Should the current situation persist, it is unlikely that we will witness any breakthroughs in the reconciliation process. Rather, there will be further delays in the formation of a new interim government, the elections, the reformation of the security forces and the reform of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Thus, rather than an end of the state of division among Palestinians, the current situation more closely resembles a 'truce' where the West Bank and the Gaza Strip remain under the control of two different sides. The situation could be described as a move from 'division' to a 'sharing' of power and influence in the two territories, with the conflict being more covert. This is clearly not what the Palestinians have been seeking to achieve. Wishes and good intentions – if any – are not enough.
As with previous agreements in Cairo, Palestine and Makkah, the recent Palestinian reconciliation agreement lacked any genuine mechanism that would be required for its implementation. In fact, the agreement leaves it up to Mahmoud Abbas as head of the PLO and president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) to give practical substance to the reconciliation and to implement its terms. A number of central requirements of the agreement have not been met.
- The Joint Committee for implementing National Reconciliation – which was supposed to have been made up of sixteen members from the different Palestinian factions, independent forces as well as eight members to be nominated by Hamas and Fatah – was not formed. Abbas also has not issued any decree regarding its formation despite the fact that it was due to begin its work soon after the signing of the agreement.
- The committee tasked with looking at the reform of the PLO was supposed to have been formed and to hold its first meeting upon the implementation of the agreement. The committee has neither met nor has it even been formed.
- No arrangements have yet been made regarding legislative and presidential elections.
- No steps have been taken for the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the Palestinian security forces.
It seems that Abbas and the PA leadership tactically employed the reconciliation agreement to create Palestinian consensus behind the PA, thus allowing it to appear as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. It believed that such a status would assist it in seeking United Nations recognition of the Palestinian state, and use this new position as leverage in its discussions with the Israelis and the Americans.
While Abbas accepted the agreement, he has not presented nor devised any practical steps regarding the formation of a new interim government – or, for that matter, any other issue as required by the agreement. His only action in implementing the agreement, it seems, was to nominate Salam Fayyad for the position of prime minister even though he knew full well that Hamas would reject Fayyad's candidacy. Consequently, much time was fettered away in discussing Fayyad's appointment, effectively stalling the process.
It is likely that Abbas wanted to exclude Hamas from any role in the formation of the government in order to obviate annoying the Israelis and Americans when the UN membership bid was being processed. He was, thus, unconcerned about the implementation of the agreement before the bid's outcome was made known.
If the process continues as it currently is, the formation of a national unity government is highly unlikely. Additionally, it would lessen the possibility of a reform of the security forces. Furthermore, it would prevent an atmosphere that would be conducive to fair and transparent elections – especially if there were expectations of a Hamas victory, a situation which the Israelis and Americans want to avoid
Practically, we are confronted with two contending parties which sought to enter the reconciliation process despite their ideological differences, the lack of a common institutional reference, and a profound crisis of trust. This in addition to contending with external intervention in Palestinian decision-making.
Fatah and Hamas do not share a common ideology which defines the red lines or principled issues that cannot be trespassed by the Palestinian people. Additionally there is no ideological consensus on issues which are subject to strategic assessment in light of the political situation, prevalent subjective and objective conditions, and the balance of power. This existence of different ideologies is reflected in the national programmes of the two parties, their priorities, and their strategic and tactical approaches to the resistance and peace settlement issues.
At first glance, it might seem easy to adapt to this situation. Yet, experience shows that there is a set of obstacles which would require serious consideration. For example, the two sides have different approaches to the recognition of Israel and its claims to seventy-seven percent of the land of Mandate Palestine. The PLO leadership, on the one hand, perceives the recognition of Israel as an obligation under the Oslo Accord - as well as a prerequisite for the establishment of the PA and the dream of establishing a Palestinian state. Hamas, on the other hand, rejects such recognition on an Islamic theological basis, and seeks to serve its people without conceding the right to resistance. Hamas also refuses to be coerced into recognising prior agreements between the PLO and Israel. Thus, Hamas wants to impose new rules on the game, something the Americans and Israelis do not want to allow.
Abbas, together with the PLO and Fatah leadership, calls for the formation of a government and for lifting of the siege on Gaza. Israel and the US, however, have refused to lift the siege before Hamas complies with the Quartet conditions, the first of which is the recognition of Israel – a condition that Hamas has adamantly refused to do. Thus, 'a government that will lift the siege' really means a government that will recognise Israel. Accordingly, the main reason for delaying the formation of the government is not related to sharing the pie or to the number of the ministers for this or that side. Rather, it is related to PA policy under Israeli occupation, and to finding a magic formula that Hamas and Fatah will both accept and that the Israelis would, at the very least, not object to.
