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The conflict over Palestinian legitimacy

The large controversy caused by Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi’s visit to Gaza as the chairman of the International Union for Muslim Scholars’ delegation is not a new phenomenon in the Palestinian arena. The PA, the PLO and left-wing factions have treated all political visits to the Gaza Strip with coldness and dismissal on the grounds that they deepen Palestinian division and violate the legitimacy some believe is represented by the PLO alone.

The Palestinian Authority and other Palestinian parties have expressed their discomfort of the Qatari Emir’s visit to Gaza last year, and it seems that the need for diplomatic dealings has lessened the expression of discomfort towards the visit. This was not the case during Sheikh Qaradawi’s visit which was greatly criticised, and included statements abusing the Sheikh made by PA and Fatah spokespeople. These statements claimed that the Sheikh obtained a forged Palestinian passport, although it was actually a gift given as a token of appreciation for his position on the Palestinian cause.


The Palestinian arena is also expected to witness similar tension when the Turkish Prime Minister makes his scheduled visit to Gaza, which has sparked controversy before it occurred. This became apparent when the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, urged Erdogan to refrain from making this visit, which the Turkish Foreign Ministry responded to by saying that Turkey will do as it pleases and will not allow any other party to interfere in its policies and diplomatic relations.

However, the matter did not end there. It seems as if the pressures have reached a presidential level, which can be concluded through Erdogan’s statement made during the joint press conference with the US President in Washington, in which he said he would be visiting Ramallah, along with the Gaza Strip.

Why do political visits to the Gaza Strip spark so much controversy? Why does Fatah and the PLO strongly fight them? Why is Hamas encouraging such visits?

A new old conflict

The key word that answers the aforementioned questions is “legitimacy”, as what the Palestinian arena is witnessing today is a natural extension of the conflict over Palestinian legitimacy between Hamas and the PLO. This conflict started when Hamas became a part of the national resistance in 1987 and an important player in Palestinian politics and revolution, as well as a potential competitor for Palestinian legitimacy, which has been monopolised by the PLO since Fatah gained control of it in 1969.

Moreover, what intensified this conflict was the popularity gained by Hamas in record time, as well as its significant participation in the first Intifada, and its execution of its own activities. These activities were far from those of what was known as the unified leadership of the Intifada, which, at the time, consisted of a number of PLO factions.

However, the conflict took on a more intense political and security dimension after the legislative elections in 2006, which explains the clashes and provocations following Hamas’s victory in the elections and the formation of its government. This ultimately led to military action which was resolved in Hamas’s favour in the Gaza Strip, leading the conflict over legitimacy to an unprecedented phase that continues until today. This drives us to study the different elements making up the Palestinian National Liberation movement’s legitimacy.

Historical legitimacy

Historical legitimacy is an important element in establishing legitimacy for any national liberation movement. Such legitimacy is based on recognising the role of the authority or faction leading the revolution, as well as establishing a public opinion that believes in the national right to oppose the enemy, opponent, or occupier.

It is certain that Fatah, as well as the left-wing and national Palestinian factions, possess such legitimacy, as these factions participated in the launch of the modern Palestinian revolution in 1965, as well as in transforming the PLO into an armed entity seeking to liberate Palestine.

Moreover, these factions, spearheaded by Fatah, contributed to the formation of the Palestinian national entity and to the achievement of great military and political victories, despite its failure to achieve the Palestinian National Liberation movement and PLO’s ultimate goal in other various arenas, which is the liberation of Palestine and the return of the refugees, as well as their compensation.

However, historical legitimacy loses much of its importance when the revolution gradually transforms into a state, which is confirmed by the history of the world’s revolutions, such as the case of General Simon Bolivar, liberator of Latin America, and Thabo Mbeki, Nelson Mandela’s deputy president. The history of their struggle did not protect Bolivar and Mbeki, who were unable to continue to sit on the throne of legitimacy after the revolution became a state.

Although the Palestinian revolution is still-theoretically-on-going, as it has not achieved any of its main goals, the Oslo Accords and the authority it produced, has led to the formation of a hybrid between a revolution and state, which has led to the decline in importance of historical legitimacy in the Palestinian National Liberation Movement and contributed to its destruction, though it has not yet fully ended it.

In exchange for this destruction of Fatah’s and the PLO’s historical legitimacy, a new historical legitimacy is being gained by Hamas, who has worked on the formation of its own historical struggle for over 25 years, which is a little over half the entire duration of Palestine’s modern revolutionary history.

Revolutionary legitimacy

Revolutionary legitimacy is closely linked to historical legitimacy since it is based on the revolutionary history of a certain authority or faction. However, it differs from it because it is not only limited to the past performance of this faction or leader, but also includes the continuity of the revolutionary work as long as the goals of the revolution haven’t been realised.

It is well known that Fatah has a considerable revolutionary history throughout the history of the modern Palestinian revolution, as the Palestinian left-wing forces contributed to providing the Palestinian national project with its revolutionary momentum throughout the difference stages of the project’s history. This is especially true during the early stages of the revolution, until it left Beirut in 1982. This means that these movements, led by Fatah, won revolutionary legitimacy in many stages of modern Palestinian history.

The same applies to the Islamic Jihad movement, which has provided revolutionary models from its inception to the present day, but it is different from other Palestinian factions because it adopts a more radical attitude towards the conflict with the Israeli occupation, thus gaining a revolutionary legitimacy that cannot be overlooked in the Palestinian equation.

As for Hamas, it has also executed revolutionary resistance that must be accounted for. Even though it emerged late in the arena of Palestinian revolutionary work, it also constituted a difficult figure in the equation of the Palestinian revolution since its establishment until the beginning of the Al-Aqsa Intifada. This represented a quantum leap in the history of the movement, as after the Intifada, Hamas became the greatest actor in the field of Palestinian revolutionary work, especially after the death of Yasser Arafat, Fatah’s adoption of the strategic option of negotiations under Abbas and the rejection of all forms of revolutionary work, with the exception of public resistance.

Hamas was able to gain a growing amount of revolutionary legitimacy after turning the Al-Aqsa Intifada into a revolutionary act based mainly on the effort of armed factions, as the movement was able to play a major role in the Intifada after this transformation.

However, Hamas’s control of the Gaza Strip in 2006 put the movement in an objective position, making it the leader of the revolutionary work in the area. This was a pivotal moment for increasing the movement’s revolutionary legitimacy through three stages:

Steadfastness in the face of the Israeli aggression in 2008/2009, the ability to capture the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and exchange him for about a thousand Palestinian prisoners, and the achievement of a clear victory in the war waged by the occupation in the November 2012.

Returning to the Fatah movement, it is clear that its revolutionary legitimacy is at stake in light of its adherence to the option of peaceful negotiations, and not even being able to implement of the Popular Resistance program, which it adopted in two consecutive meetings of the movement’s Revolutionary Council.

Electoral legitimacy

With the gradual shift of the revolution to a state, constitutional or electoral legitimacy has started to slowly take the place of revolutionary or historical legitimacy. This means that the revolution’s founding history and the achievements of the struggle throughout the history of this revolution, will no longer be sufficient to acquire legitimacy for any of the national work factions. Instead, this history must be supported by electoral legitimacy through the ballot box, and must be based on the constitutional principles governing states in the modern era.

The late President Yasser Arafat was aware of this matter and responded to the requirements of the Oslo Accords by developing the Basic Law or a Palestinian constitution that dictates the relationship between the government and the people, and adds a constitutional and electoral legitimacy to the historical and revolutionary legitimacy which is achieved through the people’s votes in the ballot boxes.

It is known that the Fatah movement has been able to support its historical and revolutionary legitimacy after the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority through electoral legitimacy, as the movement, and its historical leader, Yasser Arafat, were able to achieve a clear victory in the presidential and parliamentary elections held in 1996, in light of Hamas and a number of PLO factions’ boycott of the elections. Fatah also continued to preserve its electoral legitimacy after the death of Yasser Arafat, after its candidate, Mahmoud Abbas, achieved an electoral victory qualifying him to succeed Arafat as president in 2004.

However, the legislative elections held in January 2006 led to the division of electoral legitimacy amongst Fatah and Hamas when Hamas won a large majority of seats in the Legislative Council, which qualified it to head the government and share power with the presidency, as dictated by the Amended Basic Law. This fuelled the conflict over legitimacy between Hamas and Fatah, and deepened the crisis rather than contribute to the solution.

The Palestinian division, which was the inevitable result of the conflict over legitimacy, led to the fuelling of this conflict, in practice, by hindering new elections that may contribute to solving the crisis of legitimacy, at least its electoral aspect. This division formed the substance of the dispute between the conflicting parties, as each party claims to possess electoral legitimacy, while the truth is that both legitimacies, the presidential and parliamentary, are the subject of dispute after the President’s and Legislative Council’s legal terms ended. However, each party is trying to interpret the laws in a way that serves their purpose in this conflict.

All that is left to be said is that neither Fatah nor Hamas monopolise legitimacy alone, without one another. Although historical legitimacy is in favour of Fatah, revolutionary legitimacy is leaning towards Hamas at the moment, and both movements possess partial electoral legitimacy. This means that Hamas cannot claim to fully represent the Palestinian people on its own, and Fatah does not have the right to monopolise this representation. Moreover, neither movement has the right to fight the political and economic support of the Palestinians in Gaza under the pretext of the unity of representation and legitimacy.

The author is the chief editor of Al Hiwar TV. This article is a translation from the Arabic which first appeared on al Jazeera net, 31 May, 2013

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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