Hamas-Fatah split deepens

19 November 2008

CAIRO (IPS) - Palestinian resistance factions were roundly blamed in the mainstream media for their last-minute decision to boycott last week’s Egypt-sponsored “comprehensive dialogue” summit, ostensibly aimed at Palestinian national reconciliation. But some independent commentators say the move, led by Gaza-based resistance faction Hamas, was justified.

“It’s unreasonable to expect Hamas to hold ‘dialogue’ when the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) is persecuting its members in the West Bank,” Magdi Hussein, secretary-general of Egypt’s Islamist-leaning Labour Party, officially suspended since 2000, told IPS.

The event scheduled for 9 November was planned after intensive talks between Egyptian officials and a dozen Palestinian factions, including both Hamas and the United States-backed Fatah movement of PA President Mahmoud Abbas. Egyptian mediators had hoped the summit would lead to the adoption of an Egypt-backed “comprehensive dialogue” proposal defining the terms of a future Palestinian national-unity government.

Since Hamas seized control of Gaza from the PA in a pre-emptive coup last year — after winning elections in 2006 — the two factions have pursued bitter rivalry featuring intermittent fighting and mass arrests. Further complicating the situation, Israel and Egypt — with the blessings of the PA — have both sealed their borders with the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, effectively cutting the enclave off from the outside world and bringing it to the brink of humanitarian disaster.

While Hamas, which won Palestinian legislative elections in 2006, follows a policy of resistance to the Israeli occupation, Fatah maintains a strategy of negotiation. Up until now, however, Abbas’s frequent “peace talks” with his Israeli counterparts — mandated by last year’s Washington-sponsored Annapolis Summit — have failed to yield any gains whatsoever for the Palestinian side.

“Abbas has nothing to show for the negotiations except empty promises from the Israelis,” Abdelaziz Shadi, coordinator of Cairo University’s Israeli studies program told IPS. “He’s desperate to bolster his domestic standing, which is on the wane even among his own Fatah cadres. And while vainly negotiating with Israel, Abbas — still smarting over the loss of Gaza — adamantly refuses to talk to Hamas.”

Egypt’s proposal for resolving the impasse had called on Hamas to relinquish sole control of the Gaza Strip, and on Israel to open its borders with the territory on a permanent basis. The proposal had further called for the formation of a Palestinian national unity government, followed by the reform of the Palestinian security services and early presidential and legislative elections.

But on 8 November, only one day before the summit, Egyptian officials suddenly announced that the event had been delayed owing to last-minute objections by Hamas.

“The national reconciliation dialogue was postponed after Hamas decided to boycott the talks,” an Egyptian official was quoted as saying in the state press 9 November. The event, he added, “had been delayed to an undetermined date to be decided on and announced later.”

Fatah officials, already in Cairo for the talks, were quick to blame their Islamist rivals for hindering reconciliation prospects. “This shows that Hamas does not want a solution,” Fatah delegate Ahmed Abdul Rahman was quoted as saying.

According to Hamas officials, the eleventh-hour decision came in answer to Fatah’s actions in the West Bank, where the PA has continued to wage a sweeping campaign of arrest against resistance activists. They also accused Fatah of reneging on an earlier promise to release some 500 Hamas members from PA prisons in advance of the summit.

Hamas was not alone in boycotting the event. Fellow resistance factions Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine’s General Command — likewise citing the mass arrest of their members in the West Bank — also pulled out of the talks at the last minute. “Hamas requested some changes to the Egyptian proposal, so Egypt told them to come to Cairo to discuss it,” Mohammed Bassyouni, former Egyptian ambassador to Israel and head of the upper chamber of parliament’s Arab Affairs Council told IPS. “But in the end, Hamas delegates stayed home owing to their problems with Fatah over arrests in the West Bank.”

He said the dialogue conference would be rescheduled “when Egypt feels an appropriate atmosphere has been achieved” and when “tit-for-tat media attacks and arrest campaigns cease.”

“Egypt hopes that dialogue can begin at the soonest possible date,” Bassyouni added. “A Palestinian state cannot be established until the two sides are reconciled.”

Shadi was more direct in apportioning blame for the debacle, for which he held both Fatah and Hamas responsible.

“It’s an enormous setback. The prospects for Palestinian reconciliation are now darker than ever,” he said. “These developments portend a very dangerous situation that only promises to aggravate the infighting — to the further ruination of the Palestinian national cause.

“Instead of discussing the thousands of Palestinian prisoners currently languishing in Israeli jails, the two chief Palestinian factions are talking about Palestinian prisoners in Palestinian jails,” Shadi added. “By stubbornly refusing to make concessions, both sides are responsible for the delay.

“The only hope for reconciliation is if both sides wake up and realize that Israel is the common enemy,” said Shadi.

The Labor Party’s Hussein, however, takes a different view, saying that Hamas’s decision to boycott the summit — given the circumstances — was entirely justified.

“The Ramallah-based PA continues to arrest and torture Hamas members in the West Bank by the hundreds, while shutting down the group’s offices and media organs,” he said. “If Hamas attended the summit under such circumstances, it would be seen to be negotiating from a position of obvious weakness.”

While much of the mainstream media has portrayed the Fatah-Hamas rift as an inter-Palestinian dispute, Hussein sees it more as a contest between “those resisting occupation and those cooperating with it.”

“There is very close security coordination between Ramallah and Israel — a fact made obvious by the ongoing arrest of Hamas members in the West Bank,” he said. “There is also a measure of political coordination, evidenced by the long-standing siege of the Gaza Strip, in which the PA is tacitly complicit.”

Hussein went on to support claims by Hamas that Fatah was “under orders” from the US and Israel — both of which call Hamas a “terrorist organization” — not to make peace with the resistance group.

“This can be seen by the fact that different reconciliation initiatives, sponsored by different countries, have all failed to bridge outstanding differences,” he said, pointing to the 2007 Mecca Agreement, the 2008 Yemeni Initiative and the current round of Egyptian mediation.

“Unfortunately, those cooperating with the occupation say they’re negotiating with Israel to realize Palestinian rights,” added Hussein. “When, in actuality, the leadership in Ramallah belongs entirely to Israel and the US, and is fully incapable of independent decision-making.”

All rights reserved, IPS - Inter Press Service (2008). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden.