In Gaza, hope that words of unity will become real

Palestinians celebrate the signing of a national reconciliation deal, Gaza City, 4 May 2011.

ZUMA Press/Newscom

“We have been expecting this day for the past four years now,” said 42-year-old Ahmad Kabaja in Gaza City’s Square of the Unknown Soldier on Wednesday. He had joined the throngs of Palestinians celebrating the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation deal that was signed by faction leaders in Cairo that same day. “God willing, we will see a real reconciliation on the ground this time, unlike previous times. We hope the will of our people will be overwhelming in the end of the day.”

Hamas and Fatah agreed to establish a “national unity government” with a prime minister chosen by consensus; reactivation of the Palestinian Legislative Council in which Hamas won a majority of seats in 2006; preparation for elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in one year; and coordination of their security forces, among other measures.

The agreement — and the leaders’ speeches in Cairo — included few specifics over how these will be achieved. Nor does it mention key points of contention such as the Fatah-run West Bank Palestinian Authority’s official and ongoing “security coordination” with the Israeli occupation army, or demands by the Quartet (US, EU, Russia and UN) that Hamas recognize Israel and renounce armed resistance to the occupation.

But despite these uncertainties, and despite the midday heat, hundreds flocked cheerfully into the streets of Gaza City on Wednesday, chanting slogans such as “The people want an end to the Israeli occupation,” instead of the more prevalent cry of the last few weeks: “The people want an end to the division.”

“My feeling is so great, a feeling that I have waited for so long. We are so pleased that this dream of national unity has been finally realized,” Rehab Kanaan, a mother and poet, said as she held a small Palestinian flag. A group of youth stood atop the Unknown Soldier monument behind her.

“I would like to tell those convening in Cairo that you have a great responsibility on your shoulders and you should come back to implement what you have agreed on,” she added.

Flags of Hamas, Fatah and other Palestinian factions were flown at the rally, and some Fatah officials were present as well. Amal Hammad, a deputy secretary of the Fatah party’s Revolutionary Council, spoke The Electronic Intifada as she entered the garden of the Unknown Soldier to mark the signing of the deal along with other Fatah supporters.

“This is a very remarkable moment, but what is needed is real implementation of the agreement on the ground,” she said. “Look, I am not going to say this out of propaganda, but frankly speaking, my passport and ID card have been confiscated for so long by the Hamas authorities; I have been prevented by them from traveling abroad to take part in some activities. I just do hope that this time the agreement will come into effect and that we Palestinian people all enjoy true democratic life.”

Hammad’s accusations against the Hamas authorities in Gaza are mirrored by reports from Hamas and independent human rights organizations of widespread crackdowns, harassment and jailing of Hamas members in the West Bank by Fatah-controlled, US-supported security forces.

Fouad al-Borno watched the signing ceremony on TV, along with customers, in his grocery store in Gaza City’s al-Rimal district. “This is something very positive no doubt, yet we have seen similar ceremonies before. So what we need is to see concrete steps on the ground that would actually end years of split that have exhausted us all,” al-Borno said, echoing the cautious hope expressed by many in Gaza.

Mohammad Abu Zubaida, 23, was more enthusiastic, telling The Electronic Intifada, “This is a great agreement that should not neglect the Palestinian people’s right to return and the right of Palestinian prisoners to be released from Israeli jails. This occupation should come to an end and we hope that Fatah and Hamas will work on that.”

He added, referring to the key role that post-Mubarak Egypt has played, “Finally, we are grateful for the Egyptian revolution that brought about the Palestinian reconciliation.”

Not to be outdone by their peers in neighboring Arab countries rising up against injustice, Palestinian youth activists in Gaza and the West Bank have staged protests and actions demanding that the Palestinian leadership reach a national unity agreement. They had been calling on the governments led by Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank to unite so that the Palestinian people could better confront the Israeli occupation.

While many Palestinians said they would wait to see if the deal would translate into action, Dr. Atef Abu Saif, a Gaza-based political analyst, told The Electronic Intifada that the unity agreement this time could be different from previous failed unity deals, giving it a greater chance of success.

For the past four years, Hamas and Fatah have reached a number of understandings such as the Mecca Agreement of February 2007, yet those agreements did not translate into action on the ground.

“Palestinians want to reach this agreement to attain some of their goals,” Abu Saif said. “Abbas wants to go the UN in September [to seek recognition for a Palestinian state], being empowered by a national Palestinian consensus, including Hamas. Meanwhile, Hamas has increasingly realized that four years of division have not enabled it to [obtain] international recognition. It is true that Hamas has gained a grip control over power in Gaza, but it has lost international legitimacy.”

Abu Saif added that regional developments, including popular uprisings, especially in Syria, have also influenced Hamas’ decision to go for reconciliation. Syria is a main regional sponsor of Hamas, and the precarious position of the Syrian regime “pushed Hamas to unite with Fatah,” he said.

Asked whether foreign states that have helped isolate Hamas and besiege Gaza would recognize a Palestinian Authority that includes Hamas leadership, Abu Saif said, “The pressure of the international community will not be as it was before; now there is more worry about Israeli policies, Israeli violations of international humanitarian law, Israeli lack of commitment to United Nations resolutions. I think even Israel does not have much to say; Israel is waiting for the tsunami of September.”

Meanwhile, Palestinians in Gaza wait to see if their hopes will be realized.

Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.