A commentary by Khaled Abu Toameh for the Jerusalem Post
Why did the Gaza Strip fall so easily and quickly into the hands of Hamas? How come Fatah, which has more than 40,000 armed men there, was defeated despite the millions of dollars and the large amounts of weapons that it received over the past year and a half?
These are only some of the questions that decision-makers in Washington and many European capitals have been asking in the wake of the “military coup” staged by Hamas in the Gaza Strip this week.
While these decision-makers may have been caught by surprise by the Hamas victories, for many Palestinians – particularly those living in the Gaza Strip – the writing has long been on the wall.
Fatah lost the battle for the Gaza Strip not because it had fewer soldiers and weapons, but because it lost the confidence and support of many Palestinians a long time ago.
The decline of Fatah actually began with the day Yasser Arafat died in November 2004.
Since then, Fatah has been dealt one blow after another.
The biggest disaster occurred in January 2006, when Fatah was defeated by Hamas in the parliamentary elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Fatah lost the vote mainly because of its leaders’ involvement in rampant corruption and abuse of power.
Mahmoud Abbas, who succeeded Arafat in January 2005, had run on a platform that promised Palestinians an end to corruption, mismanagement and nepotism. That’s why more than 60 percent of the Palestinians then gave him a mandate.
But after Abbas came to power, he did almost nothing to fulfill his pledges. Instead of fighting corruption, he surrounded himself with symbols of corruption and former Arafat cronies.
Instead of ending the anarchy and lawlessness, he promoted notorious warlords, and for the first time, the number of Palestinians killed in internal fighting under Abbas was higher than those killed by Israel. And instead of dismantling gangs and militias, whose members had long been terrorizing the Palestinian public, Abbas rewarded many of them by granting them “military” ranks and placing them on his payroll.
Many voters who went to the ballot boxes in January 2006 wanted to punish Abbas and his Fatah faction for having failed to improve their living conditions on all fronts.
That’s why they voted for Hamas. Even some Christians are said to have cast their ballots for Hamas. The name of the game back then was: Let’s punish these Fatah thieves and thugs who have been stealing our money and terrorizing us for so many years.
On the eve of the 2006 election, Hamas knew exactly what the Palestinians wanted: an end to financial corruption and good governance. That’s why Hamas ran under the banner of Change and Reform. That’s also why Hamas put on its list of candidates doctors, university professors, engineers, pharmacists and lawyers. By contrast, the Fatah list did not come up with any new faces.
Hamas won because its leaders promised the Palestinians good governance and an end to anarchy and lawlessness. Hamas also won because there was still a large percentage of Palestinians who believed that “Islam is the solution.”
US-backed efforts to undermine the Hamas-led government over the past 16 months have failed, largely because most Palestinians clearly do not regard Fatah as a better alternative to Hamas. In the aftermath of its defeat in the 2006 election, Fatah failed to draw the conclusions and get rid of all the icons of corruption among its top brass. Moreover, Fatah did not engage in any kind of internal reforms, and representatives of the young generation remained marginalized.
Even if free and democratic elections were held tomorrow in the Palestinian territories, it is highly unlikely that Palestinians would vote for the same people they voted out in 2006. Besides, many Palestinians would argue that Hamas did not fail in government; from day one, no one actually gave them a chance to rule.
By openly embracing Abbas and Fatah, Washington has caused them grave damage. The weapons and funds that were supposed to boost Fatah ahead of a confrontation with Hamas have only increased Hamas’s popularity on the streets of the Gaza Strip. The public support for Fatah made Abbas and Muhammed Dahlan look, in the eyes of many Palestinians, like Antoine Lahad, the former commander of the pro-Israeli South Lebanon Army. And when a Palestinian sees that the Americans are trying to bring down his democratically-elected government, his sympathies go straight to the government and not to those allegedly involved in the conspiracy.
The writing was on the wall because Hamas had already inflicted heavy casualties on Fatah in previous rounds of fighting over the past year. In addition, it was clear that Hamas was eventually going to take over the entire Gaza Strip, because of the anarchy and disunity among the Fatah-controlled Palestinian security forces and their commanders. It was obvious that Fatah was going to lose, because the masses were not going to take to the streets to defend leaders living in villas and driving luxury cars.