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Case Analysis 17 May, 2011

Will The New Palestinian Reconciliation Hold Out?

Keyword

In the midst of drastic changes sweeping through the Arab homeland, the two Palestinian political movements, Hamas ("the Islamic Resistance Movement") and Fateh, acceded to an Egyptian-sponsored protocol for a reconciliation between them, which had been stalled for the previous three years. The new agreement will provide an opportunity to put the good will between those two groups to the test, within a timeframe provided by the Egyptians to implement the agreement.

The risk failure for the new unity is that it would bring about a return to the previous situation, to a weak and fragmented National Authority ruling over the West Bank, and a state run by Hamas on the Gaza Strip. The alternative would be a renewed collapse; popular reactions to such a breakdown would then have an impact on the future of the Palestinian national movement.


The Road to Cairo

The agreement signed between Hamas and Fateh May 4, 2011 at the State Security Headquarters in Cairo was not the first attempt at mediated reconciliation between the Palestinian factions. An agreement hosted and sponsored by the Saudi Arabian government led to the Mecca Agreement on February 8, 2007; that agreement was put away with Hamas' forceful seizure of the Gaza Strip in June of 2007, in an attempt, according to the group, to pre-empt Fateh's plan to overthrow the elected Palestinian government with alleged US support. The plan to overthrow the elected government was known as the "Kenneth-Dayton Plan". Making matters more complicated, the International Quartet for Middle East Peace pre-conditions, such as the requirement that the government should recognise Israel, renounce violence and defer to previous peace treaties, placed on any government in which Hamas played a part also contributed to the failure of the Mecca Agreement.

Hamas' control of the Gaza Strip served to deepen the divide between the differing Palestinian groups; this was exacerbated by the geographical partition separating the sides, and each group's ability to deport the other's supporters from its territorial sphere of influence. In the midst of that split, the Egyptian state security service, under the leadership of its former leader, General Omar Suleiman, undertook the bringing about an inter-Palestinian reconciliation as a precondition, in its view, to a re-opening of the Egyptian-Gaza border crossing.

On October 17, 2009, Egypt then presented the parties, with a draft agreement which it called the "Palestinian National Concord Pact," which was made up of the following points:

1) Re-activation of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in line with the Cairo Accord of March 2005;

2) The holding of presidential and legislative elections to coincide with elections for the PLO-affiliated Palestine National Council on the June 28, 2010;

3) The reformation of Palestinian security forces, with Egyptian and broader Arab oversight, along professional lines;

4) The formation of reconciliation committees which would oversee an end to partisan agitation by the different groups;

5) The formation of an authoritative committee, with the participation of all recognised Palestinian political factions, which would ensure the implementation of the March 2005 Cairo Accord;

6) The immediate release of all political prisoners being held by each group.

The Palestinian National Authority (the group representing Fateh) had agreed to all of the terms of the Egyptian agreement, while Hamas had a number of reservations over the terms of the agreement, mainly:

1) Hamas had requested that the formation of the security services be in accordance not only with professional criteria, but criteria of political [and patriotic] considerations, as well. This was reflective of Hamas' opposition to security coordination with Israel, and US oversight, of the training of the Palestinian security forces.

2) Hamas was also opposed to the Article (contained in the March 2005 Accord) that would have forbade the formation of any irregular militia, given that there was no reference to the protected right to armed resistance.

3) The Movement also requested the right to name the premier of the interim government which would prepare the groundwork for the Palestinian elections, contrary to the plan to keep Salam Fayyad in place. Hamas also requested that the intermediary period between the signing of the agreement and the elections would be 12 months as opposed to six.

4) Hamas was also further opposed to the suggested mechanisms for the activation of the PLO, and the monopolising of the negotiations process by the PLO and the Palestinian National Authority President. Hamas had requested that all Palestinian political blocs be represented at the negotiations, until such time as the PLO could be fully reformed.

The opportunity to sign the agreement into action was lost, particularly given the position of the former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, which was markedly biased against Hamas, as well as the President's stance with regards to the Israeli aggression against the Gaza Strip over the winter of 2008-2009, and the PNA's approach to the Goldstone Report in 2009. The only progress made throughout all of 2010 was the November 10 agreement in Damascus, Syria, where the parties agreed to all of the articles in the Egyptian proposal, with the exception of those related to the security services.

With the fall of the Mubarak regime, PNA President Mahmoud Abbas declared his willingness to travel to Gaza in order to meet with Hamas. This declaration coincided with the tour of newly-appointed director of Egyptian State Intelligence, General Murad Muafi, of Damascus, Syria and Doha, Qatar. These efforts culminated with the initializing of an agreement in Cairo on April 27, followed by the full signing ceremony in the presence of [Hamas Political Bureau Chief] Khaled Meshal and PNA President Mahmoud Abbas.

The recently-signed agreement has not done away with all of the points of contention between the parties, but it has, at least, made them open to discussion, as well as conceding Hamas' point of allowing a full year before full elections can be held in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Further to this, the agreement allowed the parties to overcome the conditions placed by the Middle East Peace Quartet, with the Palestinian National Authority acquiescing that Hamas would not be held to account for those conditions. The agreement also posited that both parties would present a unified, national front with regards to resisting the occupation, based on the common good or "higher national interests" of the Palestinians. In the meantime, Hamas has agreed to a temporary, reciprocated ceasefire with Israel, provided that there is an internal Palestinian consensus on the issue. Khaled Meshal also declared, upon signing the agreement, that his movement wanted to see "a strong Palestinian state, free of [illegal Israeli] settlements on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with a capital in Jerusalem," thus indicating a formal acceptance of a division along the 1967 borders, albeit a temporary one.

The agreement further extended to the following points:

1) The signing of the agreement between the parties brokered by Egypt and those understandings agreed upon in Damascus;

2) The appointment of a 12-person electoral oversight commission;

3) The appointment of Mahmoud Abbas to oversee the committee responsible for the reformation of the PLO;

4) The formation of a Higher Council for Security though Hamas had backed down from its insistence that political considerations be taken into account when forming the new security services, and Fateh dropped its insistence on the reformation of the security services on the Gaza Strip. The security services on the Strip are also to be bolstered by 3,000 new members presently in the service of the Palestinian National Authority;

5) The undertaking by both sides to form an interim government of independents who are agreeable to both of them.

The main responsibilities of the said interim government would be to:

1) Prepare for the elections, as stated earlier

2) Ensure the implementation of the agreement

3) Standardise the work of Hamas-controlled, privately-administered bodies on the West Bank

4) Unify and synchronize Palestinian National Authority institutions on the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem

5) Deal with the administrative and security-related fallout of the long-standing division within the Palestinian camp

6) Continue efforts aimed at ending the Israeli siege of Gaza and work towards the rebuilding of the Strip

It  is obvious that the primary concern of the PNA in the agreement is the conduct of the negotiations, which would lend legitimacy to a party that would eventually agree to the terms of a peace agreement with Israel, mediated by the Quartet.


Roots of the Conflict

Hamas and Fateh have two conceptually different approaches to the Palestinian issue at the moment. While Fateh looks to achieve a peace settlement with Israel, Hamas continues to adopt an approach of armed resistance to the occupation, a divide brought into focus by the signing of the Oslo Accords. The intensity of this split was somewhat mediated by the rise of the Palestinian intifada in 2000, with Israeli aggression against both sides, and their besieging of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat leading them to make common cause with other. Arafat had previously allowed Hamas a wide margin of freedom in choosing its own means to combat Israeli occupation, a policy which was reversed when the new PNA President, Mahmoud Abbas, came to power. Abbas aspired to a full, by-the-book implementation of the Oslo agreements, a position for which he sought legitimacy through the ballot box. However, his electoral gambit did not succeed, and he, together with Fateh, was faced with a Hamas electoral victory. The Fateh leadership blamed their failure in the elections on the internal fracturing within their own movement, unlike Hamas, who saw their own success as a vote of confidence on the part of the Palestinian electorate to allow them to take their policy of armed resistance and use it to rule over the Palestinian authority. Banking on international support, specifically that of the US, Abbas went on to impose a commitment to the Oslo agreements from the Palestinian side, thereby ensuring that an internal Palestinian division became a complete schism.

