Fatah and Hamas: Heading for a Showdown in Lebanon
By Andrew Lee Butters and Rami Aysha
Beirut Thursday, Feb. 26, 2009
Hamas militants in Beirut demonstrate against the Israeli incursion in Gaza on Jan.4
Nabil Mounzer / EPA / Corbis
Stacks of portraits of Mahmoud Abbas stand unused, gathering dust in the office of his Fatah movement in Beirut's Shatila Palestinian refugee camp. Posters of Abbas – President of the Palestinian Authority, leader of Fatah and chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) – would normally hang in offices and on street corners throughout Lebanon's 12 Palestinian refugee camps. But ever since Israel's incursion into Gaza earlier this year, Abbas has become politically radioactive to the approximately 400,000 refugees languishing in Lebanon, who were livid at his failure to act in defense of the beleaguered Gazans. "Abbas embarrassed us," says one Fatah official charged with delivering Abbas portraits in the camp. "Sometimes we force people to take the posters, but they never put them up." But Abbas may be about to lose a lot more than pride of place for his portrait in the seething refugee camps.
The stack of unused posters is but a symptom of the collapse of support for Fatah in Lebanon, home to the most politically active population of Palestinians outside the West Bank and Gaza. It was the movement's traditional support there that underscored Abbas' mandate, as chairman of the PLO, to negotiate on behalf of all Palestinians. But the failure of Abbas' negotiation strategy to deliver any meaningful change for the prospects of Lebanon's Palestinian refugees has led many — like their kin in the West Bank and Gaza — to transfer their support to Hamas and other radical Islamist groups. (See pictures of Lebanon in crisis.)
The refugees of Lebanon have always been more militant than their brethren inside the Palestinian territories. Most are descendants of those who fled Israeli forces in Galilee during the war of 1948; since then they have been prevented by Israel from returning to their homes. Having lived for six decades without citizenship or basic civil rights in the squalor and despair of refugee camps in a country that bars refugees from owning property and from entering some 70 professions, they have long provided a fertile recruiting environment for militant groups.
Even Abbas' more popular predecessor as Fatah leader, Yassir Arafat, struggled to sell the Oslo peace process to his supporters in Lebanon, where members of Fatah remained committed to armed struggle to "liberate Palestine" and still run guerrilla-training academies. These days, however, even that hard-line Fatah stance is no longer enough for most Palestinians here. High-ranking officials of Abbas' own party fear that he will trade away their right of return to what is now Israel. "Yassir Arafat went into negotiations with the olive branch in one hand and a weapon in the other hand," says one Beirut Fatah commander. "But all Mahmoud Abbas does is negotiate. He gets nothing, but he keeps negotiating. Palestinians believe in military operations because they want to go back to Palestine. They don't want to negotiate." (Read "After Israel's Election, Palestinians Weigh New Intifadeh.")
Hamas, meanwhile, is continuing to grow. The movement uses its financial backing from Iran and other countries to build clinics, kindergartens and social-services centers in every camp. Hamas supporters also get vouchers for medical care at hospitals run by Hizballah, the Lebanese anti-Israeli militant group that's also supported by Iran. And the refugees hear stories about leaders in the West Bank growing rich from embezzled international aid, while refugees see almost nothing in social services from the Palestinian Authority, which is controlled by Fatah. "Fatah isn't helping people," says the Beirut Fatah commander. "Hamas is taking advantage of this. They are entering deep, deep into the population."