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Palestinian reconciliation: is there light at the end of the tunnel?

In a speech to the Jewish National Fund convention in Jerusalem late last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a startling ultimatum to the Palestinian Authority: “Choose between the two, you can’t have both. Choose peace with Israel, abandon Hamas.” The statement was made following PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s announcement of his intention to visit the Gaza Strip to end the national division that has blighted the Palestinian cause since 2007. In almost the same breath, Netanyahu accused Abbas of affecting an external façade of a desire for peace while continuing to “incite against Israel”.

Despite Israeli opposition, efforts by Fatah and Hamas to achieve national reconciliation are in line with the demands of the people. In March thousands took to the streets across the occupied territories demanding that the historic opportunity provided by the Arab Spring be exploited to restore Palestinian unity and strength. Moreover, reconciliation talks, which commenced in Gaza on Sunday, have the full backing and support Egypt and the Arab League. Could this be the long-awaited light at the end of the tunnel?


Background to reconciliation efforts

Since the Fatah-Hamas split in 2007, the mediation of reconciliation talks have been monopolised by Egypt under the former Egyptian Minister of Intelligence, Omar Suleiman. Due to his connections with Israel, purported security concerns and the ideological connections between Hamas and Egypt’s then outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas was marginalised; the talks always floundered. Egypt refused to discuss Hamas objections to the reconciliation paper proposed by Cairo in 2009; instead, it insisted that Hamas sign the paper with a pledge to take any objections into consideration during the implementation stage. Hamas objections centred on key demands for amendments related to elections and control over the Palestinian Security Forces, and the movement later rejected the proposal.

In September 2010, two meetings were overseen by Egypt and it was thought that some of the previous sticking points had been resolved and a framework for progress established. However, talks broke down quickly when, at a Summit in Serte, the Syrian president criticised Abbas’s attitude to reconciliation and resistance and proposed that the Hamas political bureau chief, Khaled Meshaal, be invited to the summit for discussions.

What are the prospects for progress?

The revolutionary overthrow of the Mubarak regime has created a positive reorientation of Egyptian foreign policy and the impetus for achieving genuine Palestinian national reconciliation. In last month’s Cairo meeting between Egypt’s Foreign Minister, Nabil el-Arabi, and a delegation led by his Hamas counterpart, Dr Mahmoud el-Zahar, it was emphasised that Palestinian reconciliation in line with their national interests was an Egyptian priority and discussions explored ways of accelerating the process. According to al-Zahar and in a major departure from past policy, Hamas has Egypt’s backing on all issues related to reconciliation as well as proposed steps toward achieving it.

Another tangible change on the Egyptian front is Cairo’s new hands-off approach of non-interference in internal Palestinian affairs. Senior Egyptian officials have pledged not to participate directly in negotiations, leaving the discussions, wording and any agreement entirely up to the Palestinians thus removing all pressure tactics from the equation. The 2009 Egyptian paper will still form the basis of the agreement although it will be up to the negotiating parties to decide how to develop it into a fully-fledged document upon which both sides can agree.

Popular Palestinian demands for national reconciliation have long been at the top of the public agenda. While there were reports of factional attempts to co-opt some rallies at last month’s demonstrations calling for an end to the division, as well as residual tensions flaring periodically, recent public statements made by representative of both Fatah and Hamas assert unambiguous recognition of national unity and a unified source of legitimacy as an immediate imperative to thwarting Israel’s expansionism. Additionally, both say they are in favour of presidential and parliamentary elections within six months.

Moreover, the PA has demonstrated significant openness toward Hamas. In a statement in which the ex-chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, completely rejected the idea that there was a choice to be made between Hamas and Israel, he emphasised that “whether we agree or differ with it, ultimately Hamas is a Palestinian national movement” and the public demand is for “reconciliation, an end to the occupation and to protect the homeland”. He also asserted that the real choice lies with Netanyahu: between security and peace, or expansionism.

What are the challenges facing Hamas

Prior to the commencement of these talks, Hamas had stressed national dialogue and a scheduled agenda aimed at finding durable solutions rather than entering an agreement which would end in failure. On the other hand, the PA views Abbas’s proposed visit to Gaza not as the basis for renewed dialogue, but as a practical step toward reconciliation having discussed all pertinent issues. According to a PA spokesman, Abbas intended to form a national unity government whilst in Gaza and agree on a timetable for holding parliamentary and presidential elections.

