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Palestinians do not have high hopes for reconciliation

February 3, 2016 at 10:00 am

The fact that the two largest Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, are speaking to each other is a welcome development. Put mildly, their relationship has been afflicted by mistrust for too long. In recent weeks, though, both parties have come under immense pressure from various quarters to bury their differences. Sadly, the gap between the two remains wide and few Palestinians are pinning their hopes on the expected meeting between leaders Mahmoud Abbas and Khaled Meshaal in Qatar.

Even if it is assumed that Hamas and Fatah are seeking to form a new government of national unity, they are clearly in disagreement on how to achieve this. President Abbas wants the charter and programme of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) to be the basis of any agreement, even though Hamas is not accepted as a member thereof. On its part, the Islamic Resistance Movement is insisting that it is not seeking any new reconciliation agreement but rather the implementation of the previous agreements signed in Cairo in 2011 and Al-Shati (in Gaza) in 2014.

From the outside it appears that both factions are being dragged into an arranged marriage by forces which neither can resist. Internally, President Abbas has failed to rein-in the rising tide of popular anger against the Israeli occupation and is facing relentless pressure from Israel and its Western backers to snuff it out. The hope, therefore, is that a new unity government — for which definitely read marriage of convenience — will create the conditions for an end to the Aqsa Intifada now in its fifth month.

The problem with this approach is that most of the young people who have risen up against the occupation in the West Bank are members of neither Hamas nor Fatah. They are ordinary youngsters, driven by frustration and anger at the daily misery of life under Israeli domination. It is this reality, more than any other, which is causing the Israelis nightmares. There is no organisational leadership or structure behind the uprising. Had that been the case, the occupation authorities and PA security agencies would know who and what to look for to bring the intifada to an end.

Furthermore, both parties in the Doha talks are swayed by financial considerations. It is no secret that Western donors have always exercised leverage over the PA by offering or threatening to withhold financial assistance, depending on how compliant the authority has been.

The position of Hamas is no better; its financial challenges are staggering. The ten-year blockade and successive Israeli wars have decimated the economy of the Gaza Strip where the movement holds sway. The Hamas-led administration is unable to pay the salaries of public workers let alone rebuild the infrastructure, schools and homes that have been destroyed by successive Israeli offensives since 2008. The thinking behind going to Doha for talks, therefore, is that if a national unity government is formed it will help to ease this hardship.

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There is also the question of regional events to consider. Differences with the Assad regime over its handling of the Syrian uprising led to Hamas leaving Damascus in 2012. It was a move that severely damaged the movement’s relations with Iran, which until then had provided Hamas with a great deal of assistance. The region has since witnessed a complete realignment of powers led by Saudi Arabia on the one hand and Iran on the other. The former, it now seems, would like to focus on the Iranian challenge, especially after the lifting of international sanctions post-nuclear deal, and the prospect of a US-Russia agreement on Syria. It is in this context that the Palestinian factions are expected to play their part by coming to some kind of understanding.

When talks between Hamas and Fatah began in Doha and Istanbul several weeks ago there was much speculation that they would result in presidential and parliamentary elections across the occupied territories, and possibly the diaspora. That is no longer on the case. All the opinion polls and surveys conducted by Israeli and Palestinian institutions suggest that Hamas will win any elections if they take place. Indeed, claims that the movement has lost support in Gaza were contradicted last week when an estimated 250,000 mourners turned out for the funeral of the seven Hamas fighters who were killed when a tunnel collapsed. The prospect of another Hamas victory in a democratic poll is too much for Israel and the West to contemplate.

As it now stands, the best that can come out of the Doha meeting is what will undoubtedly be an uneasy union. Unfortunately, such arrangements usually end in tears, and separation.

Jibril Rajoub, the deputy secretary general of Fatah’s Central Council, was right when he called on his party and Hamas to seize the opportunity provided by the intifada to agree on a political programme on the basis of inclusiveness, participation and genuine democracy. It is a nice thought, but based on past evidence it is easier said than done, which is why the Palestinians do not have high hopes for reconciliation being agreed upon anytime soon.

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