Are Palestinian Leaders Shortsighted?

The future for Palestinians and the region is uncertain amid factional fighting between Hamas and Fatah. Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said professor of Arab Studies in the Middle East Institute at Columbia University, offers his insights.

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JOHN YDSTIE, Host:

With Hamas in control of Gaza, the future for Palestinians and the region as a whole is once again in chaos. Joining us by phone from France with his perspective on the implications of the conflict between Hamas and Fatah is Rashid Khalidi. He is Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies in the Middle East Institute at Columbia University. Welcome to the program, professor.

Professor RASHID KHALIDI (Director, The Middle East Institute, Columbia University): Good morning, John.

YDSTIE: What does this mean for Hamas? Does its victory over Fatah in Gaza strengthen its political position or just create more challenges for it?

Prof. KHALIDI: I actually think it probably weakens their political position among Palestinians. I don't think that Hamas was elected by a reasonable plurality back in January 2006 to launch a civil war or to divide the West Bank from the Gaza Strip, which is then the effect of this. So I really think that this (unintelligible) killing has probably harmed both Fatah and Hamas.

YDSTIE: And - what does it mean for the one and a half million people living on the Gaza Strip?

Porf. KHALIDI: Well, I mean, they were already living in an open-air prison controlled by Israeli jailers with European and American supervision of that siege. So I don't think their situation will frankly change very much. The entirety of the occupied territory is all four million Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip were subject to a quite strict siege financially at least, of their governing institutions. In the Gaza Strip, this will continue and perhaps even intensify. So I think that things will go from very bad to possibly worse for the population in the Gaza Strip.

YDSTIE: And what do you make of the Fatah retaliation against Hamas on the West Bank today, the takeover of Hamas offices and ministerial offices on the West Bank?

Prof. KHALIDI: It's the same kind of boring, shortsighted, irresponsible action that Hamas took in the Gaza Strip. It shows that neither of these groups, I think, really represents the deepest aspirations of the Palestinians. They've become sort of vehicles for personal and group ambitions, rather than what one could honestly call a leadership of the Palestinian National Movement. I think the Palestinian National Movement is in grave, grave crisis, frankly.

YDSTIE: The president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, also a Fatah member, has tapped Salaam Fayad, a Western-backed independent lawmaker, to serve as prime minister of the new government. He dissolved the old government. But what do we know about Fayad?

Prof. KHALIDI: Well, he worked for the World Bank. He's generally respected. He's seen as sort of acceptable to the United States. Possibly, the formation of this government will lead to the taps being opened, the destructive siege that Europe and the United States as well as, of course, Israel imposed on the Palestinian Authority might be lifted for the West Bank. But this is a government, which also doesn't have a lot legitimacy.

It's an emergency government, which cranked(ph) the Palestinian constitution, can only last for 30 days after which, there have to be, it can be prolonged one time for 30 more days and then there have to be election. So it's a temporary expedient. And I think both factions have lost enormously in the eyes of the Palestinian public and the eyes of world public opinion and Arab public opinion.

YDSTIE: The Hamas leader, Ismael Haniyeh, told a French newspaper today that he has ruled out setting up a separate Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip that would be run by Hamas. Israel ostensible wanted to see Fatah in control in Gaza. Is Haniyeh's statement going to be any comfort for Israel?

Prof. KHALIDI: No. I think that this is a direct, logical, inevitable result of American, Israeli and European policy. The foolishness and the irresponsibility of the Palestinian leadership played an enormous role. But while this has to be laid at the doorstep of Bush administration and Israeli government policy, they almost willed this result. They refused to deal with anybody. They refused to negotiate. They refused to try and bring along the people with whom they could have negotiated, including leaders of Hamas. And this is the logical, inevitable, natural result.

YDSTIE: Rashid Khalidi is Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies in the Middle Institute at Columbia University. He joined us by phone from France. Thanks, very much.

Prof. KHALIDI: A pleasure, John.

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