Nation in Waiting

An Interview with Robert Danin

So Abbas represents, if you will, that last of that generation of 1948 outsiders who came back with Arafat in 1993-1994, went to Gaza and ultimately to Ramallah and set up the institutions of the Palestinian Authority. This took place with some real friction with the insiders. What we're seeing now are some of the so-called insiders starting to position themselves to take over these Palestinian institutions from the generation of the PLO in exile that surrounded Arafat such as Abbas, Abu Alaa a.k.a. Ahmed Qurei, and others who were historically associated with the Palestinian national movement.

When Abbas goes we will likely see someone emerge from within, from the West Bank and Gaza, not someone who's going to come in from outside. There will also be a transition to a new generation: a generation of Palestinians whose defining experience was not necessarily the Nakba, the war of 1948. That means that the perspective, the interests, and the defining experiences of the next generation will be very different.

It is interesting to note, at this macroscopic level of Palestinian politics, that we are also seeing a transition regarding the role of the Palestinian national movement with the Arab world. In 1948 the Arab states went to war against Israel in order to liberate Palestine for the Palestinians. In essence, the Arab states took ownership of the Palestinian issue and said to the Palestinians: “It's ours. You Palestinians fled. Your movement has fractured. We're in charge.” This was Yasser Arafat's revolution in the 1960's -- to push back against this and say, "We Palestinians are going to take back the leadership of the national struggle." After the 1967 Six Day War, it was abundantly clear that the Arabs had failed to liberate Palestine.

Yet today, because of the fractured nature of the Palestinian movement between the West Bank and Gaza and between Fatah and Hamas, Palestinian politics is now getting caught up once more in the different rivalries and factions of the Arab world. Different Palestinian factions are going back to trying to enlist the support of different Arab and external actors to help them in their internal struggles, both within their movement and against rivals in other parts of the Palestinian national struggle. That contributes to making this such a critical moment.

OR: What does the situation in Gaza look like to you at the moment? What is your take on Yahya Sinwar?

Danin: The situation in Gaza is very difficult. The conditions are very bad. Hamas is weak and feeling the pinch because it's being squeezed by Egypt, it's being squeezed by Israel, and it's being squeezed by Ramallah. We are seeing a transition in the leadership in Gaza. You had Sinwar take over the local leadership of Hamas in Gaza, which is quite significant. Then, several months later, you had the replacement of Khaled Meshaal -- who heads the overall Hamas political movement and had been based in Syria and then in Qatar -- by Ismail Haniya. The significance here is that Haniya is an insider, is also from Gaza.

In a sense, the most significant thing with the emergence of Sinwar in conjunction with the transition from Meshaal to Haniya is that the leadership of Hamas is now, both on the internal and external side, really based in Gaza. This means that you no longer have this significant inside-outside split. It shifts the center of gravity, the sense of priorities. The whole program changes.

For example, when Sinwar at first emerged as the new leader, people focused on his background and focused on the fact that he is very hardline. He is someone who spent 22 years in Israeli prison, who had been opposed to the Shalit deal that got him released because he thought that it was too big a concession by Hamas to obtain this release. This is a tough guy.

Yet subsequent developments have resulted in a surprising situation. One was a move by Hamas to try to establish some local autonomy in Gaza. This provoked a counterreaction by Abbas: he started to put real pressure on Gaza, to withhold payment of salaries to Palestinian authority officials in Gaza, to withhold subsidies for gas. It worsened the living conditions in Gaza. Abbas went so far as to urge Israel to squeeze Gaza even further, putting Israel in a very awkward place.

The result of that was for Sinwar to be more receptive to a proposal or an initiative that then came along from Muhammad Dahlan, from Fatah, who is aligned with the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. So you have Sinwar, this hardliner, all of a sudden starting to talk to and work with perhaps the biggest nemesis to Hamas in Gaza. The man who was at war literally with them in 2007, in a bloody confrontation: Muhammad Dahlan. So how do we judge Sinwar?

The way I read it is that this does not reflect any moderation in Sinwar and Hamas's medium-to-long term aspirations -- to take over the PLO and refuse any accommodation with Israel. Instead, it seems to me more of a recognition of the reality of the situation today, which is that Hamas and its primary constituency in Gaza are hurting very badly. Its revenue intake has been harmed tremendously by withholding of remittances by Ramallah, by money that's been withheld from external sources. Thus, we're seeing a shift within Hamas from a situation where you had Khaled Meshaal in Doha negotiating a new national platform to Sinwar saying, “No, our first priority is to address the needs of the people of Gaza today. That means we need to lift the burden of the siege.” That's the Palestinian term for the containment and isolation of Gaza.

There is one other very important development, which is been a shifting approach by Egypt towards Gaza. This has created a new geopolitical environment in which Hamas and Gaza are operating. There is in Cairo, under Egyptian President Sisi, a very strong anti-Muslim Brotherhood government seeking to remove all vestiges of the Brotherhood in Egypt. It sees the Brotherhood as its arch foe throughout the region. Hamas, remember, in its orientation is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. After the Sisi government emerged in Egypt in 2013, Cairo took a new and very touch approach towards Hamas and towards Gaza. You saw for the first time Egypt strenuously working with its military and security services to prevent the smuggling and importation into Gaza of proscribed goods and weaponry. Egypt became perhaps even more adamant than Israel that Gaza should not turn into an irredentist threat to the region. Egypt clamping down on Gaza really put the squeeze on Hamas, much more than Israel has. So Hamas in Gaza finds itself really squeezed, both from Egypt from one end and Israel on the other. And it has really been chafing under this.