In November 2004, a New York Times article on Palestinian elections (11/14/04) stated, “The post-Arafat era will be the latest test of a quintessentially American article of faith: that elections provide legitimacy even to the frailest institutions.” The “faith” that elites in the press and in government have in such elections is tested when the results cut against U.S. wishes, as happened when Hamas prevailed over Fatah in Palestinian elections in 2006. As a result, the White House pursued a policy of punishing Palestinians for their disobedience by attempting to prevent Hamas from participating in the Palestinian government. That only heightened the tension between Hamas and Fatah, and June 2007 has seen what many are calling a civil war of sorts.
Counterspin talked to Ali Abunimah, co-founder of the website Electronic Intifada and author of the book One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse, about the missing political context in the stories.
CounterSpin: One of the predominant media scenes we’ve been seeing is a question: whether the United States has any good options left. A cover of Newsweek addressed the question, “Why Gaza Matters” (6/25/07). The answer they provide isn’t that the people living in Gaza matter; the real issue here is U.S. power and authority. The magazine claims that the United States committed itself so firmly to Palestinian elections and that the “Bush team clearly seems to have overreached.” Your article on Electronic Intifada (6/14/07) doesn’t seem to be making the same argument, that commitment to the democracy is the problem here.
Ali Abunimah: It’s the exact opposite, isn’t it? The United States has come out, and much of the press and editorial comment has come out, backing the decision to give full support to Mahmoud Abbas, who says he sacked the democratically elected government and replaced it with an unelected cabinet that is now, in the eyes of Palestinians, so openly aligned with Israel against them that it has zero credibility on the Palestinians street. This is now what the United States is trying to sell to the world as support for the Palestinians, and support for a process that moves towards a Palestinian state. It’s seen as diametrically opposite to that by Palestinians across the board.
CS: And you wrote that the U.S support came in the form of arming a militia, a Fatah militia.
AA: The U.S. is portraying what Hamas did as a coup against legitimacy, and it’s the exact opposite. Since the January 2006 election, the U.S. has been arming and funding Palestinian militias whose job is to undermine and overthrow the democratically elected Hamas government. It’s an identical strategy to the Contras in Nicaragua, and I call them Palestinian contras. These people were armed and funded by the U.S. with Israeli cooperation, and since 2006 they have prevented Hamas from really ever taking the authority and the administration that it won in the 2006 election.
CS: The media are calling this a change of course for the White House, something that I find very unusual. The New York Times said, “In siding so firmly with Mr. Abbas, the Bush administration steered into new territory and it’s dealings with the Palestinians as it essentially threw its support behind the dismantling of a democratically elected Government” (6/19/07). On PBS’s NewsHour (6/18/07), they said that U.S. support for Abbas “marks a reversal from 18 months ago, when the U.S., European Union, and Israel blocked funds to the Palestinian Authority after Hamas won legislative elections.” It actually seems like the opposite, that the policy is completely and utterly consistent.
AA: Of course it’s consistent. The point here is not that they are opposed to elections or they support elections. Let me put it this way: They oppose any resistance to Israel and any group that legitimately represents Palestinians who want to resist the Israeli occupation and control. What the U.S. wants is a puppet regime that is happy with the occupation, and that’s what they have in Abbas.
It’s notable in the speech he gave in Arabic just after he got this full U.S. support. He used language against Hamas that he has never used against Israel. And one of the things that shocked Palestinians is how strident his language is against Hamas, and he seems to make no noise about the Israeli occupation.
Back in 2006 and 2005, the U.S. was actually funding Fatah secretly, giving them millions of dollars to try and help them buy the election by doing projects and that sort of thing, and it didn’t work. So that’s the consistency–backing a client regime against resistance, no matter what. Had Fatah won the election, the U.S. would support elections.
CS: There is this tendency also in a lot of the media coverage to make it a religious conflict. Hamas is referred to as Islamist or some variation of that. Fatah is called secular. To a U.S. audience or the average American reader, it wouldn’t be hard to figure out which of those you would prefer.
AA: Of course; that’s part of the trick. And, you know, the issues that Hamas raises are not religious issues. Their rhetoric and their sort of fight for Palestinian public opinion takes place on firmly nationalist and anti-colonial territory. They are not arguing for an Islamic state, they haven’t declared one in Gaza, as some of these scare stories said, and it’s not their agenda. In the articles that were actually published, amazingly, in the New York Times (6/20/07) and Washington Post (6/20/07), a senior Hamas official made that very clear.
On the other hand, you see Fatah using religious symbolism. You see Mahmoud Abbas and his coterie going and praying publicly on Fridays, and being photographed, and that appears in the media. They use the symbolism of Al-Aqsa, the holiest shrine of Muslims in Jerusalem, in order to play on people’s sentiment, and that doesn’t get called Islamist. I suppose because it’s more cynical and they don’t believe it, it’s okay.
CS: Last time you were on CounterSpin (2/3/07), we talked about your book, One Country, which argues for a single-state solution. The prevailing line in the media discussion right now is talk about three states–Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Some commentators are glibly calling Gaza “Hamastan.” Where do you see things now? Does one state seem further from reality, or does this change the conversation somehow?
AA: I think it does change the conversation. As a Palestinian, the events are very painful, what has happened. But neither are they that unusual in these kinds of liberation struggles. If you cast your mind back, thousands of people were killed in fighting between the African National Congress and the Inkatha Freedom Party in the context of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. The Irish Civil War, again, had a very similar dynamic to it. This is part of the whole process of occupation, colonization, the co-optation of part of the occupied people.
But what it has done is to pull off the mask. The Palestinian Authority serves really as a way to hide Israel’s accountability as the occupying power and the only real government. And we can talk of our Palestinian governments, but the only government in Israel/Palestine that has any real power is the Israeli government. As long as they have a fiction of a Palestinian Authority, they don’t need to address the rights of Palestinians as citizens. That’s why Israel is desperate to shore up Abbas. But I think it’s collapsing, the same way the Bantustan collapsed in South Africa, and that does change the conversation and the dynamic.
Ali Abunimah was interviewed on CounterSpin (6/22/07) by Janine Jackson. Abunimah is cofounder of the website the Electronic Intifada and the author of the book One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse.