In this installment of Palestine Studies TV, we spoke with Rashid Khalidi, professor at Columbia University and editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies. He discussed the deal between Hamas and Fatah that is aimed at reconciliation after the state of division since 2007.

Palestine Studies TV is a project of the Institute for Palestine Studies. 

WY: Thank you for joining us professor Khalidi

RK: Pleasure

WY: We received a question from twitter. Badia asks, “What sort of concrete changes will happen for every day Palestinians with this agreement?”

RK: The changes began, I think, even before this agreement was formally signed with the opening up of the Rafah crossing by the Egyptian authorities back about a month ago. And this was a part of the regional changes in Egypt and in Syria that I think facilitated this agreement. I think that will considerably help the people of Gaza, who now have a much freer ability to enter and exit their besieged strip. Their besieged region, some thirty miles by ten miles, which has sort of been a prison for the last five or six years. What changes will follow in this agreement will very much depend on how faithfully it is followed. But, assuming that, and it seems it will be the case, some parts of it are going to be carried out. One thing that I think we will see is the unification of the non-security elements of the PA and the extension of a number of programs that are now only operating in the WB to the Gaza strip. A second thing that I think we are likely to see is a lot freer political activity and less political repression both in the WB and in the Gaza Strip as both factions and all other Palestinian groups gear up for elections that are supposed to take place in a year. And a third thing that I think we are likely to see is the severe punishment of the PA by Israel and those of its backers who can blackmail and bludgeon it following it and taking punitive sanctions against the Palestinians for unifying and doing something that Israel does not want them to do. Israel has already withheld Palestinian tax revenue, that is to say Palestinian revenue that is the property of Palestinian people which the Israelis are stealing or at least confiscating for the moment. And it will through its supporters in Congress undoubtedly push for the withholding of US aid. This is going to impact Palestinians, I think, sooner or later both by Israel withholding aid and very likely at some stage in the near future the US withholding aid on the grounds that the American law prevents material support to any so-called terrorist entity.  These are laws passed by our Congress which are designed not so much to strike at terrorists who will attack the United States but essentially to strike at enemies of Israel. So it is a case of US law essentially serving Israeli interests. And I am afraid that we will see that in affect fairly soon.

WY: Israel and the United States were able to affectively pressure the unity government that was formed after the 2006 parliamentary elections, what is different now? What is to prevent another fissure between Hamas and Fatah coming from international or regional pressures?

RK: The biggest difference is the earthquake that has affected the entire Arab world and which is one of the main reasons there is an agreement between these two factions. The state of Arab disarray, the decadent authoritarian regimes, most of them aligned with the United States of course, but in the case of Syria it is not, held up the status quo in Palestine. They effectively supported Israel’s occupation and were the major factor, besides pressure from Israel and the United States, in keeping the Palestinians divided. That stagnant status quo has now broken like a log jam. The Arab Spring has burst the entire regional structure which effectively upheld Israel’s occupation and which was instrumental in keeping the Palestinians divided.

Specifically, the fall of the Mubarak regime removed the major obstacle to Palestinian reconciliation. The so called malaf, the folder of Palestinian reconciliation was in the hands of Omar Suleiman for four years. For those four years he worked ceaselessly to ensure that there would be no Palestinian reconciliation because that was Egyptian policy, it was Israeli policy, and it was American policy, and he faithfully followed that policy. Within two months of Omar Suleiman’s disappearance the Egyptian Military Intelligence, the same agency that he headed, brokered a reconciliation agreement. It is impossible not to conclude that the fall of the regime in Egypt removed the largest obstacle to Palestinian reconciliation, which means the Mubarak regime was a faithful agent of American and Israeli policy and of its own paranoid fantasies about Hamas. This is an enormously different Arab world that this reconciliation agreement emerges into than existed in 2006 when the Palestinian elections took place or 2007 when Hamas took over the Gaza strip and the intervening years when various reconciliation efforts, first by Saudi Arabia and later by the Egyptians, failed.

The second almost as important change in the regional environment is the significant weakening of the Syrian regime, which was one of the two major supporters of Hamas. Hamas has refused to do what the Syrian regime demands of its clients and stooges, which is to completely support the line of the government which is that all of the dissent in Syria is a result of external manipulation of some version. This is partly because Hamas has some sympathy for some of the people engaged in this popular uprising inside Syria. Hamas is being punished by the regime, and moreover, given the weakening of the regime even if there were not this difference is in a much more insecure position that it was before the Arab Spring reached Damascus somewhat belatedly. The international environment has not changed that much, but certainly the Arab environment has changed enormously as a result of the revolutions that have started in Tunisia in December and brought down the Tunisian and Egyptian dictators. I would say that that is one reason to assume that there will be different outcomes for Hamas.

WY: that reminds me of an op-ed that Jimmy Carter wrote about this issue recently. He mentioned that this was the Arab Spring within Palestine, or somehow a result of that. That raises the question, what are the domestic factors behind this?

RK: I think you raise a very good point and I think Carter was right. This reconciliation did not only happen because the external situation had changed. It happened because the Palestinians had been fed up with both of their leaderships for a very long time. Both Fatah and Hamas had very low levels of support within the regions that they control. Hamas was particularly unpopular in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas is particularly unpopular in the West Bank. Both are considered to have failed to advance a strategy for liberation. Both are perceived to have been guilty of putting narrow partisan interest above the national interest. And both have been the target of enormous pressure from civil society to do something different than the narrow partisan course of fighting each other rather than doing anything about the main problems that the Palestinians face, which are occupation and dispossession. This finally burst into the open when people started to demonstrate in a very tightly controlled Gaza as well as a very tightly controlled West Bank starting in March. So there has always been pressure. I detect it every time I go to Palestine. There is pressure on the two Palestinian Authorities both of whose legitimacy has lapsed, both of whom in fact have long since ceased to be legal constitutional governments because the terms of office of all of the parliament, the Palestinian legislative council has ended. There have been no new elections because of the split. The ministers have never been submitted to parliament and the President’s term has ended, so this is an entirely illegal structure. It is perceived as not just illegitimate in Constitutional terms, it is perceived to having failed to achieve Palestinian national objectives by most Palestinians. Every poll tells us that. This finally burst open in March in response to the revolutions shaking the Arab world as people, finally, were able in Ramallah and Gaza to come out to the streets in the face of quite fearsome security presences in both cases. Hamas and Fatah have shown themselves to be brothers of authoritarian brothers under the skin in their treatment of dissent. And there was enormous pressure from below as it were, which obviously was encouraged by the Arab Spring, it was encouraged by the fall of the Pharaoh in Cairo, and encouraged by the weakening of the Syrian regime as a result of the Syrian people rising up.

WY: We have another question from Twitter here. Abdalla wants to know more about Hamas’s involvement. He asks if this represents a strategic change for the group or is it merely a tactic within a preexisting strategy.

RK: It is a little hard for me to say. You will see in the next issue of the journal an interview that the journal did with Osama Hamdan who is in effect Hamas’s foreign secretary/minister. I think that if your compare what happened now with what he said there is no apparent change. This does not seem, on the surface, to represent a major shift. I would say though that Hamas has probably been shaken by popular dissatisfaction in the Gaza strip. I think it has been shaken by the weakening of its patron in Damascus, and the weakening of its relationship with the Syrian regime and I think that, frankly, there is nothing that they have to show for five years in power in Gaza. They have not successfully liberated one square inch of Palestinian territory. They have not moved the cause one bit with their strategy and they are blamed as much as Fatah for the division. I do not see an enormous strategic shift. There may be a tactical shift but I would argue that the main changes are from below and from without rather than inside Fatah or inside Hamas.

The only thing I can say is that as you can see in the statement that Khaled Mashal made in Cairo is Hamas is still talking about a two state solution. This is not a strategic shift. Hamas is just as committed as Fatah to a two state solution; the difference is that Hamas wants to do this somehow without recognizing Israel. But it is committed to a two state solution of a Palestinian state living in peace side by side with an Israeli state. How do you square that with non-recognition of Israel? For that you will have to ask the theologians of Hamas. It is incomprehensible to me but there we are. That position has not changed. That theological position has not changed, that “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” type of question has to be asked of them. So, in fact there has been no strategic shift here. What Meshal said in Cairo and what was shockingly reported on the front page of the New York Times in this morning’s paper, is in fact the old standard Hamas policy.

