In recent weeks, and with the dramatic ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood from power in Egypt, the chances for reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas have reached rock bottom. Today, few Palestinians still believe that reconciliation will happen any time soon—or ever. In stark contrast to a poll conducted following the reconciliation agreement reached in Cairo in 2011, when fifty-nine percent of Palestinians thought that the agreement would succeed, a recent opinion poll conducted in the West Bank and Gaza Strip found that 80 percent of Palestinians now believe that the West Bank–Gaza split is long-term or permanent.
The latest developments suggest that Palestinian public opinion is well in line with political realities. In what appears to be a sign of significant vulnerability and desperation, Hamas recently invited all Palestinian factions to join it in governing the Gaza Strip. The factions rejected its appeal, with most considering it a step that would reinforce the state of division instead of easing it. Fatah, the ruling party in the West Bank, went further, likely signifying a shift in its approach to political rival Hamas. Having previously capitalized on dramatic regional changes to re-launch peace talks with Israel, it announced on August 25 that it would be taking “painful decisions” towards Hamas that would leave the Islamist movement outside of any Palestinian Authority (PA) process. This announcement followed rumors and media leaks that Fatah was considering declaring Gaza a “rogue entity,” which would in fact allow the leading party to cut off all PA funding to it.
The ongoing divide has been a source of anger and humiliation for many Palestinians. Today, they not only see reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas as impossible, they also question whether reconciliation is something that would serve their interests in the long term.
The conflict between Fatah and Hamas, triggered by a series of events leading up to Hamas’s armed takeover of the Gaza Strip following its victory over Fatah in the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections, ultimately resulted in the split of the PA into two polities. This spilt has since undermined the Palestinian national cause and dominated much of the parties’ political efforts—and it has cost both of them considerable credibility and legitimacy at home and abroad.
Endless meetings and timelines over the last six years have produced a handful of agreements, but none has been fully implemented. While there have been a number of challenges complicating the prospects for implementation, the thorniest issues remain the time and scope of national elections and security force composition and security coordination, or what many Palestinians view as “collaboration” with Israel. The most recent agreement, signed in May 2013 under Egyptian auspices, set a three-month timeline to implement the 2011 Cairo Agreement, which called for the formation of a transitional unity government tasked with holding presidential, legislative and Palestinian National Council elections. Many criticized the agreement for being vague and for failing to address the bigger issues facing Palestinian governance. Ali Abunimah, co-founder of the Electronic Intifada, for example, took issue with the agreement for its lack of “a program or vision for Palestinian liberation that unites, includes and mobilizes all Palestinians.”
Ironically, the implementation deadline for the May agreement fell on August 14, the same day that the PLO held the first direct peace talks with Israel in three years. As that day approached, Fatah official Mohammad Shtayyeh announced that August 14 would be Hamas’s “last chance” for national reconciliation, but he did not specify the consequences of non-compliance. Nevertheless, Hamas rejected the ultimatum, claiming that Fatah had not carried out its obligations under the May agreement. Speaking to The Majalla, Hamas Deputy Foreign Minister Ghazi Hamad said, “There are many issues that had been previously discussed at length and which were supposed to form the foundation of the reconciliation but that have not been completed [by Fatah]. These especially relate to ending the suppression of Hamas activities in the West Bank and establishing a unity government.”
Fatah approached Hamas again on August 19, this time breaking with the May agreement to propose immediate elections. But Hamas refused, insisting on the implementation of the reconciliation agreement as a whole, which stipulated the formation of a unity government prior to the scheduling of general elections.
While it may appear from this example that Hamas’s rejection could be the primary obstacle to national reconciliation, both parties have engaged in grandstanding to boost their public image among supporters and ultimately avoid compromise. Omar Shaban, director of Pal-Think for Strategic Studies, explained that Fatah proposed early elections because it was confident that it would win. It also knew that Hamas would refuse and would insist instead on a unity government in order to buy more time to restore its popularity. By the same token, Hamas knows that Fatah would risk financial ruin if it were to proceed with reconciliation, as it could lose all funding from the United States, the largest donor to the PA, leaving the ruling party with little incentive to commit to reconciliation at all.
“It’s essentially a formula for a stalemate,” Khaled Elgindy of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution told The Majalla. “Both sides really want to reconcile on their own terms. As the situation in the region changes and as the balance on the ground and between them changes, they get warmer or colder towards reconciliation.”
