- Created on Tuesday, 24 May 2011 18:15
By Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies
This article was written just prior to the signing, on 4 May 2011, of the reconciliation accord between Fatah, Hamas, and other Palestinian factions. The reconciliation agreement ended a bitter four-year rift and saw agreement on the formation of a caretaker, transitional government in preparation for parliamentary and presidential elections within a year. The accord also provides for elections to the Palestinian National Council (PNC), and sets-up Hamas's entry into the PLO.
The article establishes an important contextual reading of the factors that have compounded the schism between the Palestinian factions, the various dynamics that eventually paved the way for this historic agreement, as well as the potential challenges facing rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas, and how reconciliation might play out.
The major developments that have emerged from the 'Arab uprisings' have had a direct impact on the Palestinian arena. The collapse of Mubarak's regime in Egypt was one of the most important changes as its demise liberated the inter-Palestinian negotiations from its biased Arab sponsor. In addition to the Egyptian reconciliation paper that paved the way for an agreement between the major Palestinian factions, this has also seen the conclusion of bilateral understandings.
The pulse from the Arab street has reverberated in the Palestinian street. On March 15, youths in the WB (West Bank) and the GS (Gaza Strip) chanted 'the people want to end the division'. Neither Fatah nor Hamas ignored these calls.
Consequently, the head of the Gaza-based Hamas government called upon the head of Fatah, Mahmoud Abbas, to start an immediate, comprehensive dialogue to achieve reconciliation. Abbas - as President of the PA (Palestinian Authority) - showed his readiness to visit the GS in order to discuss the formation of a national unity government as well as discuss preparations for the elections.
Since 15 June 2007 the Palestinian arena has suffered from a schism between many of the factions, and subsequent failed reconciliation efforts. This is due to several considerations and factors, including:
1. The confidence crisis between Fatah and Hamas: Fatah and Hamas's respective belief that each party wants to monopolise power, while simultaneously adopting a tactical approach towards reconciliation; different perspectives that each hold with regards to ending the occupation; animosity between the two parties resulting from clashes between them and their approach towards and treatment of supporters from each other's party; the absence of internal security and decisive military action against the occupation.
2. The position of the Middle East Quartet which acts as the international reference group for the Palestinian issue: The Quartet imposed three conditions on Hamas in order for them to join officially recognised political life (The recognition of Israel's right to exist, a renunciation of violence and an adherence to all previous agreements signed by the PLO).
3. The US veto on any reconciliation that is not consistent with their conditions: the US has used several pressure cards including, cutting financial aid to the PA, withholding the 'certificate of good security conduct' from the PA, boycott and its support of the siege of the GS.
4. An Israeli rejection of rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas: Israel has continuously threatened that it would thwart the PA's institutions, tamper with its security, and disrupt the election process if Palestinian reconciliation leads to a breach of the obligations Israel has imposed on the PA.
5. The former Egyptian regime considered Hamas to be a danger as it saw Hamas as an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood and considered its policy of resistance to be in contradiction to the Egyptian policy. Thus, the Egyptian government was keen to implement its paper for Palestinian reconciliation, despite Hamas perceiving it as biased and imbalanced.
Based on these considerations, the reconciliation process between Hamas and Fatah faced many obstacles, including: the reference of security services, security coordination between the PA and Israel, and the reform and reconstruction of the PLO. However, the talks held in Damascus, near the end of 2010, settled most of the unresolved problems between the two parties. Nonetheless, the security dilemma (that is the reform of security apparatuses and the PA's security coordination with Israel) remained the only core obstacle hindering a move forward.
The uprising in Egypt ushered in a new Egyptian government that freed itself from many of its predecessor's reservations. This gave the Palestinians the impression that Egypt was willing to revise the reconciliation paper, or enter into other bilateral agreements in order to achieve Palestinian reconciliation as soon as possible.
The new Egyptian government made several positive moves with regards to the Palestinian situation and Palestinian reconciliation attempts, including:
1. Refraining from putting pressure on any side; pressure that would serve the interests of one party.
2. Paving the way for a permanent opening of the Rafah border crossing,
3. Improving official relations with Hamas after relations had been limited to matters at a security level. The new Egyptian foreign minister met with Hamas leaders, including the head of Hamas's politburo, Khaled Mesh'al.
