Divide and Rule: How Factionalism in Palestine is Killing Prospects for Freedom
22 August 2016
By Ramzy Baroud
As Palestinians in the Occupied Territories begin preparations for local
elections which are scheduled for October, division and factionalism are
rearing their ugly head.
Palestinian political platforms and social media are abuzz with self-defeating
propaganda: Fatah supporters attacking Hamas' alleged failures, and Hamas'
supporters doing the same.
What is conveniently overlooked by all sides is that the performance of
Palestinian municipalities is almost entirely irrelevant in the greater scheme
In the West Bank, local councils are governed by strict Israeli-PA
arrangements. Aside from very few chores, village and town councils cannot
operate without a green light: an endorsement from the Palestinian Authority
itself conditioned on a nod from the Israeli occupation authorities.
This applies to almost everything: from basic services, to construction
permits to digging of wells. All such decisions are predicated upon political
stipulation and donors' money, which are also politically-motivated.
Blaming a local mayor of a tiny West Bank village that is surrounded by
Israeli military walls, trenches and watchtowers, and is attacked daily by
armed Jewish settlers, for failing to make a noticeable difference to the
lives of the villagers is as ridiculous as it sounds.
The local elections, however, are also politically and factionally-driven.
Fatah, which controls the PA, is buying time and vying for relevance. No
longer having a major role in leading the Palestinians in their quest for
freedom, Fatah constantly invents ways to proclaim itself as a relevant force.
It can only do so, however, with Israeli permission, donor money and
US-Western political backing and validation.
Hamas, which might endorse selected candidates but is unlikely to participate
in the elections directly, is also embattled. It is under a strict siege in
Gaza and its regional politicking proved costly and unreliable. While it is
not as corrupt – at least, financially – as Fatah, it is often accused of
asserting its power in Gaza through the use of political favoritism.
While one must insist on national unity, it is difficult to imagine a
successful union between both groups without a fundamental change in the
structure of these parties and overall political outlook.
In Palestine, factions perceive democracy to be a form of control, power and
hegemony, not a social contract aimed at fostering dialogue and defusing
Thus, it is no wonder that supporters of two Fatah factions, one loyal to PA
President Mahmoud Abbas and another to Mohammed Dahlan, recently clashed in
Gaza. Several were hospitalized after sustaining injuries.
Of course, a main case in point remains the civil war of 2007, a year or so
after Hamas won parliamentary elections. The Fatah-Hamas political culture
failed to understand that the losing party must concede and serve in the
opposition, and the victorious party cannot assume the vote as a mandate for
Other factors contributed to the Palestinian divide. The US, at the behest of
Israel, wanted to ensure the collapse of the Hamas government and conditioned
its support for Fatah based on the rejection of any unity government.
Israel, too, inflicted much harm, restricting the movement of elected MPs,
arresting them and eventually entirely besieging Gaza.
The European Union and the United Nations were hardly helpful, they could have
insisted on the respect of Palestinian voters, but they succumbed under
However, there can also be no denial that these factors alone should not have
jeopardized Palestinian unity, if the factions were keen on it.
To appreciate this further, one must look at the experience of Palestinian
prisoners in Israeli jails. Although they divide themselves based on factional
and ideological affiliations, they tend to exhibit much more solidarity
amongst themselves. When a prisoner from a certain group goes on hunger
strike, he or she is often joined by a few, tens or even hundreds of other
political prisoners from all factions.
These prisoners find ways to communicate and transfer messages amongst
themselves, even when in solitary confinement or shackled to their beds.
They even hold elections in larger prisons to choose their own representatives
and issue joint letters to Palestinians outside, calling for unity and a
If shackled prisoners are able to foster dialogue and adhere to a semblance of
unity, those living in Ramallah mansions and those free to travel outside
Palestine should be able to do so too.
But the truth is, for many within the Palestinian leadership, unity is not an
urgent matter and, for them, the ascendancy of the faction will always trump
the centrality of the homeland.
This is partly because factional politics is deeply rooted in Palestinian
society. And like the Israeli occupation, factionalism is an enemy of the
Palestinian people. It has constantly overwhelmed any attempt at fostering
dialogue and true democracy among Palestinians.
It is true that democracy is suffering a crisis in various parts of the world.
In Brazil, a parliamentary subversion pushed an elected president out of
office. In the UK, Labour Party plotters are entirely discounting the election
of a popular leader. In the United States, democracy had been reduced to
clichés while powerful elites are bankrolling wealthy candidates who are, more
or less, propagating the same ideas.
But Palestine is different. It ought to be different. For Palestinian society,
dialogue and a degree of a democratic process is essential for any meaningful
Without unity in politics, it is difficult to envisage unity in purpose, a
national liberation project, a unified resistance strategy and the eventual
freedom of the Palestinians.
There can never be a free Palestine without Palestinians first freeing
themselves from factional repression, for which they, and only they, are
For Israel, Palestinian factionalism is a central piece in its strategy to
divide and rule. Sadly, many Palestinians are playing along, and by doing so
are jeopardizing their own salvation.
– Dr. Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for over 20
years. He is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an
author of several books and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com. His books
include ‘Searching Jenin', ‘The Second Palestinian Intifada' and his latest
'My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza's Untold Story'. His website is: