Mark Perry is a military, intelligence and foreign affairs analyst and the co-director of Conflicts Forum, a private group that calls for increased dialogue between Western countries and Islamic movements and political parties. A former adviser to Yassir Arafat, Perry has worked for long periods over two decades in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. He is the author of seven books, including A Fire In Zion (the recipient of the 1995 Jewish-American Community Book Award) and the newly released Partners in Command, a history of the Marshall-Eisenhower military partnership during World War II. I spoke with Perry by phone on Sunday as he was preparing to leave for Beirut, where his agenda includes talks with senior officials from Hamas.
1. What’s going on in Gaza? Is it the beginning of a Palestinian civil war?
This is not a civil war between Hamas and Fatah. What happened was that a small segment of Fatah, represented by the Preventive Security Service under the command of Mohammed Dahlan, tried to enter Gaza. Hamas warned Abu Mazin [Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority] not to allow the Service in because it was controlled by Dahlan, supplied, trained and equipped by the United States, and set up to take them on. But the warning was ignored and they attacked when the Service came in, soundly defeating it. But the conflict was between Hamas and the Service, not all of Fatah. Fatah is still alive and well in Gaza.
2. But is it possible that this will trigger a broader conflict between the two sides?
I don’t think this is going to spread into a general conflict, though over the last few days there have been increasing arrests of Hamas individuals by Fatah in the West Bank. But when I was in the West Bank a few weeks ago, Hamas and Fatah were actually working very closely together. Hamas doesn’t want a larger conflict. They would like their military units integrated into the larger security service, but Abu Mazin turned them down. Hamas is a political organization that is more interested in political power than Islam. A lot of its original leadership came out of Fatah.
3. So Hamas’s victory doesn’t augur the onset of Islamic rule in Gaza?
There’s a lot of disinformation circulating. We heard that Hamas would impose Islamic rule, but so far that hasn’t happened. We heard that Hamas would write Islamic rule into the law of Gaza, and I don’t think that will happen either. I don’t think there are broad social consequences from Hamas’s victory. Nine of the 15 members of Hamas’s Shura Council have Ph.D.s in the sciences. They are sophisticated people and not rejectionists of the enlightenment. There are hardliners within Hamas who would push for an Islamic state, but they are relatively few in number, and they’re street captains–not in the leadership. Hamas has been strong in Gaza, but there’s no Islamic state there–no enforced social programs, no religious police, and a relatively free press. Is Gaza more conservative than the West Bank? Yes, but that’s part of a process that’s been going on for the past 40 years. It’s not because of the recent fighting. You just don’t see support for an Islamic state on the ground. This is not Tehran in 1979.
4. How much popular support does Hamas have?
It slipped after Hamas won the parliamentary elections last year, especially because it could not meet the payroll for government employees. But my sense is that it has recovered because it’s been able to run an efficient government. You also have to remember that Hamas won every single metropolitan area in the West Bank during the elections, which is pretty stunning. It won a lot of support in Fatah constituencies that are traditionally secular. Abu Mazin is the one that is isolated. Not Hamas. He’s a weak leader without support from many within his own party. If he makes the wrong moves, Hamas could end up in control of the West Bank as well.
5. How do you think the current conflict will play out?
I’m hopeful that cooler heads will prevail. Abu Mazin dissolved the government, which was technically legal, but he needs permission from the legislature within 30 days to formalize it. And Hamas has a majority in parliament. The United States acts as if the Palestinians don’t care about the rule of law, but they do. If he dissolves the government without the consent of parliament, it’s essentially a coup. There are people on both sides who want a return to a national unity government. There’s a chance that this can be patched up.
6. The consensus view in the media here is that this signals the end to the Middle East peace process and an end to a possible two-state solution. What’s your take?
The Middle East peace process has been effectively dead for a long time. The problem is that there’s very weak leadership in Israel and at the head of the Palestinian Authority. We need better leadership and that’s probably at least two years away. The irony is that there is coherent, honest Palestinian leadership, but it’s in Hamas, not Fatah. And that scares Israel and the United States. I know what Hamas’s political rhetoric is, and people in the United States say that they’re committed to Israel’s destruction. But in the end I think they’re willing to negotiate. They’ve already sent signals along those lines but no one is willing to talk to them without all sorts of preconditions. There should never be preconditions for negotiations. The important thing is to get the parties to the table and have them sit down and talk.