Killing democracy in Palestine

In a June 19 joint press conference in Washington with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, US President George Bush said: "It's interesting that extremists attack democracies around the Middle East, whether it be the Iraq democracy, the Lebanese democracy, or a potential Palestinian democracy." He was referring specifically to the popularly elected Hamas-led government of the Palestinian people taking action in Gaza to prevent a bloody coup by their defeated rivals, Fatah, which since the January 2006 elections has been armed, funded and trained by Israel and the US.

Bush has rushed to support the "potential democracy" of Fatah leader and Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas — illustrated by his party's willingness to "dismiss" the elected government, burn and loot the offices of Hamas in the West Bank, and illegally establish a new government. The US president called the developments an "exciting moment". The Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) since January 2006 have been a stark illustration of what the Bush administration's doctrine of a "democratic" Middle East really means.

In the first elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council to be held in the OPT for a decade, Hamas's Reform and Change list won 74 out of 132 seats; Fatah won 45. Hamas immediately began to make overtures to Fatah to join it in a government of national unity.

Israel — which has actively taken every measure it can to prevent a Palestinian state from emerging, has flagrantly violated the conditions of every agreement it has made with the Palestinians and countless UN resolutions, and killed more than 4500 Palestinians since September 2000 — called on the obliging Quartet (the US, Russia, the European Union and the UN) to impose three demands on the Hamas government. In order to attain international "legitimacy", it was not enough for the Hamas government to have the popular support of the Palestinian people, but it had to "recognise Israel", honour previous accords made by the Fatah-led Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and renounce armed struggle.

In other words, Hamas was to renege on its promise to the Palestinian people to continue the struggle for an independent state and emulate the approach of its discredited rival Fatah, which used the PA and the Preventive Security Service (PSS) to demobilise, torture and assassinate the elements of the Palestinian national struggle beyond its control since the Oslo Accords were signed with Israel in 1993.

The democratic will of the Palestinians expressed last January was rejected by the "international community" and a medieval-style siege imposed on Gaza — as UN special envoy on Palestinians' human rights John Dugard noted in September, "the first time an occupied people has been so treated". The 1.4 million residents of Gaza were sealed in their tiny strip of coastal land, comprising just 2% of historic Palestine, and brought to the brink of starvation. The Hamas-led government was unable to pay the full salaries of the PA's 175,000 employees. The shortages imposed by the siege inevitably sparked a fierce struggle among different Palestinian forces.

However, the economic sanctions were not the only contributing factor to the outbreak of violence between the military wings of Fatah and Hamas: since Hamas won the elections, the US and Israel have sought to incite a civil war by arming and funding militias loyal to Abbas and the former head of the PSS in Gaza, Mohammed Dahlan, with the explicit purpose of overthrowing the elected government.

Commentators have compared these militias, including Abbas's Presidential Guard (which was granted US$86 million by the US Congress in January), to the South Lebanon Army, the proxy force Israel cultivated during its occupation of southern Lebanon.

Even following an attempted coup by Fatah, orchestrated by Dahlan in December-January, Hamas pushed for the formation of a national unity government. But in response to the mounting street clashes between the factions in Gaza and the calls by senior Fatah officials, reported by Ha'aretz on June 7, for Israel to allow shipments of "hundreds of armor-piercing RPG rockets, thousands of hand grenades and millions of rounds of ammunition" into Gaza, Hamas acted decisively and defeated the Fatah militias.

Ahmed Youseff, a political adviser to PA prime minister and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, wrote in a June 20 Washington Post comment piece: "Hamas' actions to secure Gaza from the horrific recent violence of the Palestinian contras have been out of self-defense. The assassinations of Hamas officials and supporters, attempts on the life of the elected prime minister, and kidnappings and bombings by some in President Mahmoud Abbas' paramilitary groups had to stop. The Palestinian Authority has a clear legal right, indeed an obligation, to prevent this violence, by force if necessary, and to protect the Palestinian people."

According to the Washington-Tel Aviv logic, the elected government taking action to prevent a military coup is an outrageous attack on democracy by extremists. On the other hand, Abbas declaring a state of emergency and suspending key articles of Basic Palestinian Law, the PA's constitution, in order to outlaw the elected government, is an "exciting moment" for "moderation".

Youseff believes the US-Israeli aim is to "truncate Gaza from any proposed Palestinian state and make it a de facto prison for all 'undesirable' aspects of Palestinian nationalism. This will culminate in provocations designed to trigger a military response from Israel, which will 'justify' a war on Gazans."

An outright attack on Gaza would undoubtedly unleash a bloodbath, and further sanctions will allow starvation and disease to flourish. In the West Bank, a joint Fatah-Israeli campaign against Hamas (which, though now underground, has considerable strength in the territory) would unleash a slightly more targeted bloodbath, with the collaboration of the new "government" formed by Abbas.

The breaking up of Gaza and the West Bank under two separate Palestinian regimes represents a final death for the "two-state solution". The bitterest tragedy for the Palestinians is the fact that the internal fighting has been over the control of the PA, a body that is virtually powerless and dependent on Israel and other imperialist powers anyway.

Palestinian society in the OPT has been pushed to the brink of self-destruction this year, after having had the misfortune of being the victims of the establishment of a colonial-settler state and enduring 40 years of Israel's dictatorship. But Hamas's victory in the Gaza Strip, despite the huge levels of support given to the "Palestinian contras", represents yet another setback to the Bush blueprint for the "New Middle East", to be added to the rise of resistance movements in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon. According to Youseff, "Neither blunt force nor U.S. subterfuge will extinguish Palestinian aspirations for self-governance, free from outside interference".