Analysis & Opinions - The Providence Journal

Is it Really a New Start for Palestinians?

| May 26, 2011

The unity deal between Fatah and Hamas may well be "historic," but not in the way most news outlets have suggested. Not only is this one of hundreds of unity deals signed by Palestinian factions over the past 50 years, but it is not even the first unity deal signed between Hamas and Fatah, the most recent such agreement coming in 2007.

This is not to say that the current agreement is insignificant, only that an understanding of the historical challenges faced by multipolar social movements can help guide predictions of whether this deal will truly mark the beginning of a new era, or will become another futile footnote in the enduring struggle of the Palestinian people. In order to achieve their shared goal of a Palestinian state, the various factions will need to make some tough internal decisions involving power and unity.

The internal unity of social movements has often served as the deciding factor between movements that have succeeded and failed to secure independence. In the cases of Algeria, Vietnam, and even the Zionists in the Palestinian Mandate, competing factions were able to come together to present a united front to their adversary at key moments. The Palestinians understand the importance of unity as well any. As Saeb Erekat told his Negotiations Support Unit in 2009: "Palestinians are speaking with 2,000 voices just when we need to be speaking with one." In the decades before protesters took to the streets in Ramallah and Gaza City last month, every single one of the hundreds of Palestinian factions publicly stated that the movement must unify to succeed.

The problem is that each organization wants unity on its own terms, as it aims not only to realize the collective goal of a Palestinian state, but also to achieve its organizational goals of survival and strength within the movement. It was the contradictions inherent in these dual objectives that prevented unity deals between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Fatah in 1965, Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in 1968, and Fatah and Hamas in 1990 from coming to fruition. Both sides wanted unity, but they disagreed over how power should be distributed between them.

As one former member of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) told me, "Organizations care not only about the size of the pie, but also what size slice they are going to get." Nonetheless, these strategic and organizational goals need not always be at odds, and the paradox they present can be resolved in two scenarios.

In the first, one group simply becomes vastly stronger than its peers. In such a unipolar movement, the size of the pie starts to approximate the dominant group's slice, providing it with incentives to pursue ends that benefit the larger movement simply to help itself. Furthermore, the movement is more likely to speak with a single, credible voice, as incentives to outbid others in rhetoric or violence decrease in a non-competitive internal environment.

In the second scenario, political, economic and social institutions are built that bind factions together over time. These institutions can provide organizations with direct benefits and make it both undesirable and challenging to extricate themselves should the power balance shift against them. The Algerians, Vietnamese and Zionists differed in their relative reliance on a dominant group or strong, centralized institutions, but they each ultimately succeeded by creating a unipolar movement that demonstrated a unity of purpose and action.

Unfortunately for the Palestinians, neither of these conditions currently obtain. Fatah and Hamas are roughly evenly matched, preventing either from simply dominating the other and driving the movement in a coherent fashion. Furthermore, the two groups do not serve extensively in common Palestinian governing institutions, which have been historically marked by weakness.

If this situation continues, the best-case scenario for the current unity deal would be a situation similar to 1974, when Fatah, the PFLP and other groups united briefly behind a new PLO policy to pursue a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. This move helped garner international recognition for the Palestinians from both the Arab League and the United Nations, but little else due to the swift (re)fracturing of the movement.

The worst-case scenario for the current agreement may be 2007, when the unity deal between Fatah and Hamas fell apart in a deluge of violence, recriminations, and foreign meddling after Hamas unexpectedly won the 2006 elections, leading to perhaps the starkest period of disunity since the Oslo Accords.

Without the emergence of a dominant organization or strong, centralized institutions that include all significant groups, the faces of leaders and funders may change, as they have for more than 50 years, but, unfortunately for the Palestinians, the ending will likely remain the same. The prospect of international recognition of a Palestinian state at the United Nations this fall, the lack of progress in talks with the Israelis, and the recent Arab uprisings may help spur these changes, but they are not a substitute for them.

The elections called for by the current deal, the institutions Salam Fayyad is furiously constructing, and the rumors of Hamas accepting a comprehensive peace based around the 1967 borders rightly raises expectations. Fatah and Hamas are gambling that they can get a bigger pie to divide together, but as of yet there is little to stop either party from deciding at any time that it can get a bigger slice apart.

Peter Krause is a research fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School and a member of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Krause, Peter.“Is it Really a New Start for Palestinians?.” The Providence Journal, May 26, 2011.

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