The rivalry, power, and utility of Hamas and Fatah in the wider issue of Palestinian identity and Statehood is a subject that Palestinian Gaza resident Lila Farsoun tackles with careful, practiced, nuance, although it is clear her preference if she had to have one, would be for the Fatah over Hamas. When I suggest a new generation less enamored with institutional parties she agrees there is a small generational shift away from the all-consuming factionalism of the past. “I think the younger generations who have come of age after the Intifadas are more apt to shun both parties, at least in Gaza”, a fact she attributes to the younger generation being more exposed to infighting between the two parties. Although still Palestinian nationalists, she thinks the younger generation is disillusioned with factional squabbles and petty acts of indoctrination. “Hamas has rewritten history in Gaza and has erased much of what Fatah did in acts of resistance”, Lila explains. “When Dalal Mughrabi swam with her soldiers to Tel Aviv in 1978, the Islamist group that later developed into Hamas mocked her and made horrible attacks against her as a woman. She was part of the 1st attack by way of the sea. In 2014 when Hamas attacked by sea during the war on us they marketed it as a first, completely refusing to speak of her. This casual rewriting of history has had an impact on the younger generation".
Criticism of Hamas failing as a government in Gaza, and Fatah for being inactive, with President Abbas portrayed as a tool of the occupation, is not hard to find in discussions of Palestine outside of the region. For Lila, in Gaza Hamas has had more of an immediate impact on her life, and largely in a way that she finds objectionable. Asked about the elections which sparked the siege of Gaza, Lila recalls the feeling that the process may have been tainted. “In the early afternoon Hamas was far behind in the polls and Hamas leader Mahmoud al Zahar was already on televisions condemning the elections and saying they were not fair. Then a nationwide one-hour power outage happened (even in the West Bank) which is basically unheard of because we are on different systems and shortly after that Hamas took the lead and won. I am not saying that there was tampering because I do not have evidence of that. I am just stating what happened. I will leave it to others to draw their own conclusions and opinions.”
For these and other reasons, Lila contends that the Hamas rule of Gaza is ultimately illegitimate. “Elections in 2005 were for parliament only. They were not to control Gaza as many people believe. Post elections were a fiasco. A unity government was formed for three months after which it was dissolved as Hamas began their bloody takeover of Gaza. When employees protested in the streets for not being paid they were shot. When PA employees refused to pray inside mosques because Hamas installed their imams etc, they were shot. Qassam shot mortars and rockets at Fatah leadership’s homes and even attacked police stations killing officers. It was a nightmare.” Lila admits that the Hamas Administrations have been problematic for her family and friends, with many having to leave or losing employment as a result but she also provides concrete examples for her criticism which stand in contrast to the vehement but often largely un-contextualized condemnation of the group from governments outside the region.
For Lila, Hamas is simply incompetent and corrupt. “We call them a company, not a government since their sole purpose is to make money from people. They even had a Ministry of Tunnels to get tax money from goods entering from Egypt illegally. They implemented taxes on goods from the West Bank on top of the regular government tax. They took control of the Gaza electricity generating station and even though we pay them monthly for the service, they refused to pay relevant fees to Egypt and Israel leaving the Palestinian Authority to pay for Gazan electricity whilst keeping our payments. At the same time, the Qassam tunnels were equipped with electricity which in turn increased the electricity need in Gaza by over 1/3rd. So the tunnels have electricity but citizens don’t. Issues that they could resolve they ignore and use our suffering to get aid money for themselves.”
It does not take a huge leap of imagination to see how resentment could be induced by such maladministration, especially in the midst of a twelve-year siege that has included three one-sided ‘wars’ in 2009, 2012, and 2014. Life has been hard enough without someone who claims to defend you profiting from your misery. The blockade affects everything in a way that’s hard to imagine. “Electricity is, of course, a huge issue”, Lila tells me. “I don't know what it would be like to have electricity for 24 hours a day - every day. I can't remember the last time I had that in Gaza. Getting eight hours makes me feel like a queen. Right now we get four on and twelve hours off. Sometimes it comes on earlier than scheduled which is a nice surprise. Other times it goes off or doesn't come on. Waking up to plug everything in and charge batteries in the middle of the night, staying home just because you know electricity is coming, reading and studying for school by candlelight. What life is that?” It’s a question that haunts many in Gaza, with tragic consequences. Amazingly, not many people would be able to see any upside to such living conditions so it is a testament to her fortitude that Lila can even share a little joke. “The benefit I guess is we spend extra time with family, talking, playing cards and games, having tea”. The ability to see beauty amongst the rubble is another aspect of her personality that is apparent to those who know her as more than a Twitter handle. For Lila beauty is holding onto her culture and identity despite attempts to erase them both. “We keep the traditional songs, dance, and clothing alive and teach our children about where they came from. Even now when issues arise between families we take the matter to our village elders (from our village that our family was ethnically cleansed from). We may never be allowed to go back to our home villages but they will always be alive in our hearts and our minds.”
Asked if she is optimistic with the latest attempt to form a unity Government and with the Palestinian Authority taking over governing functions in Gaza again, Lila is hesitant. “I’m not sure that it will be successful,” she concedes. “We have heard this so many times in the past and to be honest I tried to not really think about it. It was heartbreaking last time when it failed. Now with the borders under Palestinian Authority (PA) control, I feel more optimistic about it but at any time it can all come apart. It is walking on eggshells.” For its part, Israel has no vested interest in a well functioning Unity Government, domestically or internationally. No surprise then that it announced it would not engage in diplomatic talks with any such Government involving Hamas.
I ask her the extent to which Hamas or Fatah serve Palestinian needs in terms of daily aid, and resisting occupation and ethnic cleansing. For Lila, both of them play slightly different roles, although she is clear that their bulk of her trust is with Fatah and not Hamas, or at least for so long as the latter remains under the Muslim Brotherhood umbrella, and refuse to join the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). “Both parties are altruistic when meeting basic needs of Palestinians on a day to day basis”, she points out. “In my opinion Fatah more so just because it supports and helps nonmembers as well as members. It is truly the Palestinian party. Hamas doesn’t do this. Fatah organizes weekly demonstrations and resistance across the West Bank. Al Aqsa Brigade is active but not as much as in the past though if there is something that needs to be done they rise to the occasion. Hamas (Qassam) seems more mission-oriented in terms of resistance which I don’t think serves us well. Rarely do they organize protests or engage in resistance activities like tree plantings or boycotts which I think is more effective than missions.”
Are they internally coherent and unified organizations I enquire. What are their strengths and weaknesses, failures and achievements? Again, Lila’s answer is nuanced. “Both have a strong organizational structure. Fatah does amazing community service and outreach while Hamas maintains strong international ties and support. I think both are valid organizations and that both have a place in Palestinian resistance and government. I believe Hamas is more concerned with maintaining control of Gaza and lacks a clear plan for achieving freedom from Israeli occupation other than by using force. Their allegiance to Muslim Brotherhood hinders them from being a true nationalist group like Fatah. For its part, Fatah needs to focus more on gaining international support. Hamas runs many news sites in numerous languages that are focused on singing their praises. Fatah has never gone that route. It has always been focused on liberation through internal means which is an antiquated stance. Although I am not a big fan of President Abbas he has taken Palestine in a different direction with gaining recognition at the UN, joining INTERPOL, opening embassies across the world etc. I think Fatah and overall the PLO need to begin looking outside and work on recruiting support via social media and multilingual news sites, to engage Palestinians in the diaspora and non-Palestinians worldwide.”