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The Forty-Year Palestinian Tragedy

Forty years ago, Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights after a lightning six-day war that repelled the armies of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. Today, ending the occupation of Palestinian territories that began that June seems as distant a dream as ever.

The Somalia-like chaos and civil war that is now unfolding in Gaza as a result of this decades-old stalemate can be blamed partly on ill-conceived Israeli policies, and partly on an American administration that, for six long years, relegated the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace to the bottom of its agenda. But it is misleading to attribute the failure of the Palestinians to develop an orderly system of self-government only to the pernicious effects of Israeli occupation and American policies.

The Palestinian crisis is first and foremost one of leadership. True, Yasser Arafat was not a model democrat, but his charisma and political acumen were crucial for holding all the Palestinian factions together. Now, not even Fatah, Arafat’s own party, can claim to be a coherent organization. Hamas’ electoral victory in January 2006 was to a large extent due to Fatah’s fragmentation under Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas.

With no effective central authority to inspire fear or respect and the PLO devoid of legitimacy precisely because of its refusal to give Hamas its rightful share in the organization, a grotesquely ineffective brand of “cohabitation” between a Fatah president and a Hamas prime minister has emerged. As a result, Palestinian politics has degenerated into a naked struggle for the spoils of power.