Brigitte Herremans is the Middle East policy officer for the Belgian development NGO Broederlijk Delen and peace movement Pax Christi Flanders. She mainly focuses on advocacy towards the Belgian and European institutions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a rights based approach.
Currently, the leaderships of both Fatah and Hamas are signaling their support for inter-Palestinian reconciliation. Six months ago neither side took a genuine interest. Both parties mainly wanted to consolidate their power in their respective spheres of influence, the West Bank or the Gaza Strip. Furthermore, external pressure for unity was largely absent.
The situation appears to be different now, both domestically and internationally. Domestically, the leadership in the West Bank is confronted with the breakdown of the diplomatic process. The alternatives, such as a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state in the UN General Assembly, are weak. There is strong disillusionment with the role of the US, while the Palestinian population is growing increasingly dissatisfied with its own leadership.1 According to American political economist Sara Roy, the Palestine Papers were the deathblow to the negotiations. “The Palestine Papers delegitimized the negotiation process entirely. Negotiations are a dead end within the current structure. Palestinians are sick and tired of politics-as-usual. More and more, they are organising on the basis of rights and trying to recreate a collective and national movement through a rights based approach and calls for unity.”’2
A new domestic political actor has also appeared in the policy arena: the youth movement that took to the streets on 15 March 2011. Inspired by the protests in Egypt and Tunisia, young people are mobilizing Palestinian citizens around reconciliation. Palestinian analyst Omar Shaban believes that we are witnessing the start of a new era. “These youths are not as organized as in Egypt and in Tunisia, but they cannot be ignored.’3 This popular pressure might be a lever for political change.” The fact that popular action resulted in change elsewhere might energize Palestinians, eliciting a more substantial transformation.
Internationally, the interest in reconciliation is more pronounced. Many officials – particularly in the EU – believe that the status quo is untenable and that the ‘no contact policy’ towards Hamas has failed.4 Consequently, the EU has abandoned the militarised security response that it adopted in 2006. However, it still does not advocate for a policy change, but mainly hopes that the U.S. will change its position.5 But Sara Roy argues that “the current administration has no plan and no vision for moving forward. The U.S. wants to maintain the process and the status quo. If a void is created, the U.S. will simply fill it with more process in a manner that will ensure American control.”6 At the same time, observers believe that the new Egyptian leadership, which has denounced the blockade of the Gaza Strip, might revise its policy towards Hamas, easing the closure of the Rafah border crossing.
The political will to reach unity is lacking
According to some observers, the positions of Hamas and Fatah are closer than ever. The parties managed to bridge considerable differences even if some major disagreements remain, the greatest of which are the use of violence and Israel’s security.7 Others believe that the gap between the two parties remains too wide and that their visions are largely contradictory.8 Fatah embraced the two-state solution and the process of state-building, including security cooperation with Israel. Hamas established an alternative model for Palestinian governance in Gaza which combines state-building efforts with resistance.9
It is undeniable that the political factors behind the division are still there and that political will to reach unity is lacking. The parties are interested in reconciliation only insofar as it preserves their capacity to influence decision making.10 “This results in neither side being willing to pay the price of changing its position, in return for uncertain benefits in the medium term,” argues Palestinian historian Yezid Sayigh. “Moreover, Israel would not allow meaningful reintegration.”11
Hamas is not prepared to relinquish power over Gaza and wants to see its model of governance succeed. Despite the isolation of the Strip and the lack of regular revenues, it established an administration and provides services to the population. Hamas wants to reap the benefits of these achievements. Hence, the support for reconciliation from leaders such as Ismail Haniyeh are mainly rhetorical. Hamas’ crackdown on the March 15 demonstration indicates that it feels threatened by the call for unity. Some observers believe that it is not coincidental that Hamas restarted firing shells at Israel just after these protests took place. American political scientist Nathan Brown argues that “Hamas wants to await the results of the regional transformation, hoping it will be positive for Gaza. It believes that it might achieve a better deal than Prime Minister Fayyad’s offer of a power sharing agreement where it could keep control of Gaza.”12
Fatah, on the other hand, is interested in reconciliation if that means that the Palestinian Authority can get a foothold in Gaza again.13 Prime Minister Fayyad, a supporter of unity, is no longer involved in the negotiations between the parties.14The older generation within Fatah and the PLO is not strongly interested in the issue. The recent declarations of President Abbas, indicating that he is willing to go to Gaza in order to form a national unity government might stem from a lack of alternatives. They should be seen as a response to the regional developments in an effort to be on the right side of public opinion.15
Threats and opportunities
From Hamas’ point of view, the security cooperation with Israel and the imprisonment of Hamas officials are major obstacles to reconciliation. It considers the security cooperation between the PA and Israel under the auspices of General Dayton as collaboration and an attempt to weaken Hamas. Since Hamas’ violent takeover of Gaza in June 2007, Palestinian security forces have carried out campaigns against the group in the West Bank. Hamas claims to have suffered 30,000 incidents of questioning, arrest, closure of organizations, or confiscation of financial assets. There are hundreds of Hamas prisoners in jails of the PA and 150 of its affiliated organizations have been closed.
The divided leadership within Hamas is another obstacle to reconciliation. Hamas in the West Bank is keener on reconciliation than the branch in Gaza, as recent talks with President Abbas underline. The leadