While Palestinians see themselves in a conflict with Israel, the real battle is among themselves. Will the Palestinian people be a democratic society based on tolerance and respect for all views and religions, or will it be dominated by a religious demagoguery that distorts religion into a self-serving political agenda?
This week, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas signed an "accord" with Hamas, the Islamicist organization whose entire existence has been based on violent rejection of compromise not just with Israel but with the larger and dominant secular Palestinian movement.
Although the accord is being touted as the symbol of the new "unity" between Hamas and the secular Palestinian movement led by the Fatah organization, the reality is that it could very well spell the end of the secular dream.
For years, the Palestinian struggle has been based on national unity seeking the goal of secular democratic Palestine where, in theory, Christians, Muslims and Jews could live together in peace and equality and with mutual respect.
No such idealistic state exists anywhere in the Middle East or the larger Muslim world, and it certainly does not exist in the West either. But the goal was one of powerful symbolism that placed the justice of the Palestinian cause above all others.
The dream of a secular democratic Palestine was once based on a single state that merged what is now Israel with what have been occupied territories since 1967. It was the fuel that powered the Palestinian Revolution, al-Thawra, since the day when Palestinians began to represent themselves.
1st Intifada challenged status quo
The strongest of the organizations was Fatah, which was not a political party but a national movement. Its leaders were the first to speak independently of Palestinian aspirations. Yasser Arafat was the leader of Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organization, the only group given the international legal standing to represent Palestinian rights.
Arafat succeeded in forcing the world to recognize Palestinian rights and forced the Arab World to accept independence from Israel and from Jordan as the ultimate political goal.
The first Intifada challenged that status quo. And Palestinians living under the occupation began to stand up for themselves. Many embraced Fatah and the PLO as their political mentors, but others in the Gaza Strip, where religious fervor was more focused, turned to an alternative that got its start, ironically, from Israel’s hardline government.
In the 1970s, as they watched the rise of Arafat from desert warrior to a powerful United Nations voice, Israel’s extremist leadership under Menachem Begin sought to nurture a religious alternative to compete with and undermine Arafat and the PLO.
With the help of Israel’s hardline anti-Palestinian government, Sheik Yassin was able to build the Village Leagues and the Islamic Association.
When the Intifada broke out a decade later, Yassin’s group formed a militant arm called Hamas, a move that was a surprise for Israel’s misguided strategy to divide Palestinians.
It was the rise of religious extremism under Hamas that prompted secular leaders like Edward Said, the conscience of Palestinian nationalism, to encourage Arafat and the PLO to seek to negotiate a compromise with Israel based on "land for peace."
That opened the door to the Oslo Peace accords and later the Camp David Accords which eventually collapsed.
The driving force undermining that secular peace was Hamas. Hamas not only rejected the peace agreements with Israel, it also rejected the secular leadership of the PLO. Hamas rejected even the efforts to allow for the establishment of democratic institutions, using violence at every turn to destroy the peace, undermine the secular Palestinian government and to provoke continued violence and conflict.
Hamas is as much to blame for the collapse of Oslo as is the insincerity of Israel’s past governments to exchange the occupied territories for peace. Despite embracing peace and recognition with the Palestinians, even the moderate Israeli governments continued to solidify their hold on the occupied territories, expanding and reinforcing the illegal settlements.
Israel’s refusal to engage the peace process honestly and sincerely made genuine peace impossible, although Israel continued to place the blame for the collapse of peace on the Palestinians.
Hamas has always understood that its ability to prevent peace through the use of violence and even acts of terrorism and suicide bombings against non-military Israeli targets would serve to prevent a genuine peace accord.
The Hamas campaign of violence also created a situation where continued violence tested and undermined every effort to achieve peace. The continuation of the violence and the occupation and the suffering and oppression eventually eroded the faith that the Palestinian and Israeli people had that a peace accord could be negotiated.
Hamas 'all or nothing' agenda
With that collapse of faith among the Palestinian population at its height, Hamas was able to step in and, for the first time, agree to test its leadership in a democratic election. Hamas won not with a majority of Palestinian votes, but with a majority of seats in a democratic system that was faulty at best.
Today, with no sign of a possible peace accord on the horizon, thanks to Hamas intransigence on compromise, Hamas has forced the secular Palestinian leadership to surrender to its will.
The decision by Abbas to meet with the real leadership of Hamas outside of Palestine is further evidence of the deterioration of secular Palestinian leadership.
In essence, Hamas has positioned itself to become the voice of the Palestinians. But rather than be a voice of reason, compromise and even tolerance of other views, Hamas will continue to pursue its "all or nothing" agenda.
Hamas wants all of Palestine or nothing, willing to sacrifice Palestinians for an endless conflict as Palestinian society is slowly erased by the Israeli occupation.
Hamas wants all of Palestine's leadership, and is willing to continue to fight until secular Palestinians surrender to the Hamas religious fanaticism.
Rather than moving towards a secular Palestinian state, either as one-state with Israel or two states side by side with Israel, Hamas is leading Palestinians towards extinction.
The real war was a terrible burden, but it required the secular Palestinians to defeat the Hamas fanatics. Despite the pain of an internal Palestinian civil war, the question of whether the future would be in the hands of Hamas or Fatah was too important to sign away in some pathetic deal in which Abbas has basically surrendered his leadership.
That Hamas is now the voice of Palestine is a tragedy that will mean only one thing, the continued destruction of the Palestinian Statehood dream, and the rise of a religious movement in which the real goal is not Palestinian independence, but the greater goal of political Islam and the Islamic World.
In signing the accord with Hamas, Abbas has basically signed the death certificate for the Palestinian State. Abbas has done what Arafat refused to do, sentencing the Palestinian people to a future of endless suffering with no chance of compromise, no chance of peace, and no hope for statehood.
(Ray Hanania was named the Best Ethnic Columnist for 2006/2007 by the New America Media. He can be reached at www.hanania.com .)