Fatah and Hamas on an uphill road to rapprochement

CAIRO (IPS) - Representatives of rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas met in Cairo this week for talks aimed at national reconciliation and the formation of a unity government.

“Egypt hopes this meeting is the real start of a new period ending the state of division which has gone on too long,” Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s point-man on Palestinian affairs, was quoted as saying.

On Wednesday (25 February), delegations from both Fatah and Hamas held preliminary meetings in Cairo aimed at removing obstacles to rapprochement. Delegation members later described the meetings as “positive.”

According to the state press, the two groups agreed to release each other’s detained members, currently being held in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip and the Fatah-controlled West Bank respectively. As a gesture of goodwill, Fatah reportedly released 42 Hamas members from West Bank prisons, with promises of additional releases soon.

The issue of detainees has tripped up reconciliation talks in the past. Last November Hamas and other resistance factions pulled out of a scheduled reconciliation summit in Cairo at the last minute, citing the ongoing mass arrest of their members in the West Bank.

Ever since Hamas swept Palestinian legislative elections in early 2006, the two factions have pursued bitter rivalry featuring intermittent fighting and arrest campaigns. Mutual hostility reached boiling point in the summer of 2007, when Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip from the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) in a pre-emptive coup.

Further complicating the situation, Israel and Egypt — with the PA’s blessings — have both sealed their borders with the strip, hermetically sealing the enclave off from the outside world.

On Thursday (26 February), talks in Cairo were broadened to include ten more Palestinian factions in addition to Fatah and Hamas. Along with the formation of a national unity government, discussions touched on upcoming presidential and legislative elections, the restructuring of Palestinian security apparatuses and the role of Hamas in the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).

Details of Thursday’s closed-door meeting remain vague, but Suleiman reportedly stressed the importance of reaching a mutually acceptable agreement.

“Do not prolong the disagreement and deepen the division,” he was quoted as saying in advance of the gathering. “Unite ranks to fulfill the hopes for an independent Palestinian state.”

According to Essam al-Arian, prominent member of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood opposition movement, Hamas’s steadfastness during Israel’s recent three-week-long assault on the Gaza Strip served to bolster the group’s negotiating position.

“Hamas’s unexpected persistence served to increase its popularity and show regional and international players that they have no alternative but to deal with it,” al-Arian told IPS. “This is seen in the fact that the Cairo talks received official backing from both the US and the EU.”

He added that Hamas, despite its frequent designation as “extremist” in the news media, had shown considerable flexibility in its approach to reconciliation with Fatah.

“Hamas has shown it is more than willing to share with Fatah in a unity government,” said al-Arian. “Hamas has also voiced its readiness to accept a PA presence at the Rafah crossing,” he added, referring to the sole transit point along Egypt’s 14-kilometer border with the Gaza Strip.

Nevertheless, fundamental differences between the two factions remain — particularly in regards to their respective approaches to Israel.

Hamas follows a policy of armed resistance against Israel and refuses to recognize the legitimacy of the self-proclaimed Jewish state. Although described as a “terrorist organization” by Washington, the Islamist group — and its commitment to resistance — received a robust mandate from the Palestinian public in 2006 parliamentary elections.

In tandem with the inter-Palestinian talks, Hamas is engaged in indirect ceasefire negotiations with Israel, also via Egyptian mediation.

Fatah, by contrast, maintains a strategy of negotiation with Israel. Until now, however, PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s frequent “peace talks” with Israeli counterparts — mandated by the 2007 Washington-sponsored Annapolis Summit — have failed to yield any gains whatsoever for the Palestinian side.

Egyptian mediators hope to clinch a Fatah-Hamas agreement on the terms of a national unity government in time for endorsement by an Arab summit scheduled for late March. In light of outstanding ideological differences, however, Abdelaziz Shadi, coordinator of Cairo University’s Israeli studies program, expressed little in the way of optimism.

“Given the level of animosity between the current leaders of the two movements, I don’t see much hope for reconciliation in the short-term future,” Shadi told IPS. “And even if they achieve a measure of agreement, the rivalry will flare up again as soon as there is another crisis with Israel.”

Indeed, recent developments on the Israeli front have had direct repercussions on inter-Palestinian dialogue. Originally scheduled to begin 22 February, the current round of Fatah-Hamas talks was delayed after Israel abruptly attached new conditions to an Egyptian proposal for an Israel-Hamas ceasefire agreement.

“By suddenly changing its ceasefire demands, Israel succeeded in setting back Fatah-Hamas reconciliation one week,” Shadi said.

Yet despite the difficult circumstances, al-Arian says the need for Palestinian unity has become existential, given the likely inclusion of extreme right-wing parties in the next Israeli government.

“Success is the only option,” he said. “Failure will only lead to a further deterioration of the already desperate state of the Palestinian cause.”

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