What Egypt Can Learn from Palestine
How Salam Fayyad is undermining Islamism in the West Bank.
State censorship is one reason Fayyad's government is said to be an example of creeping authoritarianism backed by Western money. However, many European countries, including Great Britain, have laws on the books prohibiting incitement to violence and the promotion of religious or racial hatred. Since many West Bank mosques are publicly funded, why can't the P.A. immunize them against extremism? Fayyad's defenders would argue that a region already devastated by two bloody intifadas and Israeli reprisals cannot simply shift from occupation to ACLU-level permissiveness overnight. The danger, of course, lies in the continuance of such proscriptive policies after a period of "emergency rule" expires. Another disturbing trend is the Palestinian Authority's own bouts of fanaticism. P.A. television still routinely refers to Israeli cities as being part of Palestine; Fatah still consecrates terrorists as "martyrs"; and maps in some school textbooks show a Levant from which Israel is conspicuously absent. Nevertheless, it has become impossible to downplay or ignore how much Fayyad's reforms have helped normalize Palestinian society.
Witness the surprising aftermath of the brutal murder of the Fogel family in the West Bank settlement of Itamar two weeks ago. On Israel's Channel 10, veteran reporter Shlomi Eldar announced that he'd just got back from Nablus, formerly a hotbed of Islamist agitation that, thanks to Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation, was recently designated "terror-free" by the Israel Defense Forces. "I went to [Nablus] today, and was very surprised," Eldar said to a somewhat skeptical panel. "People on the street were willing to condemn the murder unequivocally, in Arabic and in Hebrew, with no embarrassment, in front of the camera, and even identify themselves." The broadcast then cut to interviews Eldar conducted with ordinary Palestinians standing in front of a well-trafficked cafe. One man said: "It's forbidden to kill, not children, and not old people and not women, that's according to the religion. The person who says otherwise, he's really crazy." Another man said: "People who were in their home, sleeping in their place of security. To go in and murder them with a knife. Where is the heart? Where is the mercy? Where is the humanity?" According to Eldar, these views were not anomalous, they appeared to be representative of opinion in Nablus.
Knowing its credibility is evaporating, Hamas has begun to act desperately. In recent weeks its agents have stolen automobiles belonging to the Palestinian Central Elections Commission and medical supplies intended for Gazans. And the party's politics, said to be divided between the Gaza regime and its exiled ideologists in Damascus, have grown manic-depressive. When Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh invited Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to come to Gaza to discuss reconciliation, Abbas surprised him by accepting. Having had its bluff called, Hamas responded to this acceptance by denouncing Abbas as a Mubarak-like dictator.
The Islamists clearly have little interest in reuniting the P.A. since they've been violently suppressing demonstrations in Gaza calling for exactly that. They've also taken to targeting journalists. Last weekend, Hamas security agents raided the offices of Reuters in Gaza, stealing cameras and wiping the data off other equipment used to document the regime's crackdown on pro-unity protests. One Reuters employee was beaten with a metal bar and another was threatened with being thrown out of a window. The offices of CNN and the Japanese network NHK were similarly ransacked, and a Palestinian Associated Press cameraman was assaulted. When 100 reporters gathered on Saturday in front of a government building in Gaza in defiance of such media intimidation, Hamas attacked that demonstration, too.
Hamas has also escalated its military operations, launching as many as 60 mortars and rockets into southern Israel in a single day last weekend, and it took credit for the attacks—the first time it has done so since Operation Cast Lead in 2008. The strategy is almost certainly intended to goad Israel into another war. Fayyad, meanwhile, enjoys the fruits of a stable economy, a relatively calm populace, and strong international support. And as a subtext to his own pioneering state-building effort, he can point to Hamas' mischief as proof of what Islamists will get up to before they even have a proper country to ruin.
Michael Weiss is the director of communications at the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based think tank that promotes democratic geopolitics. He is also the spokesman for Just Journalism, which examines how Israel and the Middle East are portrayed in the U.K. media.
Photograph of Salam Fayyad by Gali Tibbon/Getty Images.