Hamas leadership made a controversial decision to pursue direct political power by standing candidates in Gaza and West Bank local body elections. They did so in parallel with militant attacks on Israel. Following Ariel Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal of Israeli settlers and soldiers from Gaza in August 2005, this included Qassam rocket attacks on Israeli border towns.
Hamas never expected to win the parliamentary elections in January 2006, a success Milton-Edwards and Farrell attribute to widespread disgust, both in the West Bank and Gaza, with Fatah/PLO corruption and inefficiency. Refusing to recognize the Hamas victory, Mahmood Abbas installed his own non-elected parliament in the West Bank. He also refused to relinquish Fatah-controlled security posts to the new Hamas government. Israel, meanwhile, froze funds needed to pay PA officials in Gaza. When Europe and the US also froze Palestinian developmental assistance, Hamas had no choice but to turn to Iran for training, weapons and financial aid.
The Failed CIA Coup
After a brief experiment with a “unity” government, in which Fatah and Hamas ruled jointly, the CIA and Abbas launched an 18 month military coup, determined to dislodge Hamas from power in Gaza. In June 2006, Hamas came out the victor, employing 16,000 fighters to force 70,000 CIA-backed members of Abbas’ Preventive Security Organization to flee Gaza.
Hamas Drops in the Opinion Polls
By June 2008, their popularity waning owning to brutal sanctions and shortages of food, medicine and other necessities, Hamas was in the exact same situation as Fatah in 1993. In desperation they agreed to a temporary ceasefire (ending suicide bombings and Qassam rocket attacks), on condition Israel end their embargo. Hamas honored the ceasefire for six months, despite Israel’s failure to end their economic blockade. In December 2008, Hamas broke the ceasefire by firing rockets into Israel. The book ends with a description of Operation Castlead, which Israel launched against Gaza in retaliation. Castlead destroyed or damaged nearly every Palestinian security installation, killed 1,300 Palestinians (including 900 civilians) and destroyed hundreds of homes and business institutions.
The good news was that Hamas experienced an instantaneous uptick in the polls.
Beverly Milton-Edwards is Professor in the School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy at Queen’s University Belfast. Steven Farrell, who has dual British-Irish citizenship, is Middle East Correspondent for The New York Times.