Washington Engineered the Disastrous Split in the Palestinian National Movement

The divide between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank dates back to a crucial period in the mid 2000s. The US and its allies sabotaged an effort to achieve national unity for peace negotiations with dire consequences that are still unfolding today.

Palestinian protesters take part in a demonstration at the border fence with Israel, denouncing the Israeli siege of the Palestinian strip on August 21, 2021, in Gaza City. (Fatima Shbair / Getty Images)

One of the main problems in discussing the fate of the Palestinians is the lack of basic historical memory in the Western media. Events in the very recent past soon drop out of the standard media narrative in a way that makes it impossible to comprehend the Palestinian perspective.

This certainly applies to the memory of past Israeli offensives against Gaza and the massive destruction they caused. But it also applies to the understanding of political events. In order to make sense of what is happening today, we need to know how the Palestinian national movement came to be divided between two parties, Hamas and Fatah, and two territories, Gaza and the West Bank, without having made any progress toward independent statehood.

For Israel and its supporters, there is a simple explanation for this outcome. Israel withdrew its forces from Gaza in 2005 as a bold gesture to create an opportunity for peace. Instead of responding constructively to this gesture, Palestinians voted for Hamas in an election held the following year. Hamas went on to seize power in Gaza and repeatedly used the territory as a base from which to carry out attacks on Israeli soil, leaving Israel with no alternative but to launch military operations in response.

This version of events turns reality upside down. The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza was never intended to pave the way toward a peace settlement — in fact, its true purpose was to help entrench the occupation of the West Bank. The rise of Hamas was the predictable result of Israeli policy and could have resulted in the formation of a national unity government between Fatah and Hamas with a serious negotiating platform for peace talks. However, Israel’s US ally insisted on unreasonable and insulting preconditions for recognizing any such government, then began fomenting a violent conflict between the two Palestinian parties.

In many ways, the events that unfolded between the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and the Hamas takeover two years later have determined the shape of Palestinian politics ever since. A close look at what happened in this period is essential background for the crisis of today.

Diplomatic Formaldehyde

Israel’s former prime minister Ariel Sharon first announced the plan for withdrawal from Gaza in February 2004. As he later explained, Sharon launched the plan at a time when Israel’s main backer, the United States, was under pressure from its allies to secure progress:

There were all kinds of suggestions for various solutions. I don’t think the US, dealing with all its problems, would be able to stand there all the time and prevent the presentation of plans that could be dangerous to Israel.

At the beginning of 2004, Iraq was becoming increasingly violent and unstable, with the US-led occupation forces struggling to maintain control, while the George W. Bush administration was still contemplating an invasion of Iran to overthrow its government. In that context, European and Arab states that Washington needed to keep on its side were demanding serious concessions to the Palestinians from Israel. Sharon’s announcement that he intended to withdraw troops and settlements from Gaza was a godsend to the US government.

No Israeli politician symbolized violent extremism better than Sharon. He was responsible for the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, during which his Lebanese allies massacred Palestinian civilians with the complicity of the Israeli army. Sharon was completely opposed to the Oslo agreement signed by Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat in 1993, and he led the provocative march in Jerusalem that provoked the beginning of the second Palestinian intifada in September 2000. Now the international media celebrated Sharon as a daring peacemaker.

Amidst the hype, few stopped to examine the details of the withdrawal plan or to ask whether it was really intended to be the first step toward the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Sharon’s advisor Dov Weissglas left the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in no doubt about his leader’s true intentions:

The disengagement is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that’s necessary so that there will not be a political process with the Palestinians . . . that is the significance of what we did. The significance is the freezing of the political process. And when you freeze that process you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state and you prevent a discussion about the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem. Effectively, this whole package that is called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed from our agenda indefinitely.

In other words, the main purpose of the Gaza pullout was to make any withdrawal from territory in the West Bank unnecessary. This was spelled out explicitly when Israel published its Gaza Disengagement Plan:

In any future permanent status arrangement, there will be no Israeli towns and villages in the Gaza Strip. On the other hand, it is clear that in the West Bank, there are areas which will be part of the state of Israel, including major Israeli population centres, cities, towns and villages, security areas and other places of special interest to Israel.

If the main Israeli population centers in the West Bank were annexed to Israel proper, along with the road networks that connect them, the security areas that protect them, and “other places of special interest to Israel,” any notional Palestinian state would consist of four or five isolated fragments of territory, covering barely half the land of the West Bank and completely dependent on Israeli good will to survive.

“One Large Prison”

So far as Gaza itself was concerned, the Disengagement Plan held little promise. Decades of Israeli occupation had systematically de-developed the Gaza economy. Unemployment stood at 35 to 40 percent in 2005, with 65 to 75 percent of the population living below the official poverty line. Having been administered as an Israeli colony since 1967, Gaza did not have the basic means for independent development. Despite this, the text of the Israeli plan claimed that “the process of disengagement will serve to dispel claims regarding Israel’s responsibility for the Palestinians in Gaza.”

Nor was there any prospect of a genuine Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, granting full independence to the territory. As academic Sara Roy explained in 2005:

The Plan gives Israel “exclusive authority” over Gaza’s airspace and territorial waters, which translates into full control over the movement of people and goods into and out of the Strip. Israel will also “continue, for full price, to supply electricity, water, gas and petrol to the Palestinians, in accordance with current arrangements.” Israel will also continue to collect customs duties on behalf of the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli shekel will remain the local currency. Further, the Israeli government is building a new terminal at the point where Gaza, Israel and Egypt meet that would require Palestinian labour and goods to go through Israeli territory. Israel’s Interior Ministry retains full control over the issuing of Palestinian identify cards and all population data — births, deaths, marriages — and all Palestinians must continue to be registered with the ministry.

It is hard to see what the Palestinians had to feel grateful for at the end of 2005. Israel had confirmed its intention to annex large parts of the West Bank, destroying any basis for real Palestinian independence. Its withdrawal from Gaza was a means toward achieving this goal. The people of Gaza remained under tight Israeli control, with Israel using its power to choke economic life in the Strip, already withered by a long colonial occupation. The Palestinian Authority (PA) president Mahmoud Abbas put it this way soon after the pullout: “The Strip is one large prison, and the army’s departure does not change this situation.”

Final Rupture

Having accepted the sanitized, triumphalist account of the Israeli disengagement from Gaza, the United States and its European allies were stunned by the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian legislative elections of January 2006. Hamas received 43 percent of the vote, compared with 40 percent for Fatah, and won an absolute majority of seats.

Nobody had anticipated that Hamas would win an outright victory, including the party itself. But it was always predictable that Hamas would emerge from the elections in a much stronger position than before, as a real challenger to Fatah for the leadership of the Palestinian national movement. The Israeli army’s chief of staff at the time, Moshe Ya’alon, had previously warned that his own government’s conduct was undermining Fatah’s position. The Washington Post reported on his briefing in October 2003:

Israel’s senior military commander told columnists for three leading newspapers this week that Israel’s military tactics against the Palestinian population were too repressive and were fomenting explosive levels of “hatred and terrorism” that might become impossible to control . . . Ya’alon also said he believed the Israeli government contributed to the failure of Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian prime minister because it was too “stingy” and was unwilling to make concessions to bolster his authority.

The appointment of Abbas as Palestinian prime minister in 2003 was supposed to create an opportunity for peace negotiations to move forward. Yet Sharon did everything in his power to undermine the new prime minister.

When Abbas brokered a unilateral Palestinian cease-fire in June 2003 that was supported by Hamas, the Israeli government announced that it would continue to assassinate members of Palestinian groups. These “targeted assassinations” usually killed civilians along with the main target. Sharon also insisted that it would not be enough for Abbas to achieve a cease-fire: before negotiations could go ahead, he would have to “dismantle the terrorist infrastructure” — in other words, declare war on Hamas and other Palestinian groups.

Sharon can hardly have been unaware of the fact that his policies were strengthening Hamas and undermining the position of Fatah. As the Lebanese writer Gilbert Achcar argued, this was most likely Sharon’s intention:

He needed to emphasize the weakness and unreliability of the PA by fanning the expansion of the Islamic fundamentalist movement, knowing that the latter was anathema to Western states. Thus every time there was some kind of truce, negotiated by the PA with the Islamic organizations, Sharon’s government would resort to an “extra-judicial execution” — in plain language, an assassination — in order to provoke these organizations into retaliation by the means they specialized in: suicide attacks, their “F-16s” as they say. This had the double advantage of stressing the PA’s inability to control the Palestinian population, and enhancing Sharon’s own popularity in Israel.

Sharon’s government intended to keep much of the West Bank under direct Israeli control. He understood that no Palestinian leadership, however moderate, could accept this as the basis for a peace settlement. Any serious negotiations would have exposed the Israeli position as the main obstacle to peace — much better, then, to undermine Fatah and fuel the growth of Hamas. Sharon may not have expected that his strategy would be so successful that Hamas would actually overtake Fatah.

The dramatic rise in support for Hamas was also fueled by the overwhelming bias of the United States and other Western powers toward Israel. The Fatah leadership had based its strategy on the hope that Washington would apply enough pressure on Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories. Yet no matter how hard Fatah worked to prove its moderation and responsibility, the pressure on Israel was never forthcoming. The Bush administration carried US backing for Israel to new heights, even referring to Sharon as a “man of peace” while his troops bulldozed their way through Palestinian homes.

As a Palestinian leader in a Lebanese refugee camp remarked:

What this victory for Hamas represents is the final rupture of the Palestinians’ faith in the international community. We no longer believe that the Americans or the Europeans ultimately can be counted on to do the right thing by us. We know that we must rely on ourselves now.

The Three Conditions

This was not a message that the Americans or the Europeans wanted to hear. The Hamas victory should have been a tremendous wake-up call for the United States and the leading European states. They had refused to compensate for the vast imbalance of power by applying real pressure on Israel to end the occupation. As a direct result, the camp in Palestinian politics they praised as “moderates” had been overtaken by those they condemned as “extremists.”

If these political actors now wanted Fatah to recover its previously dominant position, they would have to change course and end their complicity with the denial of Palestinian rights. However, they had no intention of changing course. Instead, they insisted upon three conditions before they would deal with the new Hamas-led Palestinian government, demanding that it must renounce violence, recognize the state of Israel, and pledge to abide by existing peace agreements.

The three conditions were based on shameless double standards, as there was never any question of imposing such conditions on Israeli governments. The Israeli occupation of Palestinian land has always been maintained by violence. The Israeli army had killed thousands of Palestinians since the beginning of the second intifada, routinely using lethal force against unarmed demonstrators.

By every historical precedent, a people living under occupation has the right to take up arms. Yet the United States and its allies demanded that the Palestinians renounce the right to armed resistance of any kind — not merely attacks on civilian targets — while providing Israel with the weapons it used to deny them their rights.

The demand that Hamas must recognize the state of Israel was equally hypocritical. Israel has been denying the right of a Palestinian state to exist — in practice, not in theory — for decades. It was grotesque to demand that Palestinians give unconditional recognition to a state which had never acknowledged their own right to self-determination, and which had declared its intention to annex large parts of the West Bank.

The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leadership had already granted one-sided recognition to Israel when it signed the Oslo peace accords in the 1990s. The failure of those accords was one of the main reasons why Fatah had been overtaken by Hamas. The new Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, gave his view of the three conditions to the Washington Post:

We are surprised that such conditions are imposed on us. Why don’t they direct such conditions and questions to Israel? Has Israel respected agreements? Israel has by-passed practically all agreements. We say: let Israel recognize the legitimate rights of the Palestinians first and then we will have a position regarding this. Which Israel should we recognize? The Israel of 1917; the Israel of 1936; the Israel of 1948; the Israel of 1956; or the Israel of 1967? Which borders and which Israel? Israel has to recognize first the Palestinian state and its borders and then we will know what we are talking about.

The Post asked Haniyeh if he accepted the Oslo agreement that Arafat had signed:

Oslo stated that a Palestinian state would be established by 1999. Where is this Palestinian state? Has Oslo given the right to Israel to reoccupy the West Bank, to build the wall and expand the settlements, and to Judaize Jerusalem and make it totally Jewish? Has Israel been given the right to disrupt the work on the port and airport in Gaza? Has Oslo given them the right to besiege Gaza and to stop all tax refunds from the Palestinian Authority?

