For years, events within the Palestinian political world pointed to a day of reckoning when the secular would be pitted against the religious. Now that day has dawned over the Gaza Strip, and this long-underestimated fissure inside the Palestinian movement has taken on geographical clarity. Hamas now runs a “Hamastan” in Gaza; secular Fatah, the party of the late Yasser Arafat and current President Mahmoud Abbas, hopes to regroup on the West Bank.
The cracks which led to this fissure, however, go beyond the issues of religion or ideology, and they go back decades. In the summer of 1983, the first time I met Arafat, I was a 21-year-old New York Times copy boy determined to make my way in the world of international journalism. I’d accepted a college roommate’s invitation to visit his family in Tunisia, where his father represented Jordan at the Arab League’s headquarters-in-exile.
Arafat, too, had set up shop in Tunisian exile, having been rescued the previous year, along with his Palestine Liberation Organization, from almost certain annihilation at the hands of Ariel Sharon’s Israeli army in Lebanon by the American and French intervention.
At the time — a million years ago, it seems, and yet only yesterday in the context of the Mideast conflict — Arafat ran the PLO from a resort outside Tunis, a headquarters complete with the submerged barstools, bikini-clad bathing beauties and Mercedes and Jaguar convertibles one could find at any Club Med of the era.
When Arafat’s entourage, Abbas included, arrived for a sumptuous lunch at the Jordanian residence that day, my roommate’s father, Jordan’s Ambassador Nabih al- Nimr, shuttled me and another American visitor to the pool and told us to lie low. The meeting, unprecedented at the time, broke a long, bitter hatred between the land ruled by King Hussein, whose nation Arafat had tried to commandeer, just as he commandeered the Club Med, back in 1970.
By 1983, the increasingly isolated PLO had proposed that Jordan serve as an interlocutor with the Americans, and ultimately with Israel, in an effort to win international recognition. At the end of the day, Arafat came out to the pool to meet the Americans.
Quite by chance, I was present at, if somewhat apart from, a meeting that would lead to Jordan renouncing its claim to the West Bank, to a peace conference in Madrid, to peace accords brokered in Oslo, and to a handshake between Arafat and then Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin on the White House lawn. Of course, this distinction would be a great deal more interesting if any of those events had led to an actual peace between Arab and Jew in the Holy Land. Instead, yet again, the road led down a blind alley and, helped along by cynical leaders on all sides, to renewed violence.
Now, in the week and a half since Hamas swept the remnants of the once-dominant Fatah movement out of the Gaza Strip, that day in Tunis — and professional encounters with Arafat and Abu Mazen (as Abbas is more commonly known) later in my career in Gaza City and on the West Bank, have run through my mind repeatedly.
Not for any nostalgic sense of “what might have been,” mind you. Anyone who has spent as much time covering and observing this conflict as I have parted with nostalgia long ago. Rather, that day was the first time it occurred to me that Arafat, with his comically ill- fitting fatigues, his holstered gun, standing there amid the diplomats in French silk, knew something of what he was doing.
He seems to have understood that, having not set foot on the land his PLO claimed as its own for decades, he had to keep up the appearance of armed struggle, of sacrifice. His aides, including the decent, urbane current president, never got that.
For all the calculus that has gone into devising formulas to allow Israel and the Palestinians to speak to each other, the most basic flaw has not involved an insufficient transfer of land or security guarantees or even the puzzle of Jerusalem. Virtually everyone believes the basic solution has been clear for years — most of the Israeli settlements would be dismantled, the West Bank and Gaza turned over to Palestinians, massive, internationally backed reparations paid in lieu of a Palestinian “right of return,” which would destroy Israel as a “Jewish state,” and some chunk of East Jerusalem would become capital of Palestine.
The problem all along has not been this basic outline. Instead, I am convinced, it has been with the Palestinians themselves, and specifically, in the distance between those who the world has chosen to deem their representatives (Fatah) and those they purport to represent, who have lived their lives in the squalor of Gaza’s refugee camps (or in any similar camp on the West Bank or in Lebanon).
As we watch Washington and other great capitals adjust to the new reality in the Middle East, remember this fact: Hamas won a sweeping victory in democratic elections over Fatah in January 1996 based not on its views toward Israel, but rather on its promise to end Fatah’s corruption and bring basic services to a destitute population.
Hamas, for all its religious blindness and lunatic inhumanity, better represents the aspirations of the 1.4 million people of the Gaza Strip than the Fatah fat cats who returned from their Tunisian exile in 1994 laden with fine Cognac, armor-plated Mercedes, and a reputation for pocketing what aid the cynical Arab “brethren” threw their way.
“These Tunisians wear their Italian shoes and have their German whores,” an embittered Gaza City fish vendor told me during a 1996 reporting trip there as we watched one of the ubiquitous teenagers of the Fatah Youth Organization clamber by. This was no Hamas man, either. On his cart he had stapled a photo of one of that era’s Western icons, someone synonymous with Western decadence: Pamela Anderson.
Today, in the wake of the Hamas takeover, the United States and its Western allies, along with so-called “moderate” Sunni Arab states like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, are spinning what has happened in Gaza into some kind of progress. Pledges flow like milk and honey for hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the Abbas emergency government in Ramallah, including back taxes collected and seized by Israel after the Hamas election victory of 1996. President Bush, after meeting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Wednesday, pledged to build up Abbas on the West Bank so that, in the president’s words, Fatah “can lead the Palestinians in a different direction with a different hope.”
Having long ago given up on sentimental perspectives, I think it is worth warning that this is not a “Hamas-black, Fatah-white” situation. Without tackling the rotten, corrupt problems that caused Palestinians to lean toward Hamas in the first place, this latest American tilt in the Middle East is headed down the same blind alley as the last one.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.