A similar problem applies to the 'peace process' which the PLO leadership considers a strategic path. Dissimilarly, Hamas perceives it as futile compared to their resistance trajectory. These contradictory visions have different practical implications on the ground, particularly as to how Palestinian national priorities are defined, how to approach the enemy, or how to deal with the Arab and international environment.
Another problem is the absence of an institutional reference to which the parties might defer; an institutional reference that determines the priorities of the national project and represents the Palestinian people. Although the PLO is supposed to assume this role, Hamas, together with other forces such as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), Palestinian National Initiative (PNI) and others, are not PLO members. Rather, since February 1969, Fatah has monopolised PLO leadership for the past forty-two years.
Although the reconciliation agreement provides for the reform of the PLO and the participation in it of other Palestinian factions, the political practice of its leadership has often tended to disrupt any efforts related to the reform of the organisation and the rebuilding of its institutions. Meanwhile, Hamas, PIJ and other factions are not only looking to participate in the leadership but also to contribute to re-defining the priorities of the national project – based on a rejection of conceding land – and protecting the resistance option. Such an approach would mean reconsidering agreements signed by the PLO and, perhaps, even cancelling or modifying a number of them. Fatah, however, will likely be inclined to oppose such a move and block any changes in this respect.
External factors are a third obstacle in the reconciliation process. This needs to be understood in the context of the PA still being faced with Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the siege of the Gaza Strip. Indeed, the PA is constrained by the Oslo Accord that requires it to assume a role in protecting Israel and preventing resistance activities. Furthermore, Israel controls all the borders as well as the movement of exported and imported goods. It also regularly destroys Palestinian infrastructure, occupies the supposedly autonomous areas, arbitrarily arrests Palestinians, has a strangle-hold on the Palestinian economy, continues with its Judaisation of Palestinian territory and imposes sanctions, and withholds taxes as a means of pressurising the Palestinians on political, economic and security levels. Further, Israeli authorities have the capacity, which they are not reticent to exercise, to undermine legislative elections and arrest ministers and Palestinian Legislative Council deputies who support the resistance or are member of Hamas, - thus thwarting the functioning of the PA.
External interference is clearly visible in American and western influence through the Quartet conditions, the siege of Gaza, attempts to isolate Hamas, the PA's dependence on foreign funding, and the supervision of Palestinian security forces in the West Bank by US generals Keith Dayton and Michael Muller.
In addition to the above factors, the deep crisis of confidence between Hamas and Fatah has worsened the situation. It is therefore necessary that positive initiatives are presented to overcome the hostility between the two sides and bridge the gap between them.
It is clear that the solution to the problem faced by the reconciliation initiative is far beyond the agreement itself. In addition, although the agreement helped in rounding off the sharp edges and finding a number of mechanisms to resolve differences and rebuild institutions, there is much more that needs to be done. This goes beyond the tactical benefits of the agreement.
If there is a will to achieve genuine national reconciliation, it is important that the following questions are answered:
- What are the priorities of the Palestinian national project and would it be possible to reach a common stance on the resistance and the peace process?
- How could an independent Palestinian national decision be reached that bypasses American or Israeli interference, and is not hampered by the conditions imposed by the Quartet or any other side?
- How could a 'national contract' be formulated that defines the political constants or non-negotiables, respects institutional mechanisms, acknowledges political pluralism and the peaceful rotation of power, and ends the mentality of monopoly and domination?
- Is the PA still useful for and able to move towards the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state? Does the peace process still provide a way in which this can be achieved?
- Is it necessary to reconsider the role of the PA and to adapt it in a way that serves the Palestinian people rather than the interests of the occupier? Is there a possibility of dissolving the PA and establishing a unified resistance force?
- What is Hamas' perception of the combination of power and resistance? How would it implement its programme of reform and change under the occupation, especially in the West Bank?
- How could integration and interaction between the role of Palestinians in territorial Palestine, and refugees abroad be achieved, and how can the Palestinian cause benefit from the tremendous potential of its people? How could this interaction be expanded at Arab, Islamic and international levels in order to consolidate the liberation and independence project?
These are but a few questions which require responses by Palestinian decision-makers. Effectively answering these questions requires – besides good will and earnest commitment – mature visions that might be tailored with the help of research centres, think tanks and specialists in different fields. It also requires the formation of public opinion which presses for the implementation of the reconciliation agreement. Further, it is premised on the rejection of partisanship so that it might be possible for all sides to confront the Zionist project.
If the current situation persists, the chances for the reconciliation agreement to achieve any tangible success will continue to be slim, and referring to it will simply be a tactical manoeuvre. Ultimately, the current situation represents a transfer from a state of 'division' to one of 'sharing influence', while waiting for real reform or for the current circumstances to explode where the will and vision of one party prevails over others.
* This article was first published by the Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations, and is published here in terms of an agreement between AMEC and the Al-Zaytouna Centre