Who is responsible for Gaza? A reply to Matthew Yglesias

By Noah Pollak
There has been a dustup between New Republic editor-in-chief Marty Peretz and Atlantic magazine blogger Matthew Yglesias (see “here”:http://www.tnr.com/blog/spine?pid=109588, “here”:http://matthewyglesias.theatlantic.com/archives/2007/05/more_atlantic_for_me.php, “here”:http://www.tnr.com/blog/spine?pid=109593, and “here”:http://matthewyglesias.theatlantic.com/archives/2007/05/whats_my_name_fool.php). It is an unimportant tiff over an important question: Why are the Gaza Palestinians killing each other? Peretz blames the situation on the immutably violent characteristics of Palestinian society — a culture, he emphasizes, in which genuine nationalist sentiments do not actually exist — whereas Yglesias says the carnage is pretty much the Bush administration’s fault.
Peretz clearly has the better understanding of Gaza, and the better argument. But he became annoyed, told Yglesias to shove off, and let the ignorant party come away appearing more reasonable. That’s too bad, because Yglesias’ writings on the Middle East, I’m afraid to say, have a distinctively hanging-out-at-the-coffee-shop feel to them. Yglesias believes that “Hamas-Fatah violence is largely the result of deliberate American policy.” If Peretz won’t have a go at this argument, I will. Says Yglesias:


Fatah used to rule the roost on the Palestinian side of the Green Line. Then the US proclaimed that the Palestinian Authority needed to implement political reforms and hold elections. The Palestinians went to the polls and duly booted out the ruling party in favor of the main opposition party. At this point, the US government, apparently run by morons, realized that the main opposition to Fatah was . . . Hamas. … At which point the United States embarked upon a campaign of funneling all monies away from the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority government and directly into the hands of Fatah-run security services. Shockingly, this has tended to fuel rather than constrain intra-Palestinian fighting.

There is a great deal of history and nuance ignored above, the kinds of things that get in the way of indulging in what are no doubt very satisfying denunciations of the “morons” who run the U.S. government. If I may rephrase Yglesias’s argument and add a helpful enumeration to his points, he says that (1) the Fatah party was keeping things under control until (2) the foolish Bush administration pushed the PA to hold elections. These brought Hamas to power, and (3) now the administration is making the problem worse by helping Fatah wage street battles with Hamas.
Amazingly, none of these assertions are true.
In the case of the first point, the Fatah party most certainly did not “rule the roost” in the territories — especially not in Gaza, where Hamas was founded and has always enjoyed its greatest popularity. The first major suicide bombings that certified the onset of the second intifada were perpetrated by Hamas (including the one that blew up the café next to my office), Yasser Arafat all the while insisting that his government should not be held responsible for such terrorism because Hamas was simply beyond his control. And at least in this case, Arafat was probably saying something close to the truth. When he arrived in the West Bank from Tunis in 1994, Hamas had already been around for eight years. The Fatah party, ruling the roost? Certainly not in Gaza.
And most certainly not in 2004-2005. Does Yglesias remember four very important events that happened during those years? First, Israel defeated the intifada; second, Arafat died; third, Mahmoud Abbas was elected the new PA president; and fourth, Israel removed itself from Gaza. The latter three in particular served to strengthen Hamas — not Fatah. The reality of the fractiousness of the Palestinian cause was already coming into view in 2005, before Hamas was elected, when more Palestinians were killed in internecine fighting than in battle against Israel. It might be gratifying to make a post facto declaration that in 2005, the old hands among the Palestinians had their territory under control until the Bush administration, which can’t do anything right, forced inadvisable changes on them. But that idea is simply a flight of fancy.
Even the use of the phrase “Fatah party” here is misleading. Fatah didn’t rule anything — Arafat did. “Fatah” is a moniker given to the collection of gangsters, sycophants, and terrorists Arafat assembled around himself to protect his rule. Upon Arafat’s death, Fatah became adrift and leaderless. Abbas was elected two months later, and the only thing that has given his rule any salience at all is America’s rather desperate backing.
And now we get to point two, which is that the Bush administration was mistaken in pushing for the PA elections (I assume Yglesias here is talking about the 2006 election that brought Hamas to power, not the 2005 presidential election that Hamas boycotted). The ’05 and ’06 elections were the first of their kind since 1996 (they were supposed to have happened sooner, but the intifada stood in the way), and holding them had been not just a stipulation of Oslo and a longstanding U.S. objective, but a goal of the EU, the UN, and the entire constellation of Middle East peace agitators in think tanks, universities, and the media (Yglesias among them).
By late 2004, the desirability of holding elections became not just a consensus position, but an actual necessity. The president of the PA had just died. Does Yglesias believe that with the old kleptocrat finally gone, the United States and the massive alliance of nations and organizations committed to Palestinian democracy shouldn’t have pushed the PA to finally, after a decade, hold elections?
And now the final point, about the fighting itself.
There is something very consistent about governance in the Arab world. Among the Arab countries today in which there is a modicum of internal stability, each is controlled by an Arafat-type figure — an anti-democratic strongman who is able to crush all challenges to his authority. Likewise, among those Arab countries that aren’t ruled by a despot, the political dynamic is also consistent: In Lebanon, Iraq, and now Gaza, sectarian violence is the dominant form of political expression. It’s true that Arafat’s authority was weaker in Gaza than in the West Bank, but in Gaza there was always another strongman present to keep a lid on things: the Israeli occupation. When Israel disengaged in the summer of 2005, suddenly Gaza was without any master at all, and that’s exactly when the territory started going full-tilt toward the Hobbesian state of nature it now finds itself in.
And so to blame recent Bush administration choices for this lawlessness — or more precisely, to invent stories about administration choices — is more than a bit much. Even if the PA elections in 2006 hadn’t occurred, I doubt the battle we are seeing today wouldn’t have happened. The fight is foreordained by Gaza’s demography, its political and religious extremism, Arafat’s death, and Israel’s unwillingness to police the territory. The Bush administration is simply along for the ride — as is Israel. And the reason why Abbas has never been able to emerge as a leader of the Palestinians is because his weakness is similarly foreordained. Consensus-based political leadership is anathema to the Arab world. We’re seeing that rather starkly today in Gaza.
All of that said, I think that Yglesias ends up being partially right (even though he doesn’t mean to be) when he lays the lawlessness in Gaza at Bush’s feet. The sad truth is that Gaza today is a testament to the failure of the entire 14-year project of creating the Palestinian Authority, retrieving Arafat from exile, and attempting to drag the Arabs of Palestine, against their will, into western political modernity. This process was started, and most forcefully pushed forward, by the Clinton administration, and today its corpse is still being dragged around the Middle East, Weekend at Bernie’s-style, by Condoleezza Rice.
Readers might be surprised to hear — Mr. Yglesias probably among them — that less than a year ago, Yglesias “wrote the following”:http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2006/08/01/opinion/main1855020.shtml: “I happen to think the White House made the right call on the question of Palestinian elections — even in retrospect, even knowing that Hamas won.” A couple of days ago, he called these administration officials “morons” for having supported the very same elections that he now condemns. I know it’s best to just hurry past the contradictions, especially when they involve the reshuffling of positions in order to condemn the Bush administration. But it is too enjoyable to avoid the conclusion that here, Yglesias is calling himself names.
UPDATE by MJT: Don’t miss the exhaustive Story of Gaza which is up now on the main page of the blog.



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