Yasser Arafat has been dead for three years, harried to an early death by the Israeli siege of his battered presidential compound in Ramallah. Two camps - his own secular Fatah faction and the Islamist group Hamas - that claim to carry on his struggle for Palestinian rights have effectively been at war for months. In so doing, they have undermined their shared goal of justice for the Palestinian people and trampled a principle of ideological inclusiveness that was perhaps the most important hallmark of Arafat’s leadership. And now they have marred the anniversary of his death with bloodshed.
Leaders of both Fatah and Hamas need very much to take a step back and think about the position of their people - not their respective constituents, but the Palestinian people whom they both purport to represent - and therefore about the consequences of their actions. Their people have been dispossessed for decades, and their Arab allies have never been of much help except (in a limited fashion) when it has suited their own purposes. Their would-be peace partner, the Israeli government, has made clear that it is in no rush to conclude an agreement, and the Jewish state’s cohorts in Washington can be relied upon to support this intransigence as best they can.
This is a period of profound vulnerability for the Palestinians, making it incumbent on their leaders to put up a united front so as to communicate their unanimous rejection of any peace treaty that unduly violates or even dilutes their legitimate national rights. This will not be accomplished by having Fatah and Hamas plan and prepare for the next round of a senseless civil war. That would play straight into the hands of those who want their people’s suffering to continue.
For all his weaknesses, Arafat understood very clearly that a movement divided against itself could never succeed. Which of his would-be heirs will be the first to figure this out?