On an international level, the Quartet's position on its pre-conditions, remains unchanged. Recently, Tony Blair reiterated that Hamas's commitment to the Quartet's conditions is essential to restore national unity among the Palestinians. However, the latest regional developments show that the Quartet's political position is invalid and is not influential. The Quartet continues to deal with the latest Palestinian developments from an American and Israeli perspective.
The Obama administration, for its part, has kept silent on developments on the Palestinian scene. It did not interfere directly in the inter-Palestinian debate concerning Ismail Haniyyah's initiative and Abbas's response. The Obama administration only sent a low level delegate (one of George Mitchell's aides) to meet with Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu to find ways for the two sides to return to the table for direct negotiations – in the hope of jump-starting the peace process.
On the one hand, the new American position seems consistent with the US's sensitivity to the voice of the Arab street in general, and the Palestinian street in particular. On the other hand, it gives a chance for both Israel and the PA to escape the reverberations that have shaken the Arab world. It is feared that the repercussions from the collapse of many regimes will impact on Israel and the PA, leading to the demise of the current Palestinian authority and pave the way for a supportive climate of military resistance against Israel.
The Obama administration has avoided presenting itself as appearing to be opposed to Palestinian reconciliation, the mood of the Palestinian public, or the new, official and public position that Egypt has taken.
Israel still refuses to accept any rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas. Israel believes that the political and geographical split is a historic opportunity that facilitates the shattering of the Palestinian cause and helps Israel evade the recognition of a Palestinian State. Thus, Netanyahu has moved to warn Abbas that he would have to choose between Israel and Hamas.
On another level, the Obama administration avoids any position that suggests its opposition to Palestinian reconciliation and the will of the Palestinian people, or its disregard for the new official and public position of Egypt.
Consequently, if the Netanyahu government fails to reach a political vision that satisfies Abbas and the American administration, Israel's refusal to accept Palestinian reconciliation would remain ineffective for the PA, Fatah or their head, Mahmoud Abbas.
Hamas's position has been consistent with its reading of developments in the Arab world, the changes in Egypt and the voice from the Palestinian street. This position was particularly underscored in the following:
1. The changes in Egypt: Hamas believed that the new Egyptian policy post the uprising that started on the 25 January, would allow for distance from the Quartet's policies and conditions. Thus the pressure from Egypt on Hamas, and its complicity in the siege on the GS has virtually lifted. The Egyptian role has become a facilitator to the rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas.
2. The voice from the Palestinian street: The head of the Gaza-based government has responded positively to calls from the Palestinian street demanding and end to the division. This was soon reflected in the initiative launched by Haniyyah on the 15 March 2011 and in the wide-spread participation of Hamas's supporters in different events that stressed the need to end the division and occupation, and release detainees.
3. Dialogue: The above considerations (the changes in the Arab world – particularly in Egypt, and the demands coming from the Palestinian street) induced Hamas to raise the ceiling of their demands and call for comprehensive dialogue after it was only asking that their comments on the Egyptian paper be considered. They believe that these changes are a push towards a reconsideration of the entire paper or towards including some of their comments and reservations around bilateral agreements with Fatah. Hamas's determination to reach conclusive results manifested in Haniyyah's invitation to Abbas to visit Gaza, as Abbas is the only person (being the head of the PLO, the PA and Fatah) capable of deciding on these issues. However, at the end of the day, Hamas accepted that only its comments were to be considered.
4. The political program: Hamas believes in the necessity of reaching a common political programme that addresses Palestinian national goals and priorities and serves as a reference for the national work of the institutions and apparatuses of the PLO and PA. According to Hamas, the failure to reach consensus on such a programme would lead to legislative and presidential elections that deepen the division rather than ending it. Thus, the chances of achieving reconciliation would be complicated, or even aborted.
5. A reference group for national decisions: In order to coordinate the positions within a comprehensive, national Palestinian strategy, Hamas insists on the need for Abbas to call on the leaders of all Palestinian factions to form a temporary reference group to make national decisions. This reference group would lead Palestinians till the election of the Palestinian National Council and the formation of the Executive Committee of the PLO.
Hamas further believes that going to legislative elections without any guarantees on the reconstitution of the PLO and the restoration of its political status would lead to the termination of the PLO's role as a national sponsor for a position that favours resistance. Hamas believes that the Palestinian cause is still in the resistance stage and liberation and has not yet moved to the stage of state and independence.
