From 2006 onwards, Palestinian politics has been defined by the rivalry between the (alleged) secular Fatah and its religious competitor Hamas. Palestinian politics thus appear to exemplify the regional trend where the competition between secularism and religiosity seems to be developing into a major political cleavage. What makes Palestinian politics unique in the Middle East context, however (apart from the occupation of the Palestinian territories) is their democratic track‑record. Few other polities in the Middle East has a real democratic experience, even if the ongoing Arab Spring is a hopeful development. Palestine is therefore a particularly interesting case to study the different manifestations of secularist and religious nationalism.
Based on analyses of the two movements’ ideologies and nationalist projects, however, the paper finds that the relevance of the religious‑secular cleavage in Palestinian factional politics and nationalism is overrated. It simply cannot account for the current enmity between the two factions, who are actually not competing along a secular‑religious axis, but rather engaged in a classic fight for power and positions. However, while the major markers of Palestinian identity continues to be their exile, the suffering inflicted upon them, and the unresolved conflict with Israel, Islam became an increasingly important part of the Palestinian national identity, first in the wake of the Iranian revolution and even more so after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Fatah – the traditional hegemon in Palestinian politics and previously a staunch secularist – has thus been forced to realign its rhetoric and ideology and become more religious in order to stay relevant as a liberation movement. Hamas for its part has had to shed its most overly religious rhetoric together with its absolutist aims and insistence on a violent solution to the Palestinian problem, as Palestinians became less radical. As both movements have moved towards the center of the Palestinian political spectrum in order to attract the greatest number of voters, the paper concludes that the most correct way to interpret the rivalry between the two is as a regular competition for the Palestinian median voter.
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