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May 5, 2011

The Fatah-Hamas Reconciliation

Dr. Baha Abu-Laban

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On April 27, 2011 the Egyptian government issued a press release in Cairo indicating that an agreement had been initialed by representatives of the two rival Palestinian factions: Fatah (which controls the West Bank) and Hamas (which controls the Gaza Strip). The Egyptian government had successfully brokered the secret unity talks. This agreement comes after four years of persistent failure to reconcile differences.

While the press release took many people within and outside the region by surprise, there has been a growing realization that reconciliation is vital not only for political survival, but also for establishing an independent Palestinian state.

The timing of the agreement reflects both old challenges and new opportunities, not the least of which is the fast approaching meeting of the United Nations General Assembly scheduled for this September.

It is widely believed that the President of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Mahmoud Abbas, plans to ask the UN General Assembly to recognize a Palestinian state within the borders that existed before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The General Assembly, which is made up of all UN member states, has the mandate to agree to this. However, unlike the Security Council, no state holds veto power in the General Assembly, and so in the event of a favourable vote to create a Palestinian state, there is no prospect or fear of veto by the United States—Israel’s foremost supporter.

One day after the signing of the agreement, the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Nabil al-Arabi, announced that the Egyptian government will permanently open the Rafah crossing between the Egypt and the Gaza Strip.

This decision lifts Egypt’s blockade of the Gaza Strip, which was imposed jointly with Israel in 2007, when Hamas took full control of the Gaza Strip. Evidently, this decision reflects a major shift in Egypt’s foreign policy — a policy that has been and still is undergoing strategic realignment in the post Mubarak era. Besides opening the Rafah crossing, Egypt stands poised to play a major facilitative role in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to ensure that the two sides remain on track. The Arab League will, similarly, play a facilitative role.

Although a welcome development, there remain challenges faced by both Palestinian factions.

These include: the continuing Judaization of Jerusalem and encroachment on its Arab side; the severance of Jerusalem from the West Bank; the continuing expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank; the continuing Israeli military occupation of the West Bank; Israel’s continuing blockade of Gaza from the West Bank and from the outside world; the huge and growing economic disparity between the West Bank and Gaza; the continuing Israeli refusal to institute a settlement freeze in Jerusalem and the West Bank  and, hence, the stalled peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority; and Palestinian disappointment with U.S. President Obama’s inability or unwillingness to exert more pressure on Israel to make meaningful concessions in support of the peace process.

At the same time, the grassroots democracy movements, often referred to as “Arab Spring”, which started in Tunisia and spread to Egypt, Yemen, Oman, Bahrain, Jordan, Libya, and Syria, among others, have  created added pressures on  Fatah and Hamas to re-establish unity in the face of adversity.

For one thing, both factions have experienced mounting pressures in the form of public demonstrations by youth in the West Bank and in Gaza as well as pressures from Palestinian nationalists and dignitaries in support of reconciliation.

In addition Hamas felt that reconciliation was expedient in light of the turmoil in Syria—Hamas’s main patron, which means that support for Hamas from that source may not continue as in the past. On his part, the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, is keenly aware that the creation of a Palestinian state without Hamas being in the fold is well nigh impossible.

Moreover, he completed his four-year term as president a long time ago and is now overstaying his term. This is contrary to what the “Arab Spring” is all about, as well as to the Palestinian Constitution.

The Cairo press release identified the major issues which would be critical for establishing an interim unity government in the West Bank and Gaza.

These issues include, first, rules governing presidential elections, legislative council elections, and local (municipal) elections. Second are security arrangements in the West Bank and Gaza. Third, there is the issue of reform and restructuring of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which was formed long before Hamas came into existence, and as well, reform of the Palestinian National Council (PNC). Fourth is the process for appointing the Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministers and forming a non-factional or neutral unity government, i.e., a government made up of highly qualified independent nationalist figures to oversee the elections (which will probably take place early in 2012).

Not least, there is the issue of release of political prisoners. After consulting with their constituencies, the heads of the two Palestinian groups, Mahmoud Abbas (Fatah) and the Damascus-based Khaled Meshaal (Hamas), are scheduled to meet in Cairo in early May to sign the agreement, which will be followed by implementation. It is expected that in the near term, an interim unity government will be formed.

