National unity remains elusive under occupation

Arab League Secretary General Amr Mousa (left) and Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh meet in the Gaza Strip, 13 June 2010. (Mohamad Al-Ostaz/MaanImages)

During his recent visit to the Gaza Strip, Arab League Secretary General Amr Mousa received from Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas a memorandum putting forward Hamas’ terms for signing an Egyptian-brokered reconciliation deal with its rival US-backed Fatah.

Dr. Ahmad Yousef, deputy foreign minister of the Hamas-led government in the Gaza Strip, told The Electronic Intifada (EI) that the memorandum emphasized points that Fatah should accept before Hamas signs the Egyptian-brokered paper.

Since the split between the Fatah and Hamas factions deepened after the latter stymied foreign-backed efforts to overthrow it in 2007 following Hamas’ election victory the previous year, there has been much talk of restoring Palestinian unity. Such reconciliation has however so far eluded all efforts. Some analysts think it may have a better chance now.

Israeli leaders have admitted that their blockade of Gaza is intended to force Hamas to surrender to three one-sided demands from the Quartet (the US, EU, Russia and the UN): recognizing Israel’s “right to exist” without any reciprocal Israeli recognition; unilaterally abandoning the right to armed struggle while Israel is free to continue its military attacks on Palestinians; and committing to agreements signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) that Israel constantly violates.

Fatah, led by Mahmoud Abbas, who unilaterally extended his expired term as Palestinian Authority (PA) president, has supported these demands. Fatah also controls the PLO, which is the official body that conducts negotiations with Israel. In October 2009, Fatah signed the Egyptian-drafted agreement. So far Hamas has refused to do so, arguing that the paper fails to meet the higher national interests of the Palestinian people and is unfair.

The Egyptian paper would integrate the Palestinian armed factions into the western-backed Abbas-controlled PA and give an upper hand to Abbas in deciding important national issues such as elections.

In recent weeks and amidst a storm of worldwide criticism of Israel’s massacre of passengers on board the Gaza Freedom Flotilla on 31 May, Fatah and Hamas leaders were reported to have traded invitations to reunite and bring the Gaza Strip and the West Bank back under a unified political agenda.

According to Yousef, Hamas says it has no problem reconsidering the Egyptian document provided it would take into account Hamas’ reservations.

“We have agreed that a supreme committee will coordinate between Gaza and the West Bank, and this committee will be comprised of representatives of all parties. We agreed that the election committee to be formed will be made up by consensus of all parties and not as stated in the amended Egyptian paper that Abbas has the final say.”

Asked whether the Quartet would block a Hamas-Fatah agreement, given the three longstanding demands from Hamas, Yousef said, “I think the international community should now pressure the Israeli side simply because Israel has not been implementing the peace accords. We are not going to surrender while we are under occupation. We will continue our path until we restore our sovereignty. I do believe that the recent international solidarity with the Palestinian people is a clear sign of the international community’s increasing awareness of facts on the ground.”

Recently, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Aboul Gheit reiterated his country’s position that Hamas just needs to sign the paper of October 2009 before Hamas’ reservations to the paper are considered.

Numerous media reports have suggested that Egypt has been under consistent US pressure not to allow the reconciliation deal to proceed because the US does not want to legitimize Hamas and further undermine Abbas’ already weak authority.

Ashraf Jumaa, a Fatah member in Gaza of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), echoed the Egyptian demand, saying “Hamas needs to sign the paper, then all its reservations can be taken into account.”

Jumaa also suggested that after the reconciliation document is signed, the parties could go to elections within an agreed timeframe of about six months, so Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip can choose both a new PA president and new PLC.

In January 2010 the term of the PLC, elected in January 2006 when Hamas won a large majority, officially came to an end — although the PLC was never able to function properly due to the mass arrest of many of its Hamas members by Israel, and the internationally-sponsored efforts to overthrow the Hamas-led government which led to the split between the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 2007. Hamas remains in full control inside the besieged Gaza Strip, while Abbas and Fatah are nominally in control in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

The dilemma of national unity in Palestine is seen by some analysts as a major challenge for the Palestinian people, but some shifts are visible. Leading Gaza political analyst, Dr. Ibrahim Ibrash, believes that the long-standing international demands made on Hamas are no longer effective.

“Many Arab parties have begun to realize the risk in separating Gaza from the West Bank. That’s why Hamas has recently shown some sort of flexibility towards the dialogue with Fatah, especially the latest visit by [Arab League Secretary General] Amr Mousa,” Ibrash told EI.

Despite the official international boycott of Hamas, Ibrash also sees this fraying. “Many European delegations including parliamentary ones have so far visited the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and met with Hamas officials without asking Hamas to accept those demands. Israel itself has not been bound to the Oslo peace process,” he explained.

Asked whether a possible national unity agreement between Hamas and Fatah will force Hamas into committing to the three demands, Ibrash observed: “As the PLO exists and continues holding talks with Israel, there will be no need for Hamas [which is not part of the PLO] to accept the demands. Also, the Hamas government here has tactfully dealt with the situation by enforcing a state of calm across the coastal strip.”

The US is also facing another challenge: Washington has been trying so far unsuccessfully to restart peace talks between the Abbas-led PA and Israel in order to reach a two-state solution. Hamas has repeatedly declared its willingness to accept a two-state solution but without recognizing Israel — which the PLO did already in 1993 when late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo Accords.

As long as the United States and Israel prefer a weak and divided Palestinian political scene, all internal efforts to achieve unity may still face insurmountable obstacles despite these shifts.

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