In the five years following this schism, two separate and exclusive visions for the future of running Palestinian affairs formed. One of these was presented by the PNA government led by Premier Salam Fayyad, which cannot be counted as a truly Fateh-backed initiative. In fact, the Fateh movement underwent an internal reformation in 2009, with new elections to its governing bodies as a  reaction to its loss of popular backing. Meanwhile, the Fayyad government, which was acquiesced to by the majority of the Palestinian electorate on the West Bank for economic reasons, received enormous financial backing from the Gulf States and the West, but its overall economic infeasibility was partially caused by the continuing settlement enterprise in Palestinian territory. This settlement activity, together with the collapse of peace negotiations, has also led to the total lack of the Fayyad government's right to rule.

A second vision is provided by the Hamas government in charge of the Gaza Strip, which has been dealing with a siege imposed on the Strip since 2006, despite the movement attempting to turn world public opinion as a lever against the measures. According to the Palestinian statistical report of 2011, the Strip has more or less double the rates of unemployment and poverty compared to the West Bank (38% vs. 17% and 33% vs. 17%, respectively). In addition to Israeli measures of collective punishment and forced starvation, the Strip had to single-handedly face a barrage of Israeli military aggressions, which culminated in the 2008/2009 assault, which left 1,440 Palestinians dead.


Reconciliation: Why now?

Internal Factors

While foreign factors may have played the decisive role in compelling the competing Palestinian factions (in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip) to put their differences aside, there were also some good purely Palestinian reasons for them to do so. The PNA was faced with deadlock when the Israeli party would flat out refuse to end the settlement before re-starting the negotiations. Meanwhile, the leak of over 1,500 secret documents indicated the preparedness on the part of the PNA to indulge the Israeli side to peace talks with unprecedented concessions, without any tangible returns for the Palestinians. At the same time, Hamas found itself responsible for a large human mass which had been starved, unable to break the siege on Gaza while the human toll of confronting Israeli was ever-increasing. This process was also further accelerated by a number of other internal factors. 

Not least among the internal factors was the distancing of Mohammed Dahlan and his supporters from the decision-making process within Fateh; Dahlan had been accused of an attempt to overthrow the leadership of the PNA. This also pushed the first and second-tier leaderships within Fateh to repair their relationships with the base of the movement, motivated out of a fear that Fayyad would be able to dominate PNA institutions with Western backing; it is noteworthy that Fayyad was taken unawares by the move for a rapprochement between Fateh and Hamas. The agreement between the two parties will further pave the way for Abbas, or any new figure agreed upon within the Fateh leadership, to contest the upcoming presidential elections. With a new agreement in hand, Abbas will be able both to bolster his public standing and present a more convincing case for a unified Palestinian state before the UN General Assembly in September of 2011, overcoming a failed peace talks initiative and the US veto thwarting the UN resolution condemning settlements.

Leaders within Hamas, on the other hand, have faced other challenges, with their control of the Gaza Strip, since 2007, having been unplanned. In this period of time, they faced a decline in public support and popularity, as revealed by opinion surveys, coupled with Israeli and American pressures. So the new rapprochement comes as a sort of life jacket for the group, whereby it can present itself anew as a resistance movement committed to the unity of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, while putting an end to the harassment its members on the West Bank used to face at the hands of Fateh-controlled security forces.

Of course, all of these factors have been in place for some time now but, as stated before, it was the foreign factors which were decisive, particularly given that the nature of the mediator itself had changed.


Foreign Factors

The Arab popular revolts have pushed aside two important allies of both of the Palestinian factions. The fall of the Mubarak regime in Egypt left the PNA-Fateh group without one of its important regional allies and backers, with Mubarak himself being deeply antithetical to Hamas. To a lesser extent, the uprising against the Syrian government reflected negatively on the Hamas leadership; Hamas and Fateh both, it seemed, felt the need to reach an agreement in order to avoid being swept aside like many others in the region. Egypt remained the most important part of the puzzle in this regard, with the new interim government in Egypt deciding to break with past policies, and move forward a more impartial attitude to the Palestinian factions. The present Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nabil Al Arabi, also made it clear that Egypt would not support continued Israeli violence and would seek to end the siege on the Strip as soon as possible. Abbas thus found himself facing a stark decision: either conclude an Egyptian-Arab brokered agreement with Hamas, or find himself with only Israel as a backer, which would have meant his political suicide. The Gazan leadership also had an interest in making gains from the horizons made possible through a new Egyptian government, possibly even being able to arrange for a lifting of the siege.

Israeli policies also played their part in furthering the cause of Palestinian reconciliation. Surveys of Israeli public opinion throughout 2010 indicate that Likud, the hard-line party of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, stood to gain from any new elections (with its share of 120 Knesset seats up from 27 to 33); the same is true for the even more radical Israel Beitanu ("Israel Our Home") party, the party of Israeli FM Avigdor Liebermann. In the absence of any notable US pressure on Israel during the US election season, and with the present, obdurate Israeli government likely to remain in place at least until 2013, Abbas had seemingly lost his wager on the option of peace negotiations and a settlement freeze. Abbas would have to, instead, try to bolster his own domestic standing and then seek to gain global recognition for a Palestinian state.


The Israeli Attitude towards the Reconciliation

Quickly after the announcement of the deal, the Israeli government declared that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was moribund, choosing to recall that peace talks had been frozen for some time. The Israeli authorities also decided to use Palestinian reconciliation as a justification for withholding the tax revenues and customs they had collected on behalf of the Palestinian National Authority, claiming that a Palestinian government of national unity would be a risk to Israeli national security.

The (figurehead) President of Israel, Shimon Peres, went on to state that the new deal between Fateh and Hamas would provide an opportunity for Hamas to control the West Bank as well as the Gaza Strip while the Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, made clear his prediction that the rapprochement would not succeed, stressing that there could no Israeli-Palestinian negotiations without Hamas first renouncing violence. Within the Israeli opposition, Kadima leader Tzipi Livni stressed that the Palestinian government-to-be would have to accept the terms and conditions set by the Middle East Quartet. Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Liebermann of the Israel Beitanu Party, called for the entire Palestinian National Authority to be cut off entirely and sealed in the West Bank, including President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, while at the same time demanding that the US discontinue its financial support for the Palestinian National Authority.

Taken together, the various Israeli reactions seem to be more of the same stance as always, playing the role of victim and insisting, whenever there is any new development amongst the Palestinians or within the Arab countries, that there is no longer a "partner for peace". Of course, when such a partner was readily available and prepared to make huge concessions, the Israeli response was that the Palestinian side was too weak. In reality, the Israelis are not prepared to make the necessary conditions for peace. Wider reactions to the Palestinian unification initiative have more or less been in line with the Israeli reactions. The US reiterated its condition that Hamas should recognise Israel's right to exist and renounce violence, with US Secretary of State Clinton holding talks with Mahmoud Abbas on the level of US support for the PNA in light of the Hamas-Fateh rapprochement. The German government insisted that any recognition of a Palestinian state would be predicated on reciprocal Israeli-Palestinian agreements, with Nicolas Sarkozy giving only a non-committal "possibly" response to the question of future French recognition of a Palestinian state.


