By Clifford D. May, former New York Times foreign correspondent and
president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute
focusing on terrorism.
January 8, 2009.
Palestinian civilians continue to be murdered in cold blood – several dozen just
last weekend. Many of the victims were gunned down inside hospitals and
If you’ve been following the latest Middle East conflict, this will not surprise
you. What might: The fact that the assailants were Palestinians – Hamas
members targeting those affiliated with the rival Fatah organization.
Only scattered and buried mentions of these attacks have appeared in such
newspapers as the New York Times and the Washington Post. There’s been
little or nothing on television.
But Khaled Abu Toameh – the brave and distinguished correspondent for the
Jerusalem Post (and, incidentally, an Arab) – has reported that 35 Fatah
activists have been summarily executed, while more than twice that number
have been shot in the legs or had their hands broken.
This is the other war, the war ignored by most media, academics, diplomats
and human rights groups, the war between Hamas – a militant Islamist terrorist
group strongly backed by Iran – and Fatah, an organization that is difficult to
describe accurately in few words.
Founded by Yasir Arafat, Fatah is not so much moderate as sporadically
pragmatic. It disavows terrorism but hasn’t kicked the habit completely. It has a
reputation for corruption but its defenders claim it’s cleaning up its act. Fatah –
Arabic for ‘conquest’, an ideal not much celebrated in Western circles these
days – is secular, though it has a decidedly Islamist faction, the al-Aqsa Martyrs
Three years ago, Hamas won a surprise victory over Fatah in legislative
elections. But for Hamas leaders, this initiation into the democratic experience
was not life-changing. So, in June 2007, they launched a military coup against
Fatah and the Palestinian Authority in Gaza.
Within four days, “Hamas gunmen clad in black ski masks controlled the dusty
streets,” writes Jonathan Schanzer in his new book, Hamas vs. Fatah: The
Struggle for Palestine. “It would not be long before the fall of the fortress-like security compound, al-Suraya. Indeed, Hamas fighters
had burrowed a tunnel beneath the building, detonated deadly explosives, and
breached it.” Hamas fighters also threw several of their Fatah opponents off the
roofs of high-rise buildings. In European and Arab capitals, demonstrations did
not break out.
As Schanzer explains, the violence “was a clear and outward manifestation of a
civil war” that began in 1987. As recent events reveal, it isn’t over yet. Hamas
doubtless understands that Israel’s military mission in Gaza could end with the
restoration of Fatah’s position in Gaza. In fact, it is difficult to imagine how
Fatah could do this absent Israeli intervention. Fatah is not strong enough to
challenge Hamas through force of arms. Nor can Fatah regain power at the
ballot box: Hamas would win or, were that in question, Hamas would not
permit a fair vote.
Of course, the outcome of the current battle between Hamas and Israel remains
uncertain. Hamas continues to launch missiles at Israeli villages – even as its
spokesmen and supporters decry a growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza. In other
words, Hamas believes that by simultaneously displaying defiance and
exploiting Palestinian suffering it can score a victory in the media and in
international forums – which is at least as valuable as winning on the ground.
But should Hamas leaders be wrong, should their best, brightest, and most
brutal be killed, and should their organization emerge from this conflict crippled,
Fatah will be a major beneficiary.
What are the alternatives? Few Israelis have the stomach for a re-occupation of
Gaza at this point. The Egyptians, who controlled the territory from 1949 to
1967, have shown no interest in taking responsibility again, not even on an
Does this imply that Fatah members are secretly hoping – maybe even helping –
Israel to prevail over Hamas? Possibly, though even if that’s true it doesn’t
mean Fatah will henceforth show good will and a spirit of compromise toward
In the Middle East, the enemy of my enemy can be useful – but that doesn’t
make him my friend.