The Search for Unity

With the three conditions supplying diplomatic cover, the Israeli government began to squeeze the Palestinians living in the occupied territories. This included a freeze on the transfer of Palestinian tax and customs revenue collected by Israel. As the Israeli journalist Amira Hass wrote:

These tax receipts are not donations of good will from Israel; they are not charity. This is not like, say, Dutch foreign aid money, which is given freely by the Dutch people and can be withheld if the Dutch choose to stop giving it. These are tax revenues that are due to the people in the territories where the goods are headed, and the Israelis have no right to hold them up.

Instead of protesting against these punitive measures, the United States and the European Union followed Israel’s example by drastically reducing financial assistance to the PA. Washington put Abbas under intense pressure to dismiss the Hamas-led government and call new elections. Bush’s secretary of state, Condoleeza Rice, traveled to Ramallah in October 2006 and ordered Abbas to sack Haniyeh’s cabinet within two to four weeks. When he failed to comply, a US official, Jake Walles, delivered another message to Abbas, demanding that he give Hamas a “clear deadline” to accept the three conditions:

The consequences of Hamas’ decision should also be clear: if Hamas does not agree within the prescribed time, you should make clear your intention to declare a state of emergency and form an emergency government explicitly committed to that platform . . . if you act along these lines, we will support you both materially and politically.

In effect, this was an ultimatum for Abbas to initiate a civil war with Hamas. The Bush administration was already looking toward Mohammed Dahlan, a Fatah commander, as the strongman who could organize a violent clampdown on Hamas. This was what Walles had in mind when he told Abbas to bring “credible figures of strong standing in the international community” into his team.

While these efforts to provoke conflict among Palestinians were unfolding, a group of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails drafted a National Conciliation Document in May 2006. Senior members of Hamas, Fatah, and other left-wing and Islamist groups signed the document, including the most prominent imprisoned Fatah leader, Marwan Barghouti. A slightly revised version of the text was published in June, and an opinion survey revealed overwhelming support for its principles in Palestinian society.

The document called for the formation of a national unity government and insisted that “the Palestinian democratic experience should be protected and any democratic choice and its results respected.” The prisoners agreed “to denounce all forms of division that could lead to internal strife; to condemn the use of weapons in settling internal disputes and to ban the use of weapons among the people; to stress the sanctity of Palestinian blood and to adhere to dialogue as the sole means of resolving disagreements.”

While the National Conciliation Document had a strong orientation toward internal Palestinian politics, it affirmed the right of the Palestinian people to engage in armed struggle against the occupation, “focusing resistance in territories occupied in 1967 in tandem with political action, negotiations and diplomacy whereby there is broad participation from all sectors in the popular resistance.” It also contained a significant passage on negotiations with Israel. These would fall under the authority of the PA president, on condition that any agreement must be submitted to the Palestinian National Council or a popular referendum for approval.

The goal of such negotiations, according to the document, should be for the Palestinian people to “exercise their right to self-determination, including the right to establish their independent state with al-Quds al-Shareef [Jerusalem] as its capital on all territories occupied in 1967, and to secure the right of return for refugees to their homes and properties from which they were evicted,” as well as the release of prisoners and detainees being held by Israel.

In the wake of this agreement, there was intensive work to form a government that would include both Hamas and Fatah. Saudi Arabia brokered talks in February 2007 that led to the Mecca Agreement between the two parties. Again, there was a strong focus on internal matters, with the agreement proclaiming the need “to take all measures and arrangements to prevent the shedding of Palestinian blood and to stress the importance of national unity.”

The International Crisis Group urged Western and Arab governments to welcome the agreement:

Maintaining sanctions and shunning a government expected to comprise some of the most pragmatic Palestinians would not bring the international community any closer to its goals. It would strengthen hard-liners in Hamas, discredit Fatah further and risk provoking greater Israeli-Palestinian violence. The main objective, of course, is to revive the peace process and move towards a two-state solution. Critics of the Mecca Agreement and the national unity government, chiefly the US and Israel, call it an impediment to progress — an odd characterisation considering there was no peace process before Hamas won the elections and no peace process before Fatah agreed to join its government. It is also wrong. Mecca is a prerequisite for a peace process not an obstacle to it.

