The Polarization of the Palestinian Political Field


The Polarization of the Palestinian Political Field      

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By Jamil Hilal

Arguing that the polarization of the Palestinian political field did not start with Hamas’s takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007, the author analyzes the factors that have eroded the cohesiveness and vitality of the Palestinian polity, namely, the paralysis of Palestinian political institutions, territorial and social fragmentation, and egregious outside interference. In this context, and in the absence of an internal Palestinian debate about the objectives of holding elections under occupation, the author shows that the timing and circumstances of the 2006 legislative elections were bound to precipitate the current state of disarray. Finally, he considers the way forward, highlighting the potential of public pressure in promoting national reconciliation.

NO ONE WOULD QUESTION today the utter disarray of the Palestinian political field [i], where two separate entities governed by bitterly rival factions are ensconced in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, one under Israeli occupation, the other under a suffocating Israeli siege. Each of the two governments, one primarily secular (controlled by Fatah), the other “Islamist” (controlled by Hamas), has its own security forces and, to the extent possible, bans the activities of members of the rival faction within “its” territory (if it does not arrest or imprison them). Both political “entities” are heavily dependent on external funding (from different donors) and are allied to different regional powers overtly or covertly opposed to one another. As time passes, the two entities grow further and further apart, threatening a repetition in some form of the Pakistan-Bangladesh experience.

This state of polarization did not begin in June 2007 when Hamas installed itself as the dominant political, military, and administrative power in the Gaza Strip while Fatah took steps to tighten its control over the West Bank. Rather, these events deepened trends long in the making, enfeebling still further a political field that had been battered since the early 1990s by many changes and events, regional and international.

The present essay [ii] seeks to highlight the factors underlying the precariousness and vulnerability of the Palestinian polity and its consequent polarization, the paralysis of its national institutions, and egregious foreign interference. Similar situations have been noted in other regional states subject to invasion and war (Lebanon, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, and the Sudan, among others), but the disarray is perhaps more visible in Palestine for reasons relating to its history, its specific regional and international context, and its ongoing subjection to settler-colonialism and territorial fragmentation.


The Palestinian political field differs from most others in that it includes Palestinian communities with differing socioeconomic, state, and civil society structures, not only in historic Palestine (the 1967 occupied territories and Israel) but also in the diaspora (al-shatat) created by the 1948 Nakba. It was also formed outside the national territory, not by a state but by a national liberation movement that arose in the Palestinian shatat. From the outset, then, lacking a sovereign state, the Palestinian political field has been subject to powerful outside influences and pressures. Its leading institution, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), was founded at the initiative of the Arab states in 1964 and was initially under their control. It was only after the 1967 war, when the PLO was democratically taken over by Palestinian resistance organizations led by Fatah, that it became a popular mass movement and, several years later, the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.” For the next twenty-some years, the PLO and its constituent organizations conducted their political, military, and other activities from bases in countries bordering Israel and later from Tunisia. While this situation made it vulnerable to the machinations of various regional powers seeking to determine the political and economic shape of the Middle East, the fact that the pressures were conflicting helped the PLO maintain to a tangible degree its hegemony over a relatively autonomous Palestinian political field throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

PLO hegemony over the Palestinian political field began to be challenged in the late 1980s with the emergence in the occupied territories of political Islam, whose main embodiment, Hamas, had been established at the start of the first intifada in 1987, and the smaller Islamic Jihad several years earlier. Both these organizations were indigenous, having grown out of local branches of the Muslim Brotherhood, and their prominence in the first intifada showed them to be a force to be reckoned with. However, it was not until the 1993 signing of the Oslo accords, which laid out the stages that were supposed to lead to full peace with Israel by the end of the decade, that the magnitude of the challenge posed by political Islam became fully apparent.

Under the Oslo accords, the PLO leadership returned from its long exile to the Palestinian territories, thus moving the center of gravity of Palestinian politics to the “inside” for the first time since 1948. There it established the Palestinian Authority (PA), a self-governing body whose powers were sharply limited by the Israeli occupier but which was understood as the first step on the road to statehood. The accords were fiercely opposed by political Islam, as well as by a number of secular PLO factions, most importantly the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP). With a growing following, and already endowed with a high degree of discipline and organization, political Islam and especially Hamas found in opposition to Oslo a powerful cause around which to mobilize.

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JAMIL HILAL, an independent Palestinian sociologist and author of numerous books and articles on Palestinian society and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is the editor of Where Now for Palestine? The Demise of the Two-State Solution (Z Books, 2007). His latest book, Across the Wall: Towards a Shared View of Israeli-Palestinian History, coedited with Ilan Pappé, will be published by I.B. Tauris in October 2010.


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