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Palestinian reconciliation: prospects and challenges

The Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations and the Afro-Middle East Centre (AMEC) held a conference at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Beirut on 25–26/3/2015, titled: Palestinian Reconciliations: Prospects and Challenges, attended by a number of experts, thinkers, and decision-makers in the Palestinian and international arenas.

The conference discussed the future of Palestinian reconciliation and the challenges facing it over four sessions in the first day and three sessions in the second day. The conference sought to discuss the issue of Palestinian division, its causes, and practical solutions to overcome it, to create a fruitful and serious atmosphere for Palestinian political leaders and experts, as well as to benefit from the South African and international expertise in resolving conflicts and to activate the role of think-tanks in supporting Palestinian decision-makers.

Opening Speech and First Session

Dr. Mohsen Saleh, general manager of al-Zaytouna Centre, delivered the opening speech. He welcomed the attendance, and overviewed the most important points the conference agenda tackled. He indicated that the current Palestinian situation made the need for Palestinian reconciliation and the rearrangement of the internal Palestinian house a crucial matter that did not tolerate postponement or delay. Otherwise, he cautioned, Palestinians run the risk of losing what is left of Palestine and their national cause, citing risks such as the Judaization of the demographics, holy sites, and the land and its features, as well as the risks of the resettlement of Palestinians outside Palestine and the loss of refugee rights.

He said, “We at al-Zaytouna Centre with our colleagues at AMEC will seek to provide the best possible umbrella for a candid and calm discussion, and for positive interaction among all parties, and we will seek to help build bridges of confidence among the parties to the division and find practical solutions to overcome obstacles.”

Na’eem Jeenah, executive director of AMEC, said in his opening that the people of South Africa believe their struggle is in line with the Palestinian struggle, and that the Palestinians will be liberated and that they will help them to be liberated, though this has yet to happen. He said they see and follow Palestinian division from a distance, and are aware of the problems it has caused and its bitter consequences that they had experienced similarly in South Africa. Jeenah added that the Israeli right’s dominance in the Knesset elections, and the presence of a hardline Israeli government, made reconciliation an urgent priority.

The first session then addressed the Palestinian factions stance towards reconciliation and its activation, and was moderated by Dr. Mohsen Saleh.

The first paper by Dr. Nabil Sha’ath, member of the Fatah Central Committee, was presented on his behalf by Dr. Husam Zomlot, executive deputy commissioner of Fatah commission for international affairs. Additional papers written by Usama Hamdan, Hamas’s foreign relations officer, and by Dr. Maher al-Taher, member of the Political Bureau of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).

Zomlot said the reconciliation, from the beginning, had a wrong framework and approach, based on sharing power rather than on liberation. He said reconciliation was also limited to Fatah and Hamas to a large extent, and ignored Palestinian forces that could have played an exceptional role. He said that they achieved reconciliation but still want to implement it. They reconciled and were surprised by the al-Shati’ Agreement and surprised the whole world. Now they have a Palestinian national accord government responsible for the people in the West Bank (WB) and Gaza Strip (GS). He added that it is not acceptable for Hamas to leave the government without losing power, because the national accord government is present and here to stay. Zomlot said this government’s functions include: Opening the crossings immediately; implementing the reconstruction program; and organizing municipal, legislative, and National Council elections in the WB and GS.

Hamdan said in his paper, that we are facing a reality where no inclusive national institution exists. He said the reason for the division is the historical crisis of confidence in the Palestinian arena, saying there is selectiveness in implementing agreements. In the agreement of 2005, he continued, where it was agreed to hold elections and activate the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), elections were held but the PLO was not reactivated. Hamdan noted the conduct of the security forces in the WB, who sought to topple the tenth Haniyyah government and disrupt dialogue. He stressed that the causes of the division were the crisis in the Palestinian political system, the differences over the fundamentals and programs, the crisis of confidence, and foreign meddling. Regarding ways to end the division, Hamdan said confidence must be rebuilt by taking certain measures as well as rebuilding national institutions and developing the mechanisms of national decision-making.

For his part, Maher Taher stressed that ending the division and addressing the political vision are closely inter-linked, arguing that a solution can only be found by developing a unified strategic vision and moving away from the Oslo path.

Taher added that the real entry point of the reconciliation is to revive the PLO, its program, and its institutions, noting the need to adopt resistance in all its forms as a strategic choice. Taher then proposed calling for a national conference bringing together factions, forces, social figures, and intellectuals in preparation for a comprehensive national assembly.

Second Session

The second session also addressed the Palestinian factions stance towards reconciliation and its activation, and was moderated by Ma’an Bashour, Arab nationalist thinker. The session discussed papers presented by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) representative in Lebanon Abu ‘Imad al-Rifa’i, Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) Central Committee member Suheil el-Natour, and Dr. Jamil Hilal, university lecturer on political sociology.

Dr. Hilal’s paper considered the PLO a framework and a real entry point to reconciliation. He said that the lack of inclusive national institutions representing the Palestinian people in historic Palestine and the Diaspora, is one of the most important points to be addressed. He said the PLO institutions disappeared in practice, after they were marginalized and attached to the institutions of the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Dr. Hilal noted the need to allow all segments of the Palestinian people to take part in decision-making regarding national affairs, as well as national decisions and strategies. He noted that emerging from the crippling crisis in Palestine requires a “historic deal” among the three most influential Palestinian political factions (the national liberal movement, the Islamists, and the democratic left) in order to rebuild the Palestinian national movement.

For his part, al-Rifa’i said that the continuation of the Palestinian division is deadly for the Palestinian issue, and would allow the West to propose “toxic initiatives.” These include separating the WB from GS and all of Palestine in return for enticements such as building an airport or a port that connects GS to the whole world. Another is the bid to deport Palestinians from the areas occupied in 1948, saying projects for eliminating the refugee issue are too many to count.

Al-Rifa’i believes that the natural entry point to achieving reconciliation is to call for a meeting of the unified leadership framework to rebuild the PLO and develop a unified Palestinian strategy.

El-Natour presented the position of the DFLP vis-a-vis the reconciliation and ways to activate it. He said the struggle for democratic development of the political system by the two parties, is what determines the DFLP’s degree of convergence or divergence with them. El-Natour explained the core issues that the DFLP seeks to fulfill through dialogue, most notably: the electoral law; unifying divided agencies and institutions; holding legislative, presidential, and municipal elections; and bringing in the detained members of parliament into the political process. He saw that in order to confront recent political developments, especially the re-election of Benjamin Netanyahu and his rightwing platform, Palestinian national unity should be restored urgently and reconciliation should be completed.

Third Session

The third session of the conference shed light on the international paradigms of reconciliation and transitional justice, and was moderated by Na’eem Jeenah, executive director of AMEC. The session discussed papers prepared by Dr. Steven Friedman, director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg, Dr. El Habib Belkouch, President of the Center of Human Rights and Democracy Studies in Morocco, Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, member of the Irish parliament for the Sinn Fein party.

Dr. Friedman addressed in his paper the experience of South Africa in national reconciliation and transitional justice. He said he reckoned there were similarities between South Africa and Palestine in terms of racism, and argued that a movement for liberation could be achieved by creating a new community and ensuring the requirements of success are there.

Dr. Belkouch spoke about the Moroccan experience in national reconciliation and transitional justice, explaining how his country overcame political differences and disputes through a new reconciliatory phase based on accords between the political elites and the monarchy. This, he said, opened a new horizon for an experience based on accumulation and improvement of governance, with a view to gradually developing a democratic structure and the state of institutions. He also said that addressing past violations was necessary to complete any reconciliation, while taking into account challenges and pitfalls present and future.

Mac Lochlainn’s paper discussed Ireland’s experience in national reconciliation and transitional justice. In that national context, he said, there were conflicts, but at the beginning of the 1970s, movements began to come together and realized that individually and alone, they could not achieve much. He said that the message he wants to convey to the Palestinians is urging them to be united. He considered it vital and important in order to defeat the enemy.

Fourth Session

The fourth session was devoted to discuss issues and problems facing the reconciliation climate. The session was moderated by Former South-African Minister Essop Pahad. The session discussed papers prepared by Fadwa Barghouthi, member of the Revolutionary Council of Fatah; Dr. Farid Abu Duhair, professor of political science and journalism; Jaber Suleiman, co-founder of the Aidoun Group and the Centre for Refugee Rights/Aidoun in Lebanon; and Dr. Nasser Abdul-Jawad, member of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

Barghouthi said the division, which has become both political and geographical, has started to dominated the national landscape, and has become a major obstacle hindering the ability of the Palestinians to confront challenges. She stressed the need to mobilize all Palestinian energies to serve supreme national interests, end the division, restore unity on patriotic and democratic bases, and foster real political partnership.

