The Freedom Flotilla, and Israel’s tragic reaction to it, highlight how the official Palestinian leadership has grown increasingly marginal in its own national struggle. In just a few days, 600-odd international activists garnered more attention — and arguably did more to undermine the siege of Gaza — than Fatah and Hamas have done in the past three years. The movements have largely become bystanders to their own cause, prisoners not only of the occupation but also their own political divisions. When PLO chief Mahmoud Abbas recently sought support for entering into proximity talks with Israel from the Arab League before approaching the organization he heads, many Palestinians criticized his move as a grave relinquishment of independent Palestinian decision-making. But a sense of fatalism today seems to pervade the ranks. When asked how the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Fatah should react to the flotilla crisis, a senior movement leader replied, "It was the Turks’ idea; let’s see what they do." In the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians have become agents of their own subordination to Israel as well as of their own internal disarray. This need not be, but changing the equation will require different regional and international incentives.
The geographic division of the Palestinian territories is firm. Municipalities around the West Bank hung black flags — rivaled in number only by Turkish flags — but many criticized their government’s reaction as little more than empty political theater. Gaza observed a general strike — heavy-handedly imposed on recalcitrants — but ministries in the West Bank remained open, as did schools. A few scattered demonstrations were attended by protesters numbering in the tens; the largest, in Ramallah’s main square, turned out no more than 200. The PA deployed a heavy security contingent to keep a tight lid on approved gatherings and prevent others; government forces stopped youths from reaching checkpoints to clash with Israeli troops. A dejected participant in one of the Ramallah rallies lamented, "It’s like something bad happened in Somalia, not something that affects you, your own country and people." Territorial estrangement in Palestine is hardly new. Even during the heyday of Oslo, when movement across Israel was still possible, West Bankers were never pleased when Gazans showed up looking for work. But if social prejudices are longstanding, the sense of political separation is new.
The assault on the flotilla invigorated calls to end the blockade and in doing so, has put wind in Hamas’s sails. Egypt already has been forced to bend, opening the Rafah crossing for what appears today to be an open-ended period instead of the usual three days every six weeks. Emboldened, Hamas is refusing to accept any supplies from the flotilla’s ships until Israel frees all activists and pledges to a reliable third party that all the cargo will be allowed to enter the strip; according to Hamas, only 10 percent will enter if Israel allows only goods permitted under the siege.
Of potentially greater import is the change in diplomatic volume and tone. Calls from the world’s governments to end the siege in the past often came in the same breath with demands that Hamas change its political positions and allow the PA back into Gaza. But in the past days, few have made demands of Hamas. Gaza is again the victim, and while the protesters claim to act on behalf of Gaza and not Hamas as a movement, it is hardly surprising that the Islamists take heart. Who does Fatah and the PLO have pulling for them? The beneficiaries of global solidarity in an earlier historical moment, today they are bereft of active supporters. It is the PA, rather, that is the recipient of international largesse; Fatah’s utility today mainly stems from its role as a prop for Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s government. Hamas leaders in both Gaza and Damascus have sounded upbeat, but Hamas — like the PA — has a tendency to overreach when circumstances favor it. If the past three years are any guide, the wheel of fortune will revolve again and Hamas at some point will find itself disadvantaged once more. Indeed, there is little new — even among countries that support the siege — about the recognition that it is bankrupt, both politically and morally. What would be new is a rapid and forceful push to reverse it.
Meanwhile Fatah is facing one of its most trying moments ever. Last year, before the movement’s first General Conference — its highest decision-making forum — in 20 years, the Fatah rank and file at least could believe in the promise of reform. Its partisans had few illusions about how hard it would be, but they hoped that the reward would be commensurate with the enormity of the task. But nearly a year after electing a new leadership, the movement has little to boast about and its activists are disappointed with the yield. Skepticism abounds that it will score a decisive victory in next month’s municipal elections despite Hamas’s decision to sit them out. Nor is Fatah’s presence felt in the streets. Its senior leaders have gone absent from the popular resistance activities that they heavily promoted, reportedly under pressure from Israel.
With neither Fatah nor Hamas able to mobilize popular passions, the most dynamic group today may well be the "1948 Arabs" — that is, Palestinian citizens of Israel — and their leadership, which is increasingly speaking with a loud and clear message. During Operation Cast Lead, the rallies in the Palestinian-Israeli town of Sakhnin were the largest in historical Palestine. After the flotilla was seized, the strike in East Jerusalem and Israel — undertaken not on orders of Fatah or the PLO, but rather Israel’s Higher Arab Monitoring Committee — was comprehensive. In particular Ra’id Salah — the head of the northern Islamic movement in Israel and one of four Palestinian-Israeli leaders who participated in the convoy — has emerged as a leader of national stature. While in some quarters he is seen as an Islamist in the mold of Hamas, his cachet extends beyond the factional. He is especially well regarded in Jerusalem for the economic support he mobilized during the second intifada and his championing of al-Aqsa Mosque — regardless of how tendentious Israeli Jews may consider his allegations about their government’s designs on Muslim holy sites.
As for reconciliation, the flotilla generated lots of talk that has largely confirmed what we already knew. Independents renewed their push for unity, but the effort fell apart before it began. Nablus businessman Munib al-Masri obtained Abbas’s blessing to lead a Fatah/PLO delegation to Gaza. But as a political outlier, Masri’s leverage was fatally weakened. If the split has made one thing clear, it is that the only positions that matter are Abbas’s and Hamas’s. The Islamic movement quickly put paid to his mission: A spokesman denounced the proposed visit as a "maneuver," and senior leaders expressed fatigue with successive delegations that simply repeat the mantra, "Sign the Egyptian document."
The issue, as Hamas and Fatah leaders both acknowledge, is not a matter of finessing linguistic differences in a document that has become something of a holy writ in Ramallah and Cairo, but rather reconciling competing visions of the national movement. Recent events notwithstanding, there seems to be little appetite for doing so. Abbas is betting, if not on bilateral negotiations with Israel, then at least on international appeals, state-building, and an eventual U.S. plan to demonstrate the effectiveness of his agenda and the futility of Hamas’s. Abbas’s commitment to this path — and his lack of alternatives — is illustrated by his moving forward with his agenda despite the fact it involves negotiations with a state that he just days ago accused of committing a "massacre" on the high seas. Fatah leaders justify this decision by pointing to the indirect nature of the talks; as one said, "There is nothing to withdraw from. We are negotiating with the U.S., not Israel." But in the street, nobody is fooled, least of all Hamas, which has correctly assessed the public’s disdain for Abbas’s course and is content to wait for him to fail. If it can demonstrate the fruits of its resistance agenda by opening Gaza without sacrificing its principles, so much the better. Both movements are betting on the same horse, but on opposite results — which is perhaps the only thing more futile than the siege itself.
In order to change their wager, the international community should alter the house rules. Neither Fatah nor Hamas seeks stasis for its own sake; both are playing a waiting game because they have been given an incentive to do so. By pushing a diplomatic process that promotes one movement and targets the other, the United States has created a zero-sum game and stripped both sides of a reason to reconcile. Only a comprehensive strategy that addresses the full array of regional interests has any hope of breaking the logjam. As it currently stands, any win for the PA is Hamas’s loss; any gain for Hamas comes at Fatah’s expense. A national movement cannot succeed under such conditions, nor can anything that credibly claims to be a peace process — and those who seek a durable settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be pulling for both.
Robert Blecher is a senior Middle East analyst at the International Crisis Group, whose latest report on the issue, "Tipping Point? Palestinians and the Search for a New Strategy," came out in April.