Fatah's leadership has realised that Egyptian policies in the post-Mubarak period would see a deterioration of support for the peace process and the PA in Ramallah, whilst there would be more understanding of Hamas's demands. Thus, Fatah would lose the Arab sponsor that has always supported them. Consequently, their political programme would be directly affected, especially when Netanyahu and his government are ignoring Abbas and are insistent on unfreezing settlement building that would effectively lead to the hampering ofdirect talks, and the peace process reaching a dead end.
In addition, Fatah has realised that the changes taking place in the Arab world are likely to impact on the Palestinian arena. Indeed, the Palestinian street has started, sooner than was expected, to call: 'The people want to end the division, the people want to end the occupation...'
Fatah realises that the above demands would come at a high cost; i.e., the PA would be 'violating' its security and political commitments towards the Israelis. Thus, as a compromise between their position and that of the public, Fatah and Abbas called for the formation of an interim government and the holding of elections without looking to further attempts at reconciliation.
One of Abbas's major concerns was the need to implement the demands from the street in a way that guarantees overcoming the political division in order to achieve geographic unity between the GS and the WB before September 2011. It is at that date that the PA is preparing to declare the completion of the structuring of state institutions and thus demand that the Quartet and the UN General Assembly recognise the Palestinian State.
Nonetheless, due to the consequences of the uprising in Egypt on Palestinian reconciliation, Fatah agreed to resume dialogue with Hamas. This change in Fatah's position and the corresponding cooperation of Hamas in the process, compelled Fatah to move forward in the process; a process that saw an eventual reconciliation between Hamas, Fatah and other Palestinian factions.
The developments in the Arab world and the voice from the Palestinian street have undoubtedly influenced the positions of the parties concerned with the reconciliation process. However, it seems that the change in position within Fatah and Hamas is not enough to achieve complete reconciliation. Thus, bilateral relations are expected to have one of three scenarios:
1- Partial implementation of the agreement: The two parties would agree on a compromise - the freeing of political detainees; support of public activities and the formation of a reconciliation government that would be immediately implemented. However, the reconstruction and reformation of the PLO, and the efforts to unify the reference group and agreement on security forces would be postponed till after September. On this date, the Palestinian state may be declared. However, areas of controversy that have not been addressed would be postponed indefinitely. Thus, for now, a temporary authority for a national command for decision making may be formed.
2- Temporary agreement: This agreement may work for weeks or months, but is not likely to remain standing in the face of challenges, i.e., internal rivalry and security problems, the Israeli, American and Quartet's position, the siege and other pressures.
3- Full agreement: This scenario would take place, if and only if, all the circumstances that are seen as critical maintain the status quo. Hence, all articles and issues would be agreed upon and implemented, pending an absence of international intervention. However, the latter is not guaranteed unless Fatah prioritises their internal considerations.
Generally speaking, the confidence crisis between Fatah and Hamas is still an obstacle hindering any agreement. In addition, waiting to benefit from the changes in the Arab world might delay the achievement of comprehensive reconciliation. In addition to that it neither the Israelis nor the Americans would welcome either the easing of the pressure on Hamas in the WB and the GS or its effective participation in the elections.
Thus, there are no signs of achieving lasting and full reconciliation between the various Palestinian factions, particularly between Fatah and Hamas.
1. Focusing on 'ending the occupation', to ensure that this is not lost in the details of internal Palestinian clashes; making this a priority for the Palestinian people in the WB and the GS, at home and abroad.
2. Increasing pressure from the street on the basis of a clear and specific agenda that pushes towards the achievement of a comprehensive and durable reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas and exercising direct pressure on the parties who remain uncommitted to reconciliation.
3. Pursuing measures by the authorities in Ramallah and Gaza to rebuild confidence. These measures include the release of political detainees, increasing demands for freedoms, and allowing institutions affiliated with the two sides to operate freely within the PA territories.
4. Ending the PA's security coordination with Israel which is no longer justified especially when Israel has insisted on continuing with settlement building. In addition, this coordination is a major obstacle that is hampering national reconciliation.
5. Agreeing on a national political programme, a peaceful transition of power and getting the Palestinian political house in order, while freeing the PLO, PA, Palestinian factions and institutions from foreign interference, conditions and pressure.
* This article was originally published by Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations, and is published here with permission