WY: Now I ask about the US’s response. There seems to be debate within the foreign policy establishment as to whether this was a good thing or not. This is a stark contrast, of course, with the lack of debate in Congress. We know that congress is considering a resolution that will prohibit U.S. aid to Palestine. What is your sense of the US position?

RK: I perceive that there will be a battle fought out in four arenas. One is going to be media and public opinion and that and congresses are almost coterminous. Sanity and logic and reality will not prevail. We had Michael Oren in full braying form on National Public Radio, given a podium, given a bully pulpit to spread his misinformation, disinformation, distortion, and propaganda. I can see where that is going. Public opinion and Congress are going to be taken to a position that these are supporters of Osama bin Laden, these are blood thirsty terrorist, these are murderers of children in Sderot, and these are allies of Iran. The article in the New York Times which actually mentions the fact that Hamas is in favor of a two state solution did not fail to mention in line two that Hamas is aligned with Iran. It is clear to me that in the American mainstream media and in Congress, which is going to do exactly what is told to do by AIPAC as always is the case, this is a lost battle.

Now, where will it also be fought? It will be fought out in what you can call elite opinion among the foreign policy establishment and opinion among savvy people like most students who are interested in this issue. Most people in the Jewish community who are liberal and do not believe anything AIPAC says ever, and most other sane individuals in the United States and the world, and including Israel, who are going to say rightly this is probably a very good thing. And they will say that measures to try and oppose Palestinian unity are in fact against peace and a resolution of the conflict. In other words, it will be seen as an attempt to maintain the status quo of occupation, colonization, and immiseration of the Palestinian people. That is what Israel and United States stand for, in effect, and this is what they want to continue. That is what I think will be in the end be US and Israeli policy.

This second set of debates that are debates among sane people talking about reality rather than the bizarre world which is Congress and the mainstream media. This is the world that was created by AIPAC and Israeli disinformation. In the sane world, there will be a debate which I think will affect the administration. It will affect the administration for two reasons. The first is they understand this as a struggle between the legislative and the executive branches and no president, whatever his position on Israel, wants to have the foreign policy of the United States dictated by Congress. This is an old, old issue that has nothing to do with Israel and nothing to do with Palestine. This administration, even though it is worm eaten by the likes of Dennis Ross, people who essentially are shills for Israel, even though it is full of people who see things in terms of what Congress wants, what public opinion wants, and most importantly what will get the president reelected in November 2012 – that is the holy grail of the administration, in spite of the fact that this debate inside of the administration will be carried on one side by the lot it will be carried on the other side by people who say that the president cannot allow himself to be dictated to by congress. No president, under any circumstances, can allow this to happen. Secondly, by people who are in what we like to call the reality-based community and will point out that the United States taking the side of Israel on this is going to put it in an even worse situation in a more democratic Arab world than it was in the dictatorially dominated Arab world in which the United States was so comfortable three months ago. This will be yet another terrible blow to American credibility, standing, and authority in the Arab world. So the president will be listening on the one side to shills for Israel, to people who are arguing electoral considerations, and to people on the other side who are arguing that the executive authority of the executive is being challenged here and that this would be a stupid policy to follow for American foreign policy and for reasons of the American national interest. The president, in the end, will go with the first group I would predict and American aid will be probably cut off.

WY: So what do you think is going to happen with this agreement?

RK: I should never predict anything because either the president may find his backbone on this issue or leadership may be taken by others. Just to conclude this, it may that be a European policy, it may be a United Nations policy, and it may be led by countries like Turkey, Russia, India, and China. Countries that understand that this is an absolutely essential precondition for breaking the log jam in Palestine and Israel and will lead the way even if the United States does cut off aid that will not have the same affect. The administration will be sheepishly forced to follow the lead of people who are within the reality-based community rather than living in the never-never land created by AIPAC and the Netanyahu government. That is also a possibility. I would not count on it in what in a few months is going to be an election.