Barghouthi called for the launch of a profound strategic and comprehensive national dialogue, based on previous agreements, especially the Prisoners’ Charter, while considering the PLO to be the supreme national political reference frame of the Palestinian people. She also called for clinging to the principle of comprehensive resistance against the occupation. Barghouti noted that the division has impacted the issue of the prisoners very clearly, stressing that is it unacceptable to remain silent regarding the detention of prominent Palestinian leaders and MPs.

Abu Duhair shed light on the role of the media and its impact on the Palestinian reconciliation. Abu Duhair overviewed the results of his analysis of a number of electronic news sites affiliated to both Fatah and Hamas in early 2015, and how these websites dealt with news related to the national reconciliation. One conclusion was that the media in the Palestinian case revolve around the ideas of the movements to which the media outlets are affiliated, as well as their policies and attitudes. He stressed that although many Palestinian journalists and media outlets were indeed professional, the general policy of media outlets is unprofessional, and thus, is not conducive to the success of the national reconciliation process.

For his part, Suleiman spoke about the absence of the role of the Palestinian refugees in the national movement, especially as relates to national reconciliation. He said that Palestinian refugees have turned into a group of people who constantly require relief and assistance to remain alive, but without being given a real role, arguing that the centrality of the refugee issue in Palestinian political thinking has been shaken since the signing of the Oslo Accords.

Suleiman said it is crucial to rebuild the PLO as the only legitimate representative of the Palestinian people everywhere, which he said would curb any negative influence or repercussions on the refugees’ rights and legal status. Suleiman also raised the issue of the Palestinian state and the status and rights of Palestinian refugees, and who will ultimately be recognized as citizens in the Palestinian state: Will it be only the people of the WB and GS? What about the Palestinians in the diaspora and the Palestinians in the territories occupied in 1948? Finally, Suleiman said improving the position of Palestinians in the diaspora and their role in building the PLO and preserving their rights requires a number of measures and conditions.

Fifth Session

The fifth session tackled internal Palestinian factors influencing the reconciliation. The session was moderated by Dr. Azzam Tamimi, director of Alhiwar TV Channel and director of the Institute of Islamic Political Thought in London. The session discussed papers prepared by Munir Shafiq, coordinator of the Islamic National Conference, formerly the director of the PLO Department of Planning; Dr. Ahmad Sa’id Nufal, a political science professor at the Yarmouk University; Hani Masri, General Director and co-Founder of the Palestinian Center for Policy Research and Strategic Studies—Masarat; and Dr. Ghada Karmi, associate lecturer at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, and Vice-President of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU).

In his paper, Shafiq addressed the objectives and challenges of the Palestinian national unity. He said the current division between the WB and GS, which has taken the form of a conflict between Hamas and Fatah and which has affected other resistance factions in one way or the other, cannot be interpreted as a struggle for power or reduced to being a dispute that can be resolved by calling for unity and criticizing division. Rather, he said, its main cause is a political difference related to goals, strategy, and policy.

Shafiq also spoke about challenges, pointing out that there is decision by the Israeli government to prevent national unity even if it is under the government in Ramallah. He said that the real problem facing national unity and the bid to end the division is the situation of the resistance in GS, and in the security coordination, occupation, and settlement building in the WB. There is also insistence by the Palestinian President Mahmud ‘Abbas to continue ahead with the strategy of negotiations and the peace process.

In his paper titled Palestinian Reconciliation between the Challenges of Priorities and Adjusting the Tracks of Resistance and Peace Process, Nufal said that both sides must work to make reconciliation a success, because Fatah and the leadership of the PA has hit Israeli intransigence in the negotiations. This is while Hamas has been put under siege by the counter-revolution in Egypt, as part of a regional alliance seeking to undo the revolution in Libya as well as besiege GS in collaboration with Israel. For they want to topple Hamas and prepare GS to return to the control of the PA, according to Nufal.

Hamas, Nufal continued, also lost political cover following its withdrawal from Damascus and after Iran reduced its support for Hamas. Nufal pointed out that the reconciliation, if it pushes in the direction of agreeing on shared grounds between Fatah, Hamas, and other factions with a view to safeguard the Palestinian cause, then this would be a great achievement. Securing it is the responsibility of all Palestinian factions, and not just Fatah and Hamas.

