Like previous agreements, the Palestinian reconciliation deal has been described as “historic”. Officially, the damaging political split between Palestinians is over, but will this latest agreement be any better than the Cairo (2011) and Doha (2012) accords? The signatories, Fatah and Hamas, are committed in principle and in writing, to make the Shati Declaration different. Two countries, however, stand between them and success: the US, which stopped short of condemning the agreement but expressed its “disappointment”, and Israel, which is opposing it virulently.
America and Israel stand alone, as they usually do on Palestinian affairs. Strong support for the agreement has come from China, Russia, Turkey and South Africa. Contrary to its customary position of tagging along on the coat-tails of the US, even the EU welcomed the deal. According to Michael Mann, a spokesman of EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton, “The European Union believes that the reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas is an important step toward a two-state solution.” International support for the latest agreement was in effect an acknowledgement that not only is reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas a popular national demand but also that no progress can be made towards a resolution of the conflict without Hamas on board.
Caught unawares by the speed with which the agreement was concluded, the Obama administration now finds itself torn between Israel’s damaging demands and the more constructive approach of fellow members in the International Quartet.
On their part, the Israelis were disappointed with the “weak” American stand. One senior official said: “The Americans need to make it clear to Abbas that this is a red line – he just can’t associate with Hamas. We don’t accept that the Americans are talking about the policy of the unity government once it is formed, and are ignoring the fact that this is an alliance with Hamas.”
The fact that Washington has refused to condemn the agreement is of itself significant. After all, it was Israeli officials who have undermined and wrecked the laborious diplomatic efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry. In January 2014, Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon disparaged Kerry’s efforts saying that they stemmed from an “incomprehensible obsession” and “a messianic feeling”. Meanwhile, the extreme right-wing government led by Benjamin Netanyahu has continued to build settlements on Palestinian land, in defiance of the US. Earlier this month, Israel refused to release the fourth and final batch of 106 Palestinian prisoners in accord with an undertaking given to Kerry after the resumption of the peace talks in July last year. Israel’s serial breaches of trust and bad faith have done enormous damage to US credibility and interests in the region and beyond.
If the entire world can recognise that Palestinian unity will advance efforts towards regional peace and stability, why can’t the Americans? The spurious label of “terrorist organisation” ascribed to Hamas has absolutely no meaning to the Palestinian people nor the international community. The senior PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat was spot on when he told the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahranoth that the Palestinian Authority does not view Hamas as a terrorist organisation and that the “real terrorism” is the construction of settlements in the occupied territories.
Having visited the region more than 10 times since July last year, John Kerry must be acutely aware of the huge level of support there is among Palestinians for Fatah-Hamas reconciliation; it is, first and foremost, a national demand. Both movements have by far the largest support among Palestinians at home and in the diaspora. Neither can supplant or get rid of the other; as such, support for their reconciliation makes perfect sense, especially as the Israelis have always accused Fatah of not representing all Palestinians. It would, therefore, be in America’s best interests, and to its credit, if it were to support this process, given that there is overwhelming opposition among Palestinians for an extension of the current negotiations.
As it stands, both Fatah and Hamas are in desperate need of reconciliation. After two decades of negotiations, Fatah has been reduced to the status of an out-sourced security arm of the occupation, a humiliating reality that many in the West Bank can no longer tolerate. Meanwhile, in Gaza, Hamas’s governance of the territory has resulted in an Israeli-led siege that has turned the enclave into a giant prison. However bad their circumstances may seem, though, neither Fatah nor Hamas can afford to view the deal simply as a tactical move. It can and will only succeed if it truly becomes a strategy for national liberation.
Without the malicious interference of Israel and its supporters, the Shati Declaration of Fatah and Hamas could yet be the most important step undertaken towards the restoration of Palestinian rights in decades. The region has had more than its fair share of wars and bloodshed because of this long-running conflict. The US must, therefore, resist all Israeli demands to sabotage it and instead lend all its political weight to regional and international efforts to ensure the agreement’s success.