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The writing of national history is problematic at the best of times. The writing of recent national history, particularly when it is related to an ongoing conflict, must be a truly daunting task. It is generally a brave scholar who picks their way through the ideological minefield of this difficult area. However, there are also those who set aside the complexities of this field of enquiry and settle for ill-conceived and ideologically motivated polemics. Jonathan Schanzer fits very much into this latter category.

Hamas vs Fatah is a deeply ideological and gloating account of how the Palestinian national movement became so divided. A brief look at some of the books content should suffice to give a clear indication of its flaws. [1]                 

By way of an introduction to Hamas vs Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine  Jonathan Schanzer claims that the division between the two groups significantly undermines the notion of a “uniform Palestinian identity”. [2][3] He explains how “Khalidi and many other sympathetic observers of Palestinian politics” have been wrong to claim that there is such a uniform identity. Schanzer argues that the June 2007 violence was an “unmistakable milestone”, saying:

“It was a clear and outward manifestation of a civil war that had gone undeclared for years. The battle between Fatah and Hamas was not simply a territorial conflict. It was not a misunderstanding. It was a bitter battle in a wider power struggle between two rival Palestinian factions known to hold two diametrically different ideological positions with regard to the role of religion and politics in what is commonly referred to as the struggle for Palestine.”

There are a number of problems here – the insinuation that Rashid Khalidi doesn’t deal with the complexities of Palestinian identity, the disdainful use of the phrase “commonly referred to” as though to suggest Palestinian claims to national self-determination are founded on nothing more than just a commonly held opinion – but we will focus on just a couple of the major points.

Palestinian Nationalism

In his brief account of Palestinian nationalism, Schanzer informs the reader,

“Combined with xenophobia, chauvinism, and/or irredentism, nationalism can become as dangerous as any other radical ideology. In its current incarnation, as commonly expressed by Fatah and the PLO, the ideology of Palestinian nationalism often meets these criteria.”

Obviously there is a certain amount of truth in this but it is reductive and takes the Palestinian national movement completely out of context. The ideological motivation behind this becomes clear when two paragraphs later he rehearses the history of Haj Amin al-Husseini, the first prominent Palestinian national leader, and his collaboration with the Nazis, the strong implication being (although he does not go so far as to spell it out) that the early Palestinian national movement was intrinsically motivated by anti-Semitism.

A more critical reading of Palestinian history would show how the early national movement was motivated primarily by anger at the British occupation and anti-Zionism (something they had in common with the religious Palestinian Jews), which they saw as a threat to their national rights.

For Schanzer to deal with this complex historical episode in such a reductive fashion shows a lack of engagement with the copious amount of information that is available on the period (something that is also evidenced by the lack of references to any works specialising on early Palestinian history). 

It should also be noted that Schanzer’s focus on Husseini, and later Arafat, follows the classic path trodden by many who have sought to discredit anti-colonial struggles. By concentrating on particular leaders and their many faults, it is possible to characterise (and in the process delegitimize) entire movements as being essentially irrational mobs following the whims and prejudices of their leaders rather than popular movements with genuine concerns.

Schanzer’s book is the intellectual equivalent of Israel’s relentless focus on Arafat during the first and second intifada and their belief that he was always the ‘hidden-hand’ behind the violence.

Just as this allowed Israeli politicians to avoid asking serious questions about whether there may be a relationship between the occupation and Palestinian violence, focusing on individual leaders (however prominent they were or are) allows Schanzer to avoid doing any of the serious historical analysis necessary to understanding Palestinian nationalism.

Islamism:  One Ideology or Many?

Schanzer’s thinking does not become any more nuanced when dealing with Hamas. He begins by pointing out that “the driving ideological force behind Hamas…is radical Islam.”  Again this is true enough but again he is reducing Islamism, a complex phenomenon with many strands, down to its bare essentials.  Schanzer begins his discussion of Islamism with a definition,

“Radical Islam, as Americans have learned since September 11, 2001, is an expansionist and utopian ideology that often justifies violence in the name of what is commonly recognised as a peaceful religion.  Those who embrace this ideology seek to implement a strict interpretation of the Quran (Islam’s holy book) and shari’a (Islamic law) in all Muslim lands.”

We can see here that, just as he used a rhetorical ploy to make the association between Palestinian nationalism and Nazism, he uses the spectre of 9/11 to make a connection between Hamas and al-Qaeda. Like much what is in Hamas vs Fatah this is half right. Ideologically speaking there is a lot of common ground between the two Islamist organisations.

They both follow a totalising political ideology that is derived from a strict and politicised reading of Islam. They are both inspired by the Egyptian Islamist ideologue Sayyid Qutb. They both share many of the same enemies. However, this is a long way from them being indistinguishable organisations. 

Al-Qaeda can best be characterised as a transnational organisation (albeit with a leadership derived predominantly from Saudi Arabia and Egypt). It is a network of affiliated groups and individuals that share a similar ideology, and that all look up to (but do not take orders from) a central core leadership.

Hamas has a lot more in common with the national liberation organisation’s of the 1960s and ‘70s.  It has always maintained that its purpose is to “liberate” Palestine rather than wage an international jihad. It has a hierarchical structure, with a leadership in Damascus and the Gaza Strip, which defines the political programme and provides the organisation with a relatively clear direction.

Ideologically it also tends to be more flexible than al-Qaeda-inspired jihadists. Its decision to take part in the Palestinian elections in 2006 drew heavy condemnation from the al-Qaeda leadership, with Usama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri declaring, “[t]hose trying to liberate the land of Islam through elections based on secular constitutions or on decisions to surrender Palestine to the Jews will not liberate a grain of sand of Palestine.” [4] 

By neglecting the complex particularities of Islamism, and the often parochial concerns lying behind the cosmic rhetoric of Islamists, Schanzer ends up painting a picture of Hamas that really only has a tenuous link to reality.

Conclusion

The division between Hamas and Fatah is certainly a crucial topic of study and Schanzer is right to point out that it is one that has been somewhat neglected.  It is not the case though, in the words of Schanzer’s mentor Daniel Pipes (who wrote the forward to the book and who is renowned for his ‘hawkish’ approach to the Middle East) that “an official, propagandistic, and inaccurate party line holds sway.”

It is true that in public debate the Palestinians do tend to downplay their internal divisions but this is true about every national movement, particularly when living under occupation.

The best way to address the neglect of internal Palestinian politics in the wider public sphere is to produce well researched, objective accounts rather than, as Schanzer has done, books that are little more than ideological grandstanding.       


 

Notes

[1] A more detailed review can be found here:  Hroub, Khaled. “Schanzer: Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine.” Journal of Palestine Studies 39.2 (2010): 126. Web. 18 Oct 2010. <http://www.palestine-studies.org/journals.aspx?id=10635&jid=1&href=fulltext&gt;.

[2] Schanzer, Jonathan. Hamas vs Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

[3] Khalidi, Rashid. Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.  Cited by Schanzer.

[4] Milton-Edwards, B. and Farrell, S. Hamas. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010

One thought on “Book Review: Hamas vs Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine by Jonathan Schanzer

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Hamas vs Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine by Jonathan Schanzer (We Left Marks) | Notes on the Interregnum: Essays and Reviews

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