The conflict between Fatah and Hamas boils down to beards; between theocratic and nationalist ideals. Only a showdown can decide between Hamas and Fatah rule, with one side totally victorious and the other totally defeated, and it is doubtful that Fatah can muster the strength to make a bid for true power in Gaza.
Politics takes many forms. Often, it is exceedingly complex and unpredictable no matter how small the political issue at hand.
Sometimes, the political situation, as large as it may be, is extraordinarily simple. Whereas resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian problem is characterized by complexity, the dynamics of internal partition and disunity between the PA and Hamas in Gaza is characterized by simplicity.
The conflict between the PA and Hamas boils down to beards. Hamas security personnel – both its “army” and personnel in the various security agencies controlled by its Interior Ministry, including the blue-force police – are almost always bearded. One can safely assume that the few personnel who aren’t bearded shave for health reasons.
On the other hand, the PA’s security personnel – which Hamas often deprecates as the “Dayton” forces, so named after the first US general to train them – sport no beards.
“Dayton” is used as a term of deprecation, because it suggests that these forces serve the interests of the US and of course Israel, “America’s proxy.”
As most indigenous Middle Easterners know, being bearded as a member of a security force is hardly a question of fashion but rather reflects the most burning issue in Middle East politics. A bearded security officer means that the political entity he serves is or aspires to be a theocratic state. A non-bearded member of an official security force means that the state he serves is “nationalist” or secular and most certainly anti-theocratic.
The distinction is (pardon the pun) razor sharp and of long pedigree. The leader who most contributed to this law of politics in the Middle East is arguably the greatest leader in the modern Middle East – Mustafa Kemal, or Kemal Ataturk. He was also the most secular.
To the horror of the contemporary Muslim world at the time, he abolished the caliphate almost a century ago and adopted a French-inspired constitution that separated strictly between mosque and state (The Ottoman Sultanate he abolished strictly combined the two). Needless to say, no leader in the Middle East has dared to do the same.
What all the non-theocratic regimes adopted with a vengeance from Kemal’s Turkish Republic was the rule that no man in a security- related uniform could ever wear a beard. In Egypt, the military personnel have no beards.
In Syria, Algeria and Tunisia it is the same. It is hardly surprising that the PA, the aspiring Palestinian “nationalist” state, has strictly enforced this rule.
Just as in the “nationalist” states security personnel never wear beards, in Middle East theocracies they always wear beards.
Just Google “photos of security forces in the Islamic Republic of Iran” and then search the same for security forces during the reign of the shah to see the results. The Hamas government, an aspiring theocracy (at least until many of its tunnels were destroyed by Egypt and Israel and its monies dried up), follows the Iranian example.
This is not to say, of course, that the security forces of Egypt or the PA are anti-religious.
Nothing could be further from the truth. One of the most important perks for senior officers in the Egyptian army is a subsidized pilgrimage to Mecca. The PA security organizations also have their chaplains and mosques, and participation in religious rites is common.
But there is a big difference. The beards in Hamas are indoctrinated by Hamas preachers who essentially control the “Directorate of Political Moral Guidance,” the indoctrination arm of the Interior Ministry and security forces. The equivalent institution within the PA’s security complex is controlled by Fatah nationalists. The former teach the virtues of Sharia law and of serving Islam. The latter teach the virtues of serving the state, its leader and the citizenry.
Even absenting the crucial religious element, the PA/Fatah-Hamas standoff is a bitter zero-sum game. In yielding to the PA under Egyptian pressure to allow Rami Hamdallah’s Fatah-dominated government to operate and its security forces to take over the “international” crossings into Egypt and Israel, Hamas is at risk. What Hamas did to the PA security forces in 2007 (such as throwing them off rooftops), could yet be visited upon Hamas at some time in the future.
Add to this the searing tensions between those bent on theocracy and those who will have no part of it, and the prospects of true Hamas-Fatah unity are negligible, bordering on non-existent.
A recent example of the failure of cohabitation of the two strands of thought and conviction may be found in Egypt during the “Arab Spring.” It was clear from the beginning to the Egyptian army and other segments of the “deep state” that the Muslim Brotherhood must be confronted at all costs. It was president Mohammed Morsi who wavered.
The choice was stark and the episode ended in zero-sum fashion with President Abdel Fattah Sisi emerging all-powerful, and Morsi locked in jail.
In revolutionary Iran, the cards were stacked the other way and the outcome was far bloodier. The losers were executed, not jailed.
The common denominator in these two conflicts is that one side was totally victorious and the other totally defeated.
Only a similar showdown in Gaza can decide between PA and Hamas rule. But it is doubtful whether the Fatah-led PA can muster the strength to make a true bid for absolute power, and even more unlikely that it will win a shootout.
This article was published in The Jerusalem Post on October 18, 2017.
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