Others were not so keen. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the ideologue of Al-Qaeda, denounced Hamas as traitors for signing the Mecca Agreement: “Hamas went to a picnic with the US Satan and his Saudi agent . . . the leadership of the Hamas government has committed an aggression against the rights of the Islamic nation.” For its part, the Israeli government condemned the agreement as “a grave setback for prospects of peace, and a betrayal of the genuine moderates, on both sides of the conflict, who truly believe in a two-state solution to the conflict and seek to make it a reality.” Abbas thus found himself excluded from the ranks of “genuine moderates” by the Israeli government.

“He’s Our Guy”

Crucially, the Bush administration agreed with the Israeli view and redoubled its efforts to provoke violent clashes between Fatah and Hamas. In public, US officials asked the Saudi government to show that the Mecca Agreement would satisfy the three conditions. Behind the scenes, the Bush administration tried to organize a coup against Hamas.

In November 2006, Bush sent Lieutenant General Keith Dayton to meet with Dahlan, of whom the president had said “he’s our guy.” According to leaked notes of the meeting, he told Dahlan that “we need to reform the Palestinian security apparatus but we also need to build up your forces in order to take on Hamas.” Dayton promised to send $86 million in military assistance to Dahlan’s forces — money that would be used, according to a US document, to “dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism and establish law and order in the West Bank and Gaza.”

Since Washington considered the entire Hamas party to be part of “the infrastructure of terrorism,” this sounded very like a blueprint for a coup that would destroy Hamas. There was sporadic violence between men under Dahlan’s command and Hamas supporters in the period leading up to the signing of the Mecca Agreement, with many killed or injured, which added to the urgency of reaching consensus between Fatah and Hamas leaders.

After the signing of the agreement, members of both groups celebrated together on the streets of Gaza. However, Washington was determined to sabotage the unity government and began drawing up a document known as “Plan B,” which called for the formation of an alternative Palestinian government that would accept the three conditions. The plan also called for increased funding and other assistance to military forces that would be used against Hamas.

One version of Plan B was leaked to a Jordanian newspaper in April 2007. It soured relations between Hamas and Fatah once again and there was a fresh outbreak of violence. The clashes rapidly escalated until June 2007, when Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip by force and ousted Fatah. In response, Abbas dismissed Hamas from the Palestinian government and took exclusive control of the PA in the West Bank.

Mahmoud Zahar, who served as foreign minister in the Hamas-led government, blamed Plan B for the outbreak of violence in Gaza: “Everyone here recognizes that Dahlan was trying with American help to undermine the results of the elections. He was the one planning a coup.”

David Wurmser, who had been serving as Dick Cheney’s Middle East advisor before resigning in July 2007, echoed that view: “It looks to me that what happened wasn’t so much a coup by Hamas but an attempted coup by Fatah that was pre-empted before it could happen.”

Lies and Mistakes

The National Conciliation Document and the Mecca Agreement were a solid foundation for unity of the Palestinian national movement. The US government worked tirelessly to sabotage that unity. The political and geographical split between Fatah and Hamas made it much easier for successive Israeli governments to act as if the blockade of Gaza and the settlement project in the West Bank could carry on indefinitely, without even the pretense of seeking a peace settlement with the Palestinians.

Ten years after the Hamas takeover in Gaza, Bush’s close ally Tony Blair declared that it had been a mistake to boycott Hamas instead of engaging its leaders in dialogue “right at the very beginning.” By then, there had been two major Israeli offensives against Gaza in 2008–9 and 2014 that killed thousands of people, most of whom were civilians, while failing to dislodge Hamas.

The latest onslaught will almost certainly prove to be the most destructive one to date, but even if the Israeli army launches a full-scale invasion of Gaza, with Joe Biden cheering it on, it will only prepare the ground for more violence in the future. The rise of Hamas from the early 2000s was a symptom of the underlying problem rather than its main cause, which is the refusal of successive Israeli governments to contemplate a just peace settlement with the Palestinians.

As the Israeli historian Avi Shlaim wrote in January 2009, while “Operation Cast Lead” was in progress:

Israel’s real aim is not peaceful coexistence with its Palestinian neighbours but military domination. It keeps compounding the mistakes of the past with new and more disastrous ones. Politicians, like everyone else, are of course free to repeat the lies and mistakes of the past. But it is not mandatory to do so.