The Israeli response to the reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah has been hysterical. Senior Israeli officials have abandoned the most basic requirements of decorum, issuing coarse threats to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has imposed a choice on Abbas between reconciliation with Hamas and the continuation of relations with Israel. Meanwhile, his foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman has shamelessly threatened to imprison Abbas in the West Bank and deny him permission to leave it.
This confused Israeli behaviour gives rise to numerous questions: Why is Tel Aviv showing so much sensitivity to the end of the inter-Palestinian conflict? What actions will Israel take to try to thwart the Palestinian Agreement? And what should the Palestinians do to block these prospective actions?
The Price Israel Has to Pay
The agreement between Hamas and Fatah came as a shock to Israel and caused a great deal of perplexity. Israeli decision makers have realised that the successful implementation of this agreement in a way that ends the inter-Palestinian conflict could mean that Israel will lose all the strategic gains it has made since the Palestinian elections which brought Hamas to power five years ago, which were followed by a series of crises leading to the inter-Palestinian conflict. The conflict enabled Israel to make the following gains:
1) It allowed Israel to rob the Palestinians of the only achievement that the Oslo agreement had granted them. That was the preservation of the political unity of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The inter-Palestinian conflict consecrated the division of these two territories and this enabled Israel to focus on the West Bank. It has continuously and methodically carried on with its project of settlement and Judaization. Meanwhile, international resistance to this Israeli project became minimal.
2) Israel has used the inter-Palestinian conflict as an excuse to avoid carrying out its obligations regarding peace negotiations and the final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In this vein, it has said that it cannot enter into a final status agreement with Mahmoud Abbas requiring it to withdraw from the occupied territories, because he does not represent all the Palestinian people.
3) Israel used the increased unpopularity of Fatah and its leadership which followed Hamas’s armed response to its coup attempt in Gaza in the middle of 2007 to its advantage. Cooperation between Palestinian Authority security forces and Israel reached unprecedented levels in a way which stabilized the security situation in Israel and its settlements on the West Bank. In turn, this increased the number of Israelis setting up home in the settlements. Leaders of the settlers even acknowledged the Palestinian Authority’s security forces’ role in enabling the settlements to expand.
4) To Israel, Hamas’s monopolization of government in the Gaza Strip was a gain of the highest order. This situation enabled the Israeli army to step up its military pressure against all resistance operations from Gaza, whether by Hamas or other factions. Israel gained international support for this because many states consider Hamas a “terrorist” organisation. Israeli officials admitted this frankly, as shown by Wikileaks documents.
5) The inter-Palestinian conflict allowed Israel to impose a siege on the Gaza Strip, with the help and acquiescence of many other parties, including the Palestinian Authority.
6) Israel fears that the implementation of the new agreement will give international legitimacy to Hamas, especially because the agreement was signed in the midst of the revolutionary situation in the Arab world. In the West today, many people are questioning the wisdom of boycotting and opposing Islamic movements.
7) Israel knows that the reconciliation agreement will increase the breadth of international support for the Palestinian plan to declare an independent state next September, considering that the agreement will show that Palestinians are united.
8) The reconciliation will strengthen popular support for the launch of a third Palestinian intifada to sweep away the occupation and its manifestations, in response to calls by young people in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel knows that this is the worst time, from its perspective, for the outbreak of a new intifada because it realizes that this intifada will have a great deal of popular support in the Arab world, inspired by the Arab revolutions. This will force Arab governments into taking a strong anti-Israeli position.
Israel will not stand idly by following these prospective losses from the Palestinian reconciliation. It will try to thwart the implementation of the agreement with all the strength it has and all the various kinds of pressure it can bring to bear:
Political Pressure: It is clear from the intense media campaign which followed the announcement of the agreement that Tel Aviv will focus on delegitimizing the transitional government that the Palestinians will form in accordance with the agreement. Israel will bring up the conditions of the Quartet, which state that the government must recognize Israel and the agreements between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, and must give up resistance since it constitutes “terrorism”.
Israel will call upon the United States and the European Union to judge the new government in accordance with its willingness to continue security cooperation and suppress resistance to Israel. For example, Lieberman considered that the Palestinian Authority’s release of Hamas prisoners is a “conspiracy” against Israel’s security. However, most Hamas members in Palestinian Authority prisons were arrested by Palestinian security forces after they were released from Israeli army custody. Israel let them go either after they had completed prison sentences or after it became clear that it could find nothing to charge them with.
Israel believes that the world will understand its position. It goes without saying that Israel will keep the members of the new government under close scrutiny and will use anything that links any of them to Hamas in order to demonise the new government. The Israelis will demand that the world will boycott the leadership of the Palestinian Authority, including President Abbas, who it will cast as “a new member of the axis of evil”.
