The Current State of Palestinian Politics: Why Can’t They Make Progress
The Palestinians have been politically dominated by two organizations. Fatah is a secular liberation movement that has had the most influence on Palestinian politics. The other group is Hamas and they are an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas became more popular in the 1990s and had a very successful winning election season in 2006. Hamas is violent and has a tense and difficult relationship with Fatah. There have been other political movements but none have been successful. Hamas is governed very poorly in the Gaza Strip and has little confidence from the public. But the public does appreciate Hamas’s aggressive and challenging stance toward Israel.
A poll reported in an article on Palestinian political rejuvenation (available here), which asked participants what party they would choose in a parliamentary vote, indicated that 32.1% of the Palestinians preferred Hamas, 36.9% preferred Fatah and a full 24.1% said none of the above. These data illustrate how “stuck” the Palestinians are. Minor parties have no traction at all and a significant portion of the population is unsatisfied with either of the two major parties.
Progress toward political legitimacy and independence is hindered by the authoritarian nature of both parties. Both parties have the mechanisms of failing political machinery built into their structure. Unfortunately, these mechanisms include control over government institutions, patronage, and the suppression of dissent. Human rights organizations report that both the PA and Hamas have fashioned the politics of failure by creating standard structures of corruption which include unlawful arrest, poor court systems, suppression of expression, and patronage.
One serious problem is that the PA and Hamas define themselves as liberation movements rather than political development movements. Even after all these years, the PA still uses the language of struggle and presents a narrative rooted in oppression and vulnerability. Clearly, oppression and vulnerability are characteristic of the Palestinian political situation but focusing on these things and ignoring all attempts at genuine political reform is the reason for stagnation when it comes to possibilities for new Palestinian politics. Both Hamas and the PA define the occupation as definitionally tied to the Palestinian identity and anything that does not address the occupation directly is misguided or irrelevant. Those Palestinians attempting genuine change (e.g. Salam Fayyad) are quickly marginalized and labeled as stooges of the United States or Israel.
Moreover, the PA cares more about international attention – and the accompanying international condemnation of Israel – than it does about internal reforms. Such international attention would wane if the PA were focused on building institutions and structural change. In fact, progress in those areas is almost discouraged because it would give the impression that the occupation is less important.
Opinion polls in Palestine show support in the public for change but as of now the support has not been converted into political authenticity. Although the international community is sympathetic toward the Palestinians, they too want change. It does not seem like internal political reforms will be a successful platform for a new Palestinian politics. A solution to the problem will require not only outside help but progress on the key contentious issues between Palestinians and Israelis. Palestinian leaders are probably correct – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must come first.