Fatah, Hamas and a grain of salt

September 23, 2017

THAT Hamas has agreed to steps toward resolving its decade-long split with Fatah promises the start of a new era in inter-Palestinian relations. Its announcement that it would dissolve a rival shadow government and was ready to hold elections in the Gaza Strip will strengthen the Palestinians’ bargaining power in peace negotiations with Israel because for the first time in years, Palestinians will again be represented by a single government. However, this is not the first time Fatah, the mainstream faction in the West Bank, and Hamas, the ruling faction in Gaza, have come close to sealing a peace deal, only to see it unravel later.

Hamas has run Gaza since 2007, having seized it in a near civil war from Fatah that killed hundreds of people following a dispute over parliamentary elections won by Hamas the previous year. For years, the two were stuck at a familiar impasse. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas made his demands of Hamas clear: dismantle the administrative committee — a de facto shadow government — bring Gaza back under the PA’s control, and prepare for national elections. Hamas steadfastly refused but pragmatics won in the end. The Gaza Strip has been under an Israeli blockade for around a decade, while its border with Egypt has also remained largely closed in recent years. The Gaza Strip has faced deteriorating humanitarian conditions, including a severe electricity crisis and a lack of clean water. The coastal enclave of some two million people also has one of the world’s highest unemployment rates. So it might not have been surprising that in the recent announcement in Cairo, Hamas acceded to all of Abbas’ demands.

But questions remain, not least the security issue. Over the past few years, whenever security was broached, Hamas demanded the simultaneous exchange of security arrangements. While the two movements understand the importance of security for any system to be effective, a security partnership seems almost impossible within the near term. Due to the complexities and sensitivities involved, Hamas elements cannot work in the West Bank security services while Fatah members cannot work in Hamas-run security services in Gaza. For reconciliation to work, either the PA will give up its security collaboration or Hamas its armed resistance. Neither seems to be likely at the moment. Hamas is committed to a policy of armed resistance — three wars fought between it and Israel since 2008 — while the Palestinian Authority is committed to security coordination with Israel.

So, it is not yet clear if Hamas will be given a free rein to operate in the West Bank or Fatah in Gaza.

Also, if Hamas wins the proposed elections, it is very possible that Israel and the US would create significant obstacles to their forming an empowered government, as was the case back in 2006. Will the new government be recognized or again be subjected to sanctions and boycotts by the US and Israel?

That Hamas and Fatah will confront their differences and resolve their issues allows for a new phase of Palestinian politics that will bring back the focus on ending Israel's occupation and the Palestinian campaign for statehood. No lasting peace with the Palestinians can exclude Hamas and its supporters. Hamas should become part of the Palestinian political system rather than remaining outside it, upending any serious negotiations or a potential peace deal. A united Palestinian people is more conducive to a successful peace process than Palestinians split and in conflict.

However, previous attempts to resolve the split have repeatedly failed: Makkah in 2007, Sanaa in 2008, Cairo in 2011, Doha in 2012, Cairo again in 2012, and the Shati refugee camp in 2014.

The next few months will put to the test the strength of this new deal that is supposed to establish the groundwork for the establishment of a united Palestinian government.

September 23, 2017
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