Targeting Palestinian unity

Rami Hamdallah, the Palestinian Authority prime minister, is escorted by bodyguards upon arrival to attend the inauguration of a waste treatment plant, after an explosion targeted his convoy in the northern Gaza Strip, 13 March.

Ashraf Amra APA images

The political fallout from the bomb attack in Gaza last week on Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah’s visiting convoy suggests Palestinian reconciliation attempts are now almost certainly at an unsuccessful end yet again.

On Thursday, Hamas security forces engaged who they said was the main suspect for the attack in a firefight in Gaza. The man, another gunman and two security officers were killed in the battle.

Whether that will prove enough to assuage Mahmoud Abbas, the PA leader, remains to be seen. But the signs are not good.

A spokesperson has already called Thursday’s gun battle a “weak story” and reiterated that Hamdallah’s government still holds Hamas responsible for the 13 March attack.

On 19 March, Abbas had laid blame for the attack squarely on Hamas, and refused any investigation.

“We do not want them to investigate, we do not want information from them, we do not want anything from them because we know exactly that they, the Hamas movement, were the ones who committed this incident,” Abbas, who is also the head of the Fatah movement, said at a meeting of the Palestinian Authority leadership in Ramallah.

Abbas did not openly take unity off the table, but he also fingered Hamas and its “illegitimate authority” for standing in the way of successful reconciliation.

“In my capacity as the president of the Palestinian people I have tolerated much in order to regain unity and unite the homeland and I was met with rejection by Hamas,” Abbas stated.

Burning bridges

In response, Hamas, which won legislative elections in 2006 when they were last held, also all but sounded the death knell for the Egyptian-sponsored unity effort.

The Islamist movement has denied that it was behind the attack though has assumed some responsibility for not preventing it.

The movement responded angrily to Abbas’ words, releasing a statement warning that his position deepened divisions between the two main Palestinian political factions.

“We are shocked by the tense stance that Abbas has taken. This position burns bridges and strengthens division and strikes the unity of our people,” Hamas stated.

Hamas also called for new elections, long overdue, and with Abbas’ approval ratings at consistent lows.

According to a March opinion poll, more than two-thirds of respondents want Abbas to step down, against just 27 percent who want him to stay in office, figures that have remained largely constant over the past year.

In a straight presidential run-off between Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas, and Abbas, Haniyeh would win with 52 percent of the vote as against Abbas’ 41 percent. Fatah would win legislative elections by five percentage points, according to the poll, though with 25 percent of respondents saying they were still undecided.

And while the poll also found that national reconciliation was ranked as only the fourth most serious problem facing Palestinians – after occupation, poverty and corruption – 45 percent blamed the West Bank PA and Abbas for the poor showing of the reconciliation government so far. Only 15 percent blamed Hamas.

Plan B

Hamas, in other words, may feel it is asking for elections from a position of strength. Or it may simply assume that no elections will be forthcoming in any case, so why not appear the bigger party.

What both Abbas and his Fatah cadres and Hamas will understand is that unity efforts are at an impasse that now seems insurmountable. Hamas is wary of being disarmed by a PA security service that takes pride in its cooperation with the Israeli occupying military.

Fatah reportedly believes reconciliation is a trojan horse to allow Muhammad Dahlan, the erstwhile Fatah strongman, back in to replace Abbas.

There is simply neither enough trust on either side nor enough incentive for any party to take any steps that would cement reconciliation.

Elections would be one way to settle the issue, though there is no reason to believe a losing party would respect the result. Moreover, Israel will prevent any vote in Jerusalem and going ahead without the city’s Palestinians would be difficult.

What then? Both the West Bank and Gaza are stuck. Abbas has seen Jerusalem, the centerpiece of his tireless and unwavering support for a peace process that has long been a dead horse, disappear with a stroke of US President Donald Trump’s pen.

Hamas remains confined in Gaza, impoverished and teetering on the brink of a full-blown humanitarian disaster.

The problem there is more pressing, and the only solution to this is opening Gaza to the outside world. The most likely conduit – with Israel apparently happy to sit back and watch Gaza starve as a result of the restrictions it has put in place on the movement of goods and people – is through Egypt.

Cairo complications

Reconciliation was seen as the way to ensure that Egypt could open its crossing at Rafah to Gaza and remain within some kind of international consensus, since the PA would again be in control of crossings.

But the PA has been in control of crossings since November and Egypt has shown no sign that it is ready to open Rafah full-time for people or for goods and building materials, without which there will be no relief in Gaza.

Rather, leak after leak suggests Cairo is busy cozying up to the US or asking Israel to bomb its territory for it.

With two million lives at stake in Gaza, it is getting to a stage where even if Cairo is now angling for the return of Dahlan, this must be worth considering for Hamas.

Hamas and Dahlan had already reached agreement in the past, and Dahlan’s United Arab Emirates backers may have more influence in Washington and Cairo and might be successful where others have failed in easing conditions in Gaza.

The understandings Dahlan and Hamas had reached last year were sidelined when it was deemed necessary for the PA to play a role. But Egypt’s leadership might be more keen now to see movement.

After all, Trump’s new national security adviser John Bolton wants to give Gaza to Egypt.

Unable even to govern the sparsely populated Sinai desert, that would surely be a nightmare scenario in Cairo.

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The logic that includes Israel as suspect in the bombing also places it as the prime suspect, obviously.

Omar Karmi

Omar Karmi is an associate editor for The Electronic Intifada and former Jerusalem and Washington, DC, correspondent for The National newspaper.