Conclusion and Possible Scenarios

The Fateh-Hamas agreement deferred coming to conclusions on some of the most pressing issues facing the parties until such time as the agreement was meant to be fully implemented, which, technically, is the period of one year. As stated before, there is no real mechanism to absorb the cadres of either party in the security services, leaving the issue of continued security coordination with the Israelis open. There is also the question of armed resistance to a persistent Israeli occupation, which remains open-ended. Further, the terms of the agreement did not address a unified Palestinian position with regards to the peace process with Israel. Abbas had stated separately, before an Israeli delegation visiting Ramallah, that he would still be in charge of diplomatic efforts, and that the rapprochement would serve the cause of peace in the long-term, provided that there was a cessation of settlement activity. Meshal, on the other hand, posited that the Fateh-Hamas agreement was a necessary precursor to the resumption of peace negotiations.

In the period of time when the Palestinian factions were divided, the Israelis had moved forward with plans to build new settlement blocs completely cutting East Jerusalem off from the West Bank, as well as the continued settlement building itself, with an additional 1,350 settlement housing units were built. It remains impossible to pronounce a final verdict on the possibility of the success or otherwise of these latest efforts at Palestinian unification, previous experiences notwithstanding. A number of different factors, both domestic and foreign, are pushing and pulling the Palestinian factions in opposing directions. What makes this experience different, however, is its deep connection to the protest movement throughout the Arab homeland; this new resolution of the internal Palestinian conflict is due, if only in part, to popular pressure on the part of the Palestinian people. These same Palestinian people are also highly optimistic about the success of this latest venture, seeing it as a possible national saviour in the face of on-going Israeli intransigence.

In conclusion, there are a limited number of end-game scenarios which might be played out in the coming months:

First Scenario:  The success of the rapprochement leads to the Palestinian factions uniting around and jointly supporting efforts to form a Palestinian state with a capital in Jerusalem recognized by the international community, thus exerting pressure on Israel. Failing that, that the Palestinian factions should work together to build the PLO as an all-encompassing focus of attention for the Palestinian people, relegating the Palestinian National Authority to other affairs. In that case, the need to build a national liberation movement arises. 

Second Scenario: If the main focus of the newly-formed Palestinian government is on the holding of elections, it's possible that this could fail  either before or after the actual holding of the longed-for elections. The upcoming period could be a time for the Israelis and Americans to exert pressure on the Palestinians, financially, in an effort to thwart their unification efforts, before any real progress can be made on the peace negotiations front, which would push Hamas back into the position of controlling the Gaza Strip through arms, as the movement is unlikely to relinquish all weapons, even after the agreement, without the achievement of a fully sovereign state established on the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Experience also indicates that any elections held under foreign occupation will not be satisfactory, giving any losing side an easy ticket to explain its performance.

Third Scenario: A third possible end-game would be for popular pressure, acting to oversee and regulate the activities of the Palestinian factions and making it difficult for Fateh and Hamas to repeat the mistakes which led to the failure of the 2007 agreement. However, without significant Arab backing, the Palestinian parties might be compelled to simply extend the period of their truce, without a final resolution through the establishment of a Palestinian state, in the hope that future circumstances would prove more favourable to Palestinian aims. Such a situation could also see the US administration entering into a dialogue with Hamas, in the context of a wider policy of greater openness to Islamist movements throughout the region.

The ability of opinion-forming social groups to effect the success of the agreement would be based on all of the interested parties. In the event that the rapprochement failed, social movements might resort to the methods which were in evidence throughout the Arab revolutions, which they would use to face not only Israel but the Palestinian leadership. Such a dynamic change, however, would call for a new level of creativity, time and planning (for example, to arrange for a million-strong march of refugees demanding the right of returning). In other words, the nature of any new confrontation with Israel would have to be different from anything which has come before because the Israelis have withdrawn from the Gaza Strip and have isolated the West Bank through the Separation Wall; additionally, the attrition of much of the patriotic resistance since the 2000 Intifada, as well as their corruption, has changed things. The effects of years of Palestinian separation, the war on Gaza and its isolation also remain in evidence.