An impossible reconciliation

Palestinians in Gaza wearing masks of Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh call for unity between the feuding groups. (Wissam Nassar/MaanImages)

A delegation of Egyptian security officials have once again embarked on another mission impossible to lay the ground for the next round of intra-Palestinian reconciliation talks originally scheduled to take place between Hamas and Fatah in Cairo later this month. The Egyptian delegation, headed by intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, first met with Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas in Amman, before proceeding on to Ramallah, Damascus and Gaza for meetings with other Fatah and Hamas officials in the hope of softening their respective positions in advance of the Cairo meeting.

The Egyptians reportedly suggested that the factions accept that Palestinian legislative and presidential elections, currently set for January, should be held prior to a reconciliation agreement. But neither this idea, nor any others, have succeeded in breaking the logjam.

Both sides have reconfirmed their commitment to attending the Cairo meeting, as well as their resolve to reach an understanding, though such ritually expressed sentiments have never served as an indicator of imminent progress.

One major stumbling block has been hundreds of Hamas political detainees held in Palestinian Authority and Fatah-controlled prisons in the West Bank. (The Palestinian Authority routinely denied such arrests, although Abbas announced that 200 Hamas prisoners would be freed on the occasion of the start of Ramadan.) Hamas also demands that Fatah security forces supplied, trained and supervised by US General Keith Dayton halt their crackdown on resistance fighters from Hamas as part of the American-backed plan for crushing any form of resistance to Israeli occupation.

This really is the heart of the matter. Hamas is in effect asking its Fatah/Palestinian Authority (PA) opponent to abandon its primary role undertaken as part of its “peace strategy” and its commitments to the so-called “international community,” the Quartet roadmap, as well as the Dayton plan. Fatah and the PA apparatus it controls adheres to this US-sponsored anti-resistance strategy as the primary condition for the continuation of international financing for the PA.

This is why Hamas would obviously be first on the PA’s target list. This also explains why the PA prisons are full of Hamas members and why several have allegedly died under PA torture in the past month alone.

Hamas — understandably from its perspective — sees the continued pursuit and killing of its members by PA forces as totally incompatible with any reconciliation. For its part, the PA boasts that these same actions (such as a notorious incident in Qalqiliya in May when PA forces attacked a house where Hamas members were hiding, resulting in six deaths) are evidence that the PA is fulfilling its obligations under the roadmap to “fight terror.”

Any indication on the part of the Abbas-controlled PA that it would abandon these commitments would put it in an untenable position with its foreign financiers and backers. Whenever Abbas has been faced with the choice of either peace with Hamas or continued support from his foreign patrons, he has chosen the latter.

It may not be unknown that Abbas and his Ramallah Authority can only function within specified parameters tailored for the convenience, indeed the security needs, of the occupying power and the pro-Israel policies of its foreign supporters. Hamas has no place within that tightly built scheme. Despite Hamas’ willingness to enter the political system and play by the rules, the idea has been to eliminate the resistance movement from the equation completely, permitting it no political role whatsoever.

The only conditions it seems on which Abbas would allow a reconciliation is if Hamas submits to Fatah primacy and permanent control of the PA and agrees to Fatah’s so-far fruitless political strategy. A previous reconciliation — the so-called Mecca agreement of early 2007 — was short-lived precisely because it included Hamas as an equal partner. Under US pressure, Abbas backed away from the accord, demolishing the national unity government it established.

The refusal to include Hamas on the basis of full partnership and respect for the large constituency it represents, ensured the failure of the previous rounds of reconciliation talks. These facts are not unknown to either the patrons of the reconciliation dialogue nor to the many others who constantly blame the Palestinians — often Hamas — for failing to patch up their differences.

The 1993 Oslo accords, which created the Palestinian Authority, had to be regularly adapted to keep the emphasis on the occupier’s demands. Any effort to steer things in a direction that allowed Palestinians to draw any benefit from the arrangements, however meager, were strongly opposed by Israel with the United States supporting it. Israel saw the accords solely as an instrument to manage the Palestinians so it could continue to enjoy a trouble-free occupation and colonization of their land.

It was for this reason that the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was at some stage deemed no longer an appropriate “peace partner” for Israel. Although he went a long way to accommodate Israel’s demands, his far-reaching concessions were never recognized as adequate, even when they compromised fundamental Palestinian rights and interests. He reached a point where he could not surrender any more Palestinian rights without totally losing support and credibility among his people.

So by early 2002, a new Palestinian leadership (or a “puppet leader” as Paul McGeough describes it in his revealing book Kill Khaled), had to be installed. Although former US President George W. Bush is often credited with pushing for the Palestinian leader to be replaced, McGeough says that the idea actually originated with the Israeli Mossad. Because ousting Arafat was deemed unfeasible due to his popularity amongst Palestinians, then Mossad chief Efraim Halevy devised a scheme for dealing with the situation. “Israel could not remove Arafat, but Halevy believed Israel could manipulate others to rearrange the infrastructure of Palestinian power in a way that would allow much of it to be invested elsewhere,” McGeough writes.

Halevy’s plan was approved by then Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon and marketed in Arab and foreign capitals, where — according to Halevy — it was well-received. Bush enthusiastically adopted the plan, which became the origin of his June 2002 call for a new Palestinian leadership.

Halevy’s bloodless coup against Arafat was planned such that Arafat would remain as a “titular head,” but would be stripped of all his powers, which would be vested in a new prime minister. The man selected for this job “on the urging of Washington and the Israelis,” writes McGeough, was Mahmoud Abbas, who later succeeded Arafat as Fatah leader and PA president. Control of funds was vested in a finance minister; an unknown World Bank official called Salam Fayyad was drafted in for this role. Today, Fayyad serves as Abbas’ appointed prime minister.

It is hard to find in history an example of a liberation movement being transformed so completely into a tool of the oppressor. But understanding this sad reality is the key to understanding why talk of intra-Palestinian “reconciliation” is futile as long as this situation persists.

The failure of the recent Egyptian mission has inevitably led to the postponement of the scheduled Cairo reconciliation round until after Ramadan. In the absence of the will to declare the reconciliation effort sterile, most likely this will not be the last postponement.

Hasan Abu Nimah is the former permanent representative of Jordan at the United Nations. This essay first appeared in The Jordan Times and is republished with the author’s permission.