Economic Pressure: Israel will work to prove to the Palestinians, especially in the West Bank, that their condition will only grow worse following the reconciliation. It will try to convince donor countries to cut off economic aid to the Palestinian Authority, so that the PA will be unable to pay the salaries of its employees, resulting in a fall in living standards in the West Bank.
Israel has announced that it is considering ceasing its participation in the meetings of donor countries, in order to stop the transfer of funds to the Palestinian Authority treasury. In addition, Israel has stopped the transfer of taxes that it collects from goods imported to the Palestinian territories to the Palestinian Authority. This amounts to tens of millions of dollars per month.
Israel will try to worsen economic conditions by restricting freedom of movement in the West Bank, thus affecting the operation of economic facilities, and rolling back the economic growth rate. In addition, it will try to damage the operation of construction and infrastructure projects which have sprung up on the West Bank in order to further worsen economic conditions.
Personal Pressure: Israel will not hesitate to apply personal pressure on Palestinian Authority and PLO leaders, by taking away the personal benefits that it has given them in exchange for their help in its war against the Palestinian resistance. Lieberman has threatened to “imprison” Abbas in the West Bank, not permitting him to leave it at all, in addition to threatening to withdraw his VIP cards, which Israel has given to senior PA officials and security force leaders. These guarantee them freedom of movement in the West Bank and across borders. However, Israel hopes that its threats will bear fruit before it actually has to carry them out because it realises the extent of the contribution of the Palestinian security forces to Israeli security in the West Bank and in Israel itself. For this reason it will be cautious about carrying out these threats.
Security Pressure: Israel will also not hesitate to use military means to thwart Palestinian reconciliation. It will, in particular, use the launch of rockets from the Gaza Strip against it to its advantage. It will ask the international community to consider such incidents as tests for the Palestinian transitional government, in order to bring international pressure to bear on the Palestinian government and destroy its legitimacy early on.
It is clear that there is an abundance of methods that Israel will use to try and force the Palestinians into this corner. Israel will use the behaviour of undisciplined Palestinian groups in Gaza, which are keen on launching rockets at Israel at the most inconvenient times, as a pretext. If there is no one who will provide this pretext for Israel it will resort to provocation of the Palestinian groups by assassinating leaders. It will justify this by fabricating intelligence that these groups are planning actions against Israel. These groups will then be led to respond against Israel, and this will garner international support for Israel’s position vis-à-vis the Palestinian government.
The Gains of Fatah and Hamas
The Palestinians must realise the extent of the loss that will befall Israel if the agreement is successfully implemented. It is enough for them only to show good will to each other. They should be determined to follow the path of reconciliation towards the end. Israel’s losses from the agreement, mentioned above, are at the same time gains for Hamas and Fatah. It is clear that the reconciliation agreement allows Fatah to abandon the political programme of President Abbas which has shown itself to have failed. At the same time, this agreement allows the Palestinian Authority leadership and Fatah to attach themselves in a natural way to the Arab revolutions. They no longer have to ally with the old Arab order, especially after the fall of the Mubarak regime.
On the other hand, the agreement will allow Hamas to escape its dilemma – the impossibility of combining government and resistance. It will also free Hamas from the economic, political, and security consequences of its monopolization of government in the Gaza Strip. It’s enough that after the formation of the new government, Hamas will not be held accountable by Israel and the world for any military action carried out by another group.
Hamas will also no longer be responsible for the livelihoods of tens of thousands of government employees and it is clear that this will free it from dependence on external parties. This support from outside has complicated Hamas’s political situation. It has resulted in it being classified as a member of a certain camp and it has faced the threat of a heavy penalty for membership of this camp, since it is a weak party in it.
The Palestinian Counter-Response
Considering everything discussed above, the Palestinians must now work with all the strength they have to make the reconciliation agreement successful. It is a historic opportunity to close this dark chapter of Palestinian history. In order to do this, Israel must not be given the opportunity to sabotage the reconciliation. This should be achieved by controlling resistance operations so that they do not become a double edged sword which Israel can use against the Palestinians. Also, groups and individuals whose interests will be damaged by the reconciliation should not be allowed to collaborate with Israel in order to sabotage it.
At the same time Palestinians should deal wisely with Israel’s attempts to use the Quartet’s conditions to reject the new Palestinian government. The Palestine Liberation Organisation should be given responsibility for negotiations. However it must adhere to the basic principles shared by all Palestinians, which Israel rejects. The Palestinians should demand that Israel accept what the international community has already accepted regarding the Palestinian issue. In this way, they will increase Israel’s international isolation and thwart its ability to interfere with Palestinian reconciliation.
At the same time all the players on the Palestinian political scene should gather their strength for a third Palestinian intifada with the aim of expelling Israel from the occupied territories and dismantling settlements. This intifada should be supported by all Palestinian leaders without exception. This will paralyze Israel and reduce its ability to sabotage the reconciliation.
The author is a Palestinian academic. This article was first published in Arabic by Al Jazeera on 4 May 2011
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.