By Karma Nabulsi, fellow in politics and international relations at St Edmund Hall, Oxford University (THE GUARDIAN, 18/06/07):
There is nothing uglier and more brutal to the human spirit, nothing more lethal to that universal hope for freedom, than to see a people struggling for liberty for such a long time begin to kill each other. How and why did we get here? Above all: how do we get out of here? These are the questions everyone watching events unfold in Gaza and the West Bank are asking themselves. But before answering them, it is essential to understand just what we are witnessing.
This is not at its heart a civil war, nor is it an example of the upsurge of regional Islamism. It is not reducible to an atavistic clan or fratricidal blood-letting, nor to a power struggle between warring factions. This violence cannot be characterised as a battle between secular moderates who seek a negotiated settlement and religious terrorist groups. And this is not, above all, a miserable situation that has simply slipped unnoticed into disaster.
The many complex steps that led us here today were largely the outcome of the deliberate policies of a belligerent occupying power backed by the US. As the UN envoy for the Middle East peace process, Alvaro de Soto, remarked in his confidential report leaked last week in this paper: "The US clearly pushed for a confrontation between Fatah and Hamas, so much so that, a week before Mecca, the US envoy declared twice in an envoys meeting in Washington how much 'I like this violence', referring to the near-civil war that was erupting in Gaza in which civilians were being regularly killed and injured."
How did we get here? The institutions created in occupied Palestine in the 1990s were shaped to bring us to this very point of collapse. The Palestinian Authority, created through negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation in 1993, was not meant to last more than five years - just until the institutions of an independent state were built. Instead, its capacities were frozen and it was co-opted into performing the role of a security agency for the Israelis, who were still occupying Palestine by military force, and serving as a disbursement agency for the US and EU's funding of that occupation. The PA had not attained a single one of the freedoms it was meant to provide, including the most important one, the political liberty of a self-determining sovereign body.
Why did we get here? Once the exact nature of its purpose emerged, the Palestinians began to resist this form of external control. Israel then invaded the West Bank cities again and put President Yasser Arafat's compound under a two-year siege, which ended with his death. Under those conditions of siege the international "reform" process created a new institution of a prime minister's office and attempted to unify the security apparatus under it, rather than that of the president, whom they could no longer control. Mahmoud Abbas was the first prime minister, and the Israeli- and US-backed Fatah strongman, Mohammed Dahlan, was appointed head of security. After the death of Arafat, Abbas was nominated to the leadership of the PLO, and directly elected as the president of the PA.
Arafat had followed the strategy of all successful liberation movements: a combination of resistance and negotiation until the conclusion of a comprehensive peace treaty. Abbas's strategy was of an entirely different order: no resistance in any form and a complete reliance on the good faith of the Israelis. After a year of achieving nothing - indeed Ariel Sharon refused to negotiate with him and Israeli colonisation was intensified - the Palestinian people's support for this humiliating policy of submission wore thin. Hamas, polling about 20% in previous years, suddenly won 43% of the vote in 2006.
This popular reaction was a response to the failure of Abbas's strategy as much as the failure of Fatah to present any plausible national programme whatsoever. The Palestinians thus sought representation that would at least reflect their condition of occupation and dispossession. Although the elections were recognised as free and fair, the US and Britain immediately took the lead in applying sanctions against the Hamas government, denying aid - which was only needed in the first place because the occupation had destroyed the economy - and refusing to deal with it until it accepted what had become, under these new circumstances, impossible "conditions".
The US administration continued to treat Fatah as if it had won the election rather than lost it - funding, arming, and directly encouraging agents within it to reverse the outcome of that democratic election by force. The Palestinian president brought pressure to bear on Hamas to change its position on recognition of Israel. Palestinians refused to participate in this externally driven coup - indeed, the vast majority of Fatah cadres rejected outright an enterprise so clearly directed at destroying the Palestinian body politic. Both the prisoners' document and the Mecca agreement signed in Saudi Arabia creating a national unity government took place because Palestinian society insisted on a national framework. Yet a small group has brought us to this point. The outcome is what we have before us today, similar to what the Americans were seeking to create in Iraq: the total exclusion of democratic practices and principles, the attempt to impose an oligarchy on a fragmented political society, a weakened and terrorised people, a foreign rule through warlords and strongmen.
How do we get out of here? For the west, the path is both obvious and simple. It needs to allow the Palestinians their own representation. It can look to the terms of the Mecca agreement to see the shape that would take, and to the 2006 prisoners' document for the political platform the Palestinians hold. It needs to urgently convene a real international peace conference, which no one has attempted since 1991, as recommended in the Baker commission's report on the Iraq war, de Soto's end of mission report, and as championed by President Jimmy Carter. And it needs only to look to the Beirut Arab peace initiative to find everything it has been seeking, if indeed it is seeking peace.
For the Palestinians, the path is also clear: we have come to the end of the challenging experiment of self-rule under military occupation. We now need to dissolve the PA, mobilise to convene direct elections to our only national parliament, the Palestine National Council, in order to enfranchise the entire political spectrum of Palestinians, and thereby recapture the PLO, transforming it into the popular and democratic institution it once had a chance of becoming. This is already a popular demand of all Palestinians. Palestinians in exile must take their turn again in lifting the siege inside Palestine, as the inside did for the outside after the almost total destruction of the PLO in 1982 in Lebanon and the siege of the refugee camps there in 1986: we are one people. The Palestinians have a long history of struggle in which each generation has had to break out of the coercive prison imposed by British colonial, Arab, Israeli, and now American rule, and we will do it again.