But “the bigger problem,” Al-Mubadara leader Dr. Mustafa Barghouti told The Majalla, “is the absence and loss of democracy in Palestine due to the nationalization of all other authorities and the concentration of powers within the hands of the executive power in the West Bank and in Gaza.” He added, “Both sides in this case are products of a traditional political system, which believes mainly in one-party rule and complete control and does not have space for
Today, both parties must confront a host of existential threats, old and new, in addition to Israel’s military occupation and colonization project. These problems do not bode well for the prospects of national reconciliation, much less for Palestinian self-determination. On the one hand, Hamas faces potential ruin in the wake of the overthrow of Mursi in Egypt, which has considerably weakened and isolated the Gaza-based Islamic resistance movement. Hamas is now caught in the middle of Egypt’s escalating political crisis over its association with the Brotherhood leadership—and alleged interference into Egyptian affairs, including accusations of Hamas involvement in Sinai militant attacks—severely battering its reputation in Egypt, and by extension, that of Palestinians themselves. The so-called document war, in which Hamas claims that Fatah and PA members conspired with Egypt’s new military government to launch a smear campaign against the movement, is a worrying symptom of this and further poisons the Hamas–Fatah relationship.
Consequently, Egypt’s new leadership is tightening the noose on its Palestinian neighbor, adding to an already desperate situation. The closure of an estimated eighty percent of Gaza’s tunnels cost Gaza’s economy roughly USD 230 million in July alone, contributed to the loss of at least 20,000 jobs, and caused severe fuel shortages, halving the capacity of Gaza’s only electricity plant. Egypt’s increasingly aggressive security measures, which also include home demolitions on the Egyptian side ahead of plans to build a buffer zone, have diminished Hamas’s ability to maintain a functioning government in Gaza, threatening a loss of popular support.
Nathan Thrall, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group based in Jerusalem, noted that Hamas was also probably anxious about possible attempts to take advantage of its current weakness, including efforts to stir up a domestic uprising or generate an Israeli attack against it. The recent formation of Tamarod Gaza, a rebel youth movement affiliated with the Egyptian group that mobilized against Mohamed Mursi in the lead up to his ouster, validates these fears. Its members have called for mass demonstrations on November 11 to overthrow the Hamas government.
And, finally, divisions within Hamas itself between the exiled leadership, represented by the pro-reconciliation political wing of Khaled Meshaal and the pro-Iran, anti-reconciliation leaders of Hamas in Gaza, pose grave challenges to the implementation of past Fatah–Hamas agreements. “It remains to be seen how events in Egypt will affect that balance within Hamas—whether it will shift towards the more militant Gaza wing or remain with the more pragmatic wing of Hamas outside Gaza,” Elgindy commented to The Majalla. “All that’s still pretty fluid.”
The Fatah-run PA, on the other hand, is in dire financial straits, confronted by an internal and external debt of around USD 5 billion and a 16.8 percent unemployment rate for the second quarter (April–June) this year. According to an article published in the Guardian, the PA loses USD 300 million in trade taxes a year to Israel. Corruption, cited as the chief reason Fatah lost the 2006 legislative elections, still exists in a number of PA institutions, including the security, education and health sectors, according to the Coalition for Accountability and Integrity’s (AMAN) 2012 “Corruption Report.” Furthermore, former Prime Minster Salam Fayyad, praised for reducing corruption inside PA institutions, resigned earlier this year after a prolonged dispute over economic policy with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah, and outright rejection by Hamas, which has always insisted on his removal before the formation of a unity government. Abbas replaced Fayyad with Dr. Rami Hamdallah, the president of Al-Najah University and a Fatah member, who offered his resignation less than a month later, which Abbas accepted. Hamdallah then withdrew his resignation, exposing a degree of disorder and conflict inside the PA leadership. This perhaps lends some truth to Fayyad’s statement to Roger Cohen of the New York Times that “our story is a story of failed leadership, from way early on.” Hamdallah now leads a temporary government whose mandate will terminate once a new government is formed under the 2011 Cairo Agreement.
These realities, coupled with the ever-changing regional situation, have prompted both leaderships to recalibrate their strategic priorities. In the case of Hamas, “[Its] game is to wait until more favorable circumstances make reconciliation possible,” American author and foreign affairs analyst Mark Perry told The Majalla. It is also reportedly seeking to restore its relationship with Iran, which was badly damaged in response to Hamas’s strong stance against Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad, an Iranian ally.
On the other hand, an emboldened Fatah has entered into peace talks with Israel in the face of opposition from many PLO factions, Hamas and civil society actors after having told Hamas that it had one “last chance” to reconcile. Despite that, many argue that a unified Palestinian leadership would empower the PA to adopt a more robust negotiating position in talks with Israel.
What appears to be happening instead is that Fatah is seeking to sideline Hamas altogether, believing that it can make a deal with Israel on its own. Palestinian political developments and statements from Fatah leaders suggest that Fatah is on the offensive, aiming to discredit Hamas and defeat its message. An interview with Fatah spokesman Ahmed Assaf for The Majalla, in which Assaf repeatedly emphasized that Hamas is not a Palestinian movement, but a Muslim Brotherhood movement, is a case in point. He also insisted that Hamas was not at all interested in reconciliation with Fatah or in pursuing the Palestinian national project.
For now, Fatah is able to adopt a tough stance against Hamas and put the issue of reconciliation aside. However, in the anticipated failure of peace talks with Israel and a volatile regional situation, Fatah must ask itself if such a strategy can be maintained in the long run and to what effect.
This article originally appeared in The Majalla.