Hamas’s reticence is based ostensibly on past experience. Additionally, the September meeting last year deferred discussions on security, the formation of a joint security committee and other related issues including security coordination with Israel and the release of hundreds of Hamas supporters from PA prisons. Some reports suggest a split within the Hamas leadership and that it is unwilling to jeopardise its control of Gaza by entering national elections at this point, an assertion it rejects.

The Gaza Strip faces escalating Israeli attacks and the possibility of another all out war in what is being seen as an Israeli attempt to derail reconciliation negotiations; the attacks began very soon after Abbas announced his plan to visit Gaza. These actions threaten to suck Hamas into a confrontation it has tried to avoid and cannot win; the recent Israeli attack on a Hamas training camp which killed two people provoked the movement’s first retaliatory attack since 2009. Additionally, in recent days, Judge Richard Goldstone, the chairman of the team which produced the UN Goldstone Report wrote an article which Israel feels has “vindicated” its allegedly criminal conduct during the war on Gaza in 2008/9. Observers feel it may well attempt to use this to justify and gather support for another war.

What are the challenges facing Abbas & the PA?

The ousted Mubarak regime was a key ally of Mahmoud Abbas having aided his rise to power; with the removal of the political cover and support it provided, the PA’s lack of democratic legitimacy, its use of repressive tactics and its security coordination with Israel along with the rampant institutional decay and corruption, the PA’s limited credibility as a representative of the people is exposed even further. As such, elections following immediately after reconciliation could be a huge gamble for the Authority in Ramallah.

Given that the PA depends on EU and US funding, and coupled with revelations made by the Palestine Papers, it is seen by some as a collaborator with Israel. Nevertheless, in recent months and despite US threats to cut funding, it has shown strength and a willingness to safeguard the Palestinian national interest. For the first time in many years, Abbas stood his ground under US pressure and blackmail to withdraw the UN Security Council Resolution condemning Israeli settlements which the US went on to veto. However, resistance to reconciliation will be significantly greater given that among other things, it would mean the reorientation of the US-trained Palestinian Security Force which has become central to Israeli security. The PA will no doubt need to summon huge resolve if it is to achieve its stated goals. Moreover, should it give in to external pressure and fail to achieve reconciliation, Mahmoud Abbas could be de-legitimised completely.

PA efforts at state building in line with International Quartet conditions are on schedule and the EU continues to stand behind the goal of an agreement on all final status issues and the welcoming of Palestine as a full member of the UN by September 2011. However, last month Israel began a diplomatic campaign at the highest possible levels to block Palestinian efforts to gain recognition at the UN. Given that the peace process is dead and this right-wing Israeli coalition government is fundamentally opposed to any peace that would see the establishment of a Palestinian state and just, democratic rule for its people, the PA is in a tight corner and appears to have no option but to seek an alternative to the peace process.  

Conclusion

The reprobated axiom of tyranny – divide and rule – has long characterised Israel’s political, military and economic strategy toward the subjugation of Palestinians. As a principle of colonialism, it is contrary to democratic principles as it seeks to usurp power and exert control. Israel’s heavy reliance on this strategy is clear and is exemplified by its policies to maintain and perpetuate the Palestinian national rift with a view to maintaining two distinct entities and thus facilitate Zionism’s expansionist goals. Israel is willing to oppose Palestinian reconciliation, which Netanyahu has described as “an enemy of Israel”, at all costs.

Nevertheless, the Palestinian people have an historic opportunity. In light of the Arab Spring and the ousting of the former Egyptian regime, the climate is now ripe for reform, progress and unity. Moreover, both factions have asserted their desire for reconciliation and stressed that disunity is not in the national interest and that it affects efforts to resist the occupation. What is now required is the political will and courage on both sides, but particularly on Abbas’s part, to overcome the challenges faced. National reconciliation can no longer be seen as a tactical manoeuvre or an act of expediency, but as a Palestinian national imperative.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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