Ten Years of Hamas Rule: The Palestinians Must Solve Their Divide Before Peace With Israel

Palestinian Hamas supporters celebrate the group’s election victory in Ramallah, January 26, 2006. Damir Sagolj/Reuters

Ten years ago today, Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, taking 76 of the 132 parliamentary seats (74 plus two independents). The Palestinian faction best known for a campaign of suicide bombings in the 1990s formed a new government some two months later, thrusting Palestinian nationalism into a crisis from which it has never recovered. Washington's foreign policy establishment still fails to grasp its impact, which may explain its recurring inability to broker the creation of a Palestinian state at peace with Israel.

The Hamas victory was an undeniable black eye for American efforts to democratize the Middle East as envisaged by George W. Bush. The secular Fatah faction, Washington's choice as the pragmatic incumbent ruling party in the Palestinian Authority (PA), lost the elections because of the growing (and correct) public perception that the party was ossified and corrupt.

This perception still dogs the Fatah party to this day. But Washington was willing to tolerate corruption and declining legitimacy in exchange for Fatah's readiness to engage in peace talks with Israel, whose existence Hamas refuses to recognize.

With pressure from Washington and Israel to keep Hamas from power, Fatah blocked the Islamist faction from forming a government. It didn't take long after that for bloody clashes to erupt in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Seeking to regain control, PA President Mahmoud Abbas, who had only ascended to power one year earlier after the sudden death of Yasser Arafat, called for early elections.

Hamas bristled, accusing Abbas of launching a coup against their democratically elected government. The Islamist group soon carried out a string of abductions of Fatah and PA figures. According to one NGO, "limbs were fired at to cause permanent physical disabilities" and, in some cases, Hamas shot their political foes point blank in the head.

In an attempt to halt the fighting, the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia invited the two factions to Mecca for a dialogue. After three days, the sides reached an understanding, leading to the February 8, 2007 Mecca Agreement. The two sides agreed to a national unity government, but violence soon erupted on the Palestinian streets again. The enmity was simply too deep.

The anarchy continued through the spring, leading inexorably to Hamas's military offensive in Gaza that began on June 7, 2007. The ensuing six-day war left Gaza smoldering, with Hamas firmly in control. The PA forces, which had been trained and armed by the United States, failed miserably. Some deserted while some even joined Hamas. According to credible reports, Hamas's tactics were utterly brutal, including summary executions and pushing Fatah faction members off of tall buildings to their death. All told, the war claimed the lives of 161 Palestinians. At least 700 were wounded.

Ten years on, the intra-Palestinian conflict is a glaring blind spot among Western policymakers. The enmity between the two factions challenges longstanding assertions of a unified Palestinian national identity. The Palestinian battle for primacy also injects new complexities into the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The conflict, in fact, is now a three-way tug-of-war between Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, where any one move can impact the delicate balance between the three.

After a decade of failed reconciliation efforts and a collapsed unity government in 2015, the intra-Palestinian conflict now appears intractable. The Gaza Strip remains firmly in the hands of Hamas, while the Fatah faction clings to the West Bank with the help of Israeli security and intelligence. There are two separate Palestinian governments with their own bureaucracies, two sets of cadres of political elites, two distinct economies, and increasingly two different cultures.

Nevertheless, Washington continues to call for a single Palestinian state. It's a call that echoes across most Western capitals, too. The overriding assumption is that deft diplomacy coupled with Israeli territorial concessions could pave the way for the Palestinian Authority, unpopular and corrupt as it may be, to regain the moral and military high ground from Hamas and somehow bring the Gaza Strip back under its jurisdiction. These plans remain vague, to say the least.

Equally difficult to discern is the logic behind Washington's long-held belief that Islamist extremists in the Palestinian territories are distinct from their counterparts elsewhere in the region—namely, that Hamas's extremist ideology was primarily a reaction to Israel. As while this may explain much of Hamas's motivations, one cannot ignore the fact that the Islamist group continues to clash with Fatah on broader issues like the role of Islam in society and the validity of secular governance. Indeed, these debates mirror the upheaval we have witnessed across the Middle East since the eruption of the Arab Spring in 2011.

The near collapse of the post-colonial system since the Arab Spring has challenged almost all of our assumptions on how to bring order to the chaos of the Middle East. Yet, the perceived need to create a single Palestinian state spanning the West Bank and Gaza has endured. Ten years on, the Palestinians are still divided—both ideologically and territorially. It may be time to acknowledge that if they can't peacefully resolve their own territorial conflict, they certainly are not likely to resolve the one with Israel.

Jonathan Schanzer is vice president for research at Washington D.C.-based policy institute the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and author of Hamas vs Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine.