While there are many other regional and local conflicts linked to the “War on Terror,” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is unique in that it is of intense concern not just to the immediate parties involved, but to so many others as well. On the one hand, American public opinion – as well as the U.S. government – has strongly supported Israel throughout its existence, but especially since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. On the other hand, Arabs and Muslims in general feel deeply aggrieved over the plight of the Palestinians as well as outraged over American support for Israel. Al Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups have sought to heighten as well as exploit these feelings in order to secure funding, recruits and sympathy from Arabs and other Muslims. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in short, serves as a cause celebre for Al-Qaeda and other radical Islamist movements throughout the Muslim World.
Despite this, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one in which al-Qaeda itself appears to play very little direct role. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, of course, had been going on long before al-Qaeda became active. Two other movements hold sway among the Palestinians in the Israeli occupied territories: secular nationalist Fatah in the West Bank and Islamic radical Hamas in Gaza. Hamas does receive aid from Iran, but it is at odds with al-Qaeda. Although Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, Osama bin Laden criticized it for having participated in them at all and joining an “infidel assembly.” Hamas, in turn, “rejected bin Laden’s criticism outright.”
While the United States has strongly supported Israel for decades, it has also sought to build and maintain good relations with Arab and Muslim countries. Recognizing that U.S. support for Israel is unpopular with these governments—and even more so with their citizens—the United States has for decades sought a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Washington approach to doing so has been to try to broker a negotiated settlement acceptable to both sides. Many Palestinians (and their supporters), though, object to this approach since they see Israel as stronger than the Palestinians (as a result, in large part, of American support for Israel), and thus in a position to resist Palestinian demands.
After years of calling for (if not seriously threatening) Israel’s destruction, PLO/Fatah leader Yasser Arafat agreed to seek a peacefully negotiated two-state solution instead. The Oslo peace process led to the formation of the Palestinian Authority. While this was not the independent state that Palestinians sought, it did result in Israel’s transferring much administrative control of the occupied territories to Fatah. In 2000, the Clinton administration almost succeeded in helping Israel and Fatah achieve a peace agreement resulting in an independent Palestinian state. The two sides, though, were unable to overcome all their differences, and so the hoped-for settlement was not reached.
In the years since then, the secular nationalist Fatah lost support among Palestinians to its radical Islamist rival, Hamas. Factors contributing to this include (1) Fatah’s inability to achieve Palestinian aspirations either through violent or peaceful means; (2) the incompetence and corruption of the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority; and (3) Hamas’s growing ability to deliver social services more effectively and efficiently than the Palestinian Authority. Thus Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections.
Hamas is a Sunni Islamist group. It does not seek a two-state solution, but calls for the destruction of Israel and the creation of a single Palestinian state. In addition to opposing Israel, it is engaged in a long drawn-out power struggle with Fatah. While Fatah still controls (in conjunction with Israel) the West Bank, Hamas was able to seize control over the Gaza Strip after Israel unilaterally withdrew from it.
The Mideast Quartet (the United States, the EU, the UN, and Russia) responded to the Hamas electoral victory by offering to work with Hamas if it met three conditions: renounce violence, recognize Israel, and abide by existing Mideast peace agreements. Hamas rejected all three conditions; its spokesman stated that “the Quartet should have demanded an end to occupation and aggression,…not demanded that the victim recognize the occupation and stand handcuffed in the face of the aggression.”
Hamas has maintained this uncompromising position ever since. This has enabled it to project a more positive image to Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims in general than the compromising (and, in the eyes of many, compromised) Fatah. In addition, Hamas also appears to be more successful than Fatah. Hamas has gained and retained control of Gaza in defiance of both Israel and Fatah itself. Fatah, by contrast, appears to retain control of only those parts of the West Bank that Israel allows it to.
Hamas pursues this policy, though, not just because this allows it to look more “principled” than Fatah or even because this is its preference. The Hamas leadership is well aware that Fatah’s renunciation of armed struggle against Israel combined with its inability to negotiate a settlement with it acceptable to the Palestinians served to discredit Fatah and allowed Hamas to gain popularity and strength. Hamas fears that if it, too, foreswore violence, as the Quartet insists, there is no guarantee it would be any more successful in negotiating an agreement with Israel that the Palestinian population would accept. Even attempting this would leave the door open for a rival Islamist group to do to Hamas what Hamas did to Fatah. One such potential rival already exists: Islamic Jihad. And, just as al-Qaeda affiliates (such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in Iraq, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) have arisen elsewhere, an al-Qaeda in Palestine might arise to challenge Hamas if it seeks to compromise with Israel but is unable to wrest concessions from it. Of course, more radical Islamist movements may gain strength vis-à-vis Hamas even if the latter remains committed to its uncompromising position, but fails (as it surely will) to achieve positive results for the Palestinian people.
Whether they realize it or not (and, unfortunately, some do not), all the current major players in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict—Israel, America and its allies, Fatah, and even Hamas—have an interest in achieving a negotiated settlement acceptable to both Israelis and Palestinians. Their failure to achieve it means that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at risk of becoming much more deeply enmeshed in the “War on Terror” and perhaps even irresolvable—an outcome that would benefit al-Qaeda and its affiliates.
Mark N. Katz is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Middle East Policy Council and a Professor of Government at George Mason University. Links to many of his publications can be found on his website: www.marknkatz.com
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