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Unity government highlights neighbours' influence on Palestinians

Since April, Hamas and Fatah have pushed ahead with reconciliation and announced a unity government for the Gaza Strip and West Bank. The new government of technocrats is charged with planning for Palestinian elections. Intense rivalry between Fatah and Hamas has stalled cooperation in the past. The move aims to renew the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s role by incorporating a wider range of groups, such as Hamas, and reviving the stalled Palestine Legislative Council.

Reconciliation efforts have come at a time of increasing isolation and diminishing options available to Hamas and the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. The reconciliation efforts more than ever show that both the determinants of the decisions made by Palestinian authorities and the success of their outcomes, are conditioned by and dependent on the actions of their neighbours.

Given the Israeli blockade, Gaza is inevitably feeling the effects of Egypt’s instability; it is the neighbour that provides its only lifeline through the Rafah Crossing. The situation in Egypt has exacerbated the political, economic and humanitarian crisis in Gaza and Hamas’s isolation.

The ousting of its ally Mohamed Morsi in July last year has led to ties between Al-Sisi’s regime and Hamas being cut. The new regime has clamped down on and closed smuggling tunnels under the border with Gaza. They had provided essential goods for Gaza and an estimated 40% in revenue for the Hamas-led government. Gaza has thus experienced a slump in its economy as well as a shortage of fuel, construction materials and food, which had been imported through the tunnels. The closure of the Rafah border crossing, the main route in and out of Gaza, has isolated the enclave further.

Egypt’s clamp down on smuggling into Gaza may be seen both as a political manoeuvre and a security initiative. It aims to choke the Muslim Brotherhood’s Hamas allies and to gain control of the unrest in the Sinai that poses a threat to central authority.

Having felt the effects of the unrest in Egypt, Hamas has been left with few options. The situation has been complicated even more by ongoing and open cooperation between Israel and Egypt, which has put further pressure on the movement. According to Haaretz newspaper, following the alleged kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank, Egypt has been given prior warning of air strikes on Gaza. As such, it has tightened security along its border.

Hamas’s isolation has contributed to its willingness and need to cooperate with its West Bank counterpart authority. This has shown that dynamics within Gaza are to a large extent dependent upon its Egyptian neighbour.

President Mahmoud Abbas has also been encouraged to pursue cooperation because of his weakening political legitimacy and the stalled US-sponsored peace process. The revolution in Egypt that toppled his ally Mubarak also suggested the need to new renew popular legitimacy vis-à-vis his relationship with Israel.

The success of the reconciliation relies most significantly on its relationship with Israel and its international backers. Abbas has relied on security cooperation with the occupation authorities and his upholding of previous peace agreements, non-violence and recognition of Israel. Such an approach contradicts Hamas’s resistance strategy. If both Fatah and Hamas are to play a role in the unity government as they claim, it will involve a complicated process of reconciling differing attitudes towards Israel.

American and European recognition of the unity government also relies on Abbas’s promise to abide by existing agreements, recognise Israel and reject violence. However, the PLO’s failure to do so may be met with pressure from the US. The Palestinian Authority relies on international aid, particularly from the US, yet aid for the unity government is a sensitive subject and has drawn criticism from Israel. Once more, the pressure exercised by Israel and international actors limits the actions of the new Palestinian government.

Israeli policy is to treat the West Bank and Gaza Strip separately and it maintains strict controls over the flow of people and goods between the two. Coordination with a unity government will be difficult in all sectors and will test its effectiveness.

Israel will not recognise a government that involves Hamas, which, in their eyes, is a terrorist organisation. This puts a lot of pressure on the reconciliation. “Today, Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] said yes to terrorism and no to peace,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when the unity government was announced. His condemnation suggests that he may hold the Gaza strip and the West Bank as unitarily responsible for their actions. This would provide him with a reason to act against both territories in equal measure.

The fragility of cooperation has already been shown in light of its most sensitive issue, the new government’s attitude towards Israel. Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri voiced disagreement with Abbas over the latter’s controversial security cooperation with Israel in the military operations following the kidnapping of the settlers.

Accusing Hamas of kidnapping the three, Israel has used it as an excuse for collective punishment and a clamp down on the Islamic movement in the West Bank. In doing so, it has demonstrated that it can differentiate in its criticism between the PA and Hamas.

The unity government has a difficult road ahead. By the nature of the occupation and its diminishing of Palestinian sovereignty, the actions of both Hamas and Fatah have been limited by their neighbours; this will continue in the near future, as will Egypt’s effect on events in Gaza. It is clear that pressure from Israel ensures that international actors will continue to have an enormous amount of influence over the unity government.


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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