As for Arab reactions to the agreement, the Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, Israel, and in the diaspora tend to strongly support this development, which they have called for—for many years. So, too, do the governments of Egypt and many other Arab states, as well as being officially supported by the Arab League. 

Shortly after the agreement was initialed, the Prime Minister of Israel, Benyamin Netanyahu, appeared stunned.

Incredibly, he said that the Palestinian Authority should choose between peace with Israel or peace with Hamas, adding that the PA cannot have peace with both.

Clearly, Israel wants to perpetuate divisions among Palestinian people and continue to exploit weakened governments and the populace. At this point, the Israeli spin machine came alive. To illustrate, judging from my recent review of selected Israeli newspapers, some commentators, referring to Israeli officials, opined that the agreement between the two Palestinian factions would free Netanyahu from any obligation by claiming that the agreement proves that the PA does not want peace with Israel.

Simultaneously, other commentators correctly noted that the agreement would strengthen the PA hands at the UN General Assembly next September.

In no uncertain terms, Netanyahu declared that he would not deal with Hamas which he regards as a terrorist organization. In line with this, the Israeli Finance Minister, Yuval Steinitz, is withholding the transfer to the Palestinian Authority of U.S. $89 million in tax funds and customs which Israel collects on the Palestinians’ behalf, pending assurances that the funds will not trickle down to Hamas.

Further, Netanyahu is expected to put pressure on the U.S. and the European Union to cut funding to the PA and keep Hamas out in the cold. He already has had apprehensions about the “Arab Spring” and its potential negative impact on the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty (signed in 1979) and the Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty (signed 1994).

Related to the above, it would be interesting to refer to an editorial published in the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, dated April 28, 2011, entitled “Israel needs Mideast peace to ensure its future”. Immediately below this title, the following statement appeared in bold letters: “The weakness of the peace with Egypt and Jordan stems from the fact that the peace has only belonged to a few politicians, army officers, diplomats and a group of business people on both sides, while the gulf between people has continued.” The editorial itself began: “In an opinion poll in Egypt by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center, more than half of the respondents supported annulling the peace treaty with Israel, compared with 36% who wanted to keep it in place…. Support for the treaty is higher among well-off Egyptians and those with higher education, while opposition is widespread among the poor.”

Despite Netanyahu’s apprehensions and the potential difficulties that may emerge from his failed policies toward the Palestinians, Netanyahu never heeded calls from some of the Israeli media for changing course. Even his Minister of Defense, Ehud Barak, in a speech at the International Security Studies in Tel Aviv on March 13, 2011, warned of an impending “political tsunami”. To quote: “We are facing a political tsunami most of the public isn’t aware of…There is an international movement which will recognize a Palestinian state on 1967 borders. It would be wrong to ignore this tsunami…Israel’s de-legitimization is in sight. It’s very dangerous and requires action…A political initiative will minimize the chances along the way…”

The agreement between Fatah and Hamas has come as a surprise not only to Israel, but also to the United Nations, the U.S., and the European Union.

The UN position was both positive and swift. Speaking at a daily news briefing, two days after the Cairo press release, UN spokesman Farhan Haq said that the UN strongly supports the Fatah-Hamas accord within the framework of PLO commitments. The U.S. and the EU have chosen to label Hamas a terrorist organization bent on the destruction of Israel. Hence, the American official reaction supports the idea of reconciliation, but on “terms that promote the cause of peace”. However, the American administration fears that the presence of Hamas in a unity government, would be problematic. Hamas would presumably be considered rehabilitated if it renounces violence, abides by all the past agreements between the PLO/PA and Israel, and recognizes Israel’s right to exist. The EU’s perspective on the reconciliation is more or less similar to the American one. Under pressure from Israel, it is possible that both the U.S. and the EU may withhold some funding for the Palestinian Authority. This, however, remains a vague matter subject to nuanced changes.

In conclusion, it may not be smooth sailing for the Palestinian Authority or for an interim unity government in the near term, however, it appears that the incentives for reconciliation between the two Palestinian factions are stronger than for rivalry.

It behooves the international community to support the agreement on reconciliation, given that it has long supported the creation of a Palestinian state.  

Dr. Baha Abu-Laban is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Alberta.

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