For his part, Masri said that that power and armed resistance cannot be reconciled, and hence, the Oslo Authority cannot be reconciled with resistance, saying there must be a radical change in the PA lest it remains a burden on the resistance. Addressing the PA, he said it must abandon the peace process, and pointed out that the Israel has benefited greatly from the division, saying Ariel Sharon withdrew from GS believing division would permeate it, and the world would see that the Palestinians are unable to govern themselves. Masri also said that the Palestinians inside Israel realized the danger of division, and unified their ranks against Israel in the form of the Joint Arab Electoral List.

Masri stressed the PLO needed to be rebuilt, rather than reformed or repaired and accepting Hamas and the PIJ as members in its current state. He then wondered why no comprehensive national dialogue has been started yet to reach a new national charter.

In her paper, Dr. Karmi overviewed Palestinian Fundamentals and the Palestinian National Project. She explained that the Palestinian rights related to the right to self-determination and the right to independent statehood, as well as the right of return to the lands occupied in 1948, are all rights enshrined by international law. However, she noted that international agreements such as Madrid, Oslo Accords, and the UN Security Council Resolution 1397 calling for a two-state solution, as well as the roadmap in 2003 and the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 contradict the right of return as they recognize the “Jewish state.” Dr. Karmi also said that a national dialogue is a must to agree on a comprehensive solution behind which all Palestinian factions can unite.

Sixth Session

The sixth session dealt with the external influences on the Palestinian reconciliation. The session was moderated by Ambassador Welile Nhlapo, former South African Special Representative to the Africa Great Lakes Region, former Ambassador to the United States, and former Ambassador to Ethiopia. The session discussed papers prepared by Dr. Nizam Barakat, expert on Israeli studies; Jawad el-Hamad, Director General Manager of the Middle East Studies Center in Amman; Chafic Choucair, a scholar of the Arab East and the Islamic movements; and Dr. Garth Le Pere, an Extraordinary Professor of Political Sciences at the University of Pretoria.

Dr. Barakat spoke in his paper about the impact of the Israeli position on Palestinian reconciliation, the political background of the positions of Israeli political parties and forces viz a viz the Palestinian reconciliation. Barakat noted three main Israeli trends viz a viz the reconciliation process: the first trend rejects reconciliation, and the return of the PA to GS, as it believes this strengthens Hamas’s position and its resistance platform. The second trend calls for rapprochement with the PA, and working to bring it back to the GS, to dismantle the resistance program represented by Hamas. The third trend sees the need to bypass the PA, ignore the Palestinians, and head to the moderate Arab countries to conclude a regional peace deal with it, and hence is not interested in Palestinian reconciliation.

Dr. Barakat tackled the Israeli measures against the reconciliation, and the risks resulting. In conclusion, he spoke about the general assessment of Israel’s losses and gains from the reconciliation.

Jawad el-Hamad’s paper addressed the effect of Arab uprisings and changes on Palestinian reconciliation. He said the Arab Spring was an important variable with respect to the Palestinian issue, and created a new Arab climate regarding the opportunities and challenges for achieving national Palestinian reconciliation.

Hamad expected an impasse in the negotiations and further suffering, blockade, and general weakness in the Arab support. He also predicted the continuation of partisanship and security coordination with the occupation in parallel with the continuation of the blockade on GS and the PA’s inability to provide services to the GS. He also predicted there could be a breakthrough inside Palestinian factions, if the youth leaders establish early contacts among themselves to coordinate their positions before reaching higher leadership positions.

Choucair spoke about the influence of the Islamic world on Palestinian reconciliation, taking the Iranian and Turkish roles as a model. He said there is no one solution or one vision in Palestine, but more than one vision, which affects the positions of the Islamic and Arab countries viz a viz the Palestinian cause.

Choucair pointed out that if the faraway Islamic countries wanted to take any action on Palestine, it must go through the Arab countries bordering Palestine. He added that among the factors influencing the position of the Islamic states is the relationship with the US government, as well as the other priorities of the Islamic countries.

Le Pere spoke about international influences on reconciliation, especially the United States, the African Union, and the BRICS countries. He addressed the broad outlines of the US support for Israel, and focused on the role of the United States and the European Union on the peace process. In his paper, Le Pere spoke about the role of the BRICS countries in the Palestinian issue, their sympathy with the suffering of the Palestinian people, their relationship with Israel, and their criticism of the Israeli assaults on the Palestinian people. Le Pere indicated that there are challenges facing any peaceful climate, including Palestinian unity.

Seventh Session

The seventh session was devoted to solutions and future prospects. The session was moderated by Nafez Abu Hasna, director of Palestine Today satellite channel. The session discussed papers prepared by Dr. Mohammad Shtayyeh, member of Fatah’s Central Committee, (delivered on his behalf by Rif’at Shana’ah, Fatah’s secretary in Lebanon); Sami Khater, member of the Hamas political bureau; Kayed al-Ghoul, member of the PFLP Central Committee; and Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi, Secretary General of the Palestinian National Initiative.

Khater spoke about Hamas’s vision for national reconciliation, stressing the decision on reconciliation is strategic and not tactical, citing as proof Hamas’s participation in the legislative elections. Khater stressed Hamas was determined to include all Palestinian factions in the government but said Fatah clearly rejected this.

Khater said Hamas had signed the Reconciliation Agreement in Cairo in 2011, then the Doha Declaration in February 2012, and participated in the national dialogue in 2003, which was concluded in 2005, after agreeing to rebuild and develop the PLO. Yet, Khater continued, Mahmud ‘Abbas did not activate the PLO. Khater explained that there are a number of variables and facts pushing towards the completion of national reconciliation, namely: 1. The impasse in the negotiations. 2. Netanyahu’s general election victory. 3. The Palestinian steadfastness during the 2014 war.

Khater said there was an agreement to complete the reconciliation, starting with Hamas’s initiative to leave the government and form a consensus government. He added that it was crucial to expedite the government taking over its functions in GS and for the reconstruction of GS to proceed, adding that Hamas has expressed its readiness to help achieve this. In the end, he stressed the need to implement reconciliation in one batch, and in a balanced, non-selective way.

For his part, Shana’ah pointed out that the division has been a deep wound in the Palestinian body, and has poisoned the national climate and brought sharp crises into Palestinian relations. He said that Fatah decided to overcome all the painful consequences of the split, and to engage in serious dialogue with Hamas.

Shana’ah proposed a roadmap to achieve full reconciliation, and called for commitment to the documents signed in Cairo, Doha, and the Shati’ Agreement. He also called for a plan to reform the security forces on the basis of competence and professionalism.

Shana’ah alluded to the decisions made by the Central Council, especially the issue of reconsidering security coordination. He also stressed the need to preserve the national consensus government, and allow it to exercise its role in the WB and GS, stressing the need for the interim leadership framework to convene to also play its role.

Shana’ah said ending the tragic situation in GS can only be done if the PA takes control of the crossings, otherwise, the crisis will continue. He also called for a unified political and military strategy. At the end of his intervention, Shana’ah said Fatah has no other option but national unity.

Kayed al-Ghoul then presented the PFLP vision for the future prospects for reconciliation, stressing that the division, regardless of reality consequences and motives, helped achieve Israel’s plan to preoccupy Palestinians with dispute over authority. He stressed the urgent need for activating and developing the PLO, as a provisional leadership framework to carry out its responsibilities stipulated in the reconciliation agreement. The PLO must hold regular meetings to address any obstacles that might hinder reconciliation, as well as beginning a comprehensive and profound national dialogue in order to develop a comprehensive national strategy that would reaffirm national rights. He also stressed the need to use and activate all means of resistance.

In turn, Barghouthi spoke about the need for an inclusive Palestinian strategy. He said that unity does not mean curbing but escalating resistance. He also said that there was a need to engage in all forms of struggle and resistance, noting the importance of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel. He also stressed the need to support Palestinians in Palestine.

Barghouthi called for a unified Palestinian leadership framework as part of the PLO, and for work to be exerted to develop the PLO. Otherwise, he said, an alternative to the PLO is to bring together all Palestinian forces and factions. He also said there was a need to put an end to foreign interventions in the reconciliation issue, and stressed there was no need for new reconciliation agreements but only the implementation of what was agreed upon.

Conclusion

At the end of the conference, Na’eem Jeenah and Dr. Mohsen Saleh thanked all participants, and stressed that the ideas tackled by the conference were vital and of a strategic nature. They said that the papers spurred serious debate, and shed light on points worth following up. They also said that AMEC and al-Zaytouna Centre would seek to develop the papers into full academic papers to develop and mature visions.

The text for this blog was replaced with Al-Zaytouna.net, on Tuesday 7th April 2015 on 17:33.

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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