WY: Tony Blair said that the international community support for any unity Palestinian government would still rest the Quartet’s conditions: recognizing Israel, abandoning terrorism, and committing to previous agreements signed by the PLO and Israel. To what extend are these conditions still feasible?

RK: Remember the Palestinians have agreed to have a government of technocrats for the next twelve months. It may be that Hamas will accept that such a government accepts such conditions which the can will be kicked down the road twelve months until after the elections. Whether the Quartet and the United States accepts that and whether the lobby will be denied the blood that it is after, which is to cut money off to the PA and weaken the Palestinians, that is what Israel is after and that is what the lobby will try and enable, is impossible to say.

Tony Blair on this is a sort of “running dog” of the United States as the Chinese would have called him. I heard his interview yesterday on the BBC. Of course he sticks to these four conditions. Of course he is eager to see Hamas meet them because he himself was in office as Prime Minister of Britain when the Quartet produced these conditions. And because he sees things from an Israeli perspective. In his view a Palestinian Authority which does not demand anything of Israel and does everything Israel wants is the natural condition. The status quo is the right thing. A Palestinian Authority that takes Western aid money to arrest and torture Palestinians while Israel is continuing settlement activity, harming the Palestinian economy, and continuing to besiege Gaza is perfectly acceptable.

The whole structure created by the negotiations, in the view of a lot of Palestinians I think, is flawed.  The negotiations, as the Egyptians have said, should take place on a new basis with some kind of new international forum, which would probably be the right Palestinian negotiating position. I think that the disappointment that even the most fervent advocates of negotiating through Washington have felt with the Obama administration is one of the things that have driven them to this. If you want to look at one of the reasons that this has come about, one of them is the Abbas government, the Fayyad-Abbas leadership in Ramallah, feel themselves to have been gravely disappointed by the failure of the Obama administration to do anything whatsoever to help them. I think they may have realized that there is absolutely no hope for anything positive from the United States for the next two years. So why continue to bend, and kneel, and kowtow, and accept submissively whatever it is people in Washington say when they do not give you anything in return? Except the money which helps them to do what the Americans and Israelis want. So, we shall see. I have no idea how this is going to work out. But, I think there are many intermediate stages where if the Europeans, other countries, and the Palestinians are resourceful, might lead to things that while they would never satisfy this Israeli government or in my view very likely the American administration, might lead to a situation where all aid is not cut off. Maybe American aid, but not all aid. Maybe not European aid or UN aid. And some of that aid may be substituted by Arab or other sources.

I personally have come around to a Tea Party view as far as American military foreign aid is concerned. I think that American military aid should be stopped entirely. I do not see it doing any good besides fostering war, death, and destruction. I think American security aid to dictatorships, which is pretty much the only aid the United States gives, should be stopped entirely. As far as I am concerned, the economic aid is the back of the bus. I do not think it is that important frankly. It is not the lion’s share of US aid in most cases. Nor in Pakistan, nor in Egypt, certainly not in Israel where all aid is military aid.

In the case of Palestine, as far as I am concerned, aid to Palestinian security forces which do the work of Israel without protecting Palestinians is monstrously misbegotten on the part of the Palestinians. I do not see why the Palestinians are taking American money in order to repress their own people in a situation where Israel is not reciprocating. If Israel were dismantling the occupation, removing settlers, closing down settlements, and negotiating in good faith on issues like the right of return, on issues like Jerusalem, like giving up water resources then you might have an argument. Palestinian security forces should both protect the security of Palestinians and prevent the agreement from being disrupted by attacks on Israelis. But, in a situation where Israel is expanding settlements, is further entrenching its occupation, and refusing to negotiate in good faith, I do not see why the Palestinians want that. If they want to preserve security and do so in whatever way they chose that is their business. But, if American aid is conditional on doing something which is entirely a one way street, Israel gets what it wants and the Palestinians get nothing, then good riddance to such aid. I am sure that there are many salaries that are dependent on it and many families dependent on it. There is going to be a lot of hardship involved in ending that aid if it is in fact ended. That is a factor but it is only one factor in what is ultimately a political question.

WY: Thank you very much Prof. Khalidi, we appreciate you being on Palestine Studies TV.

RK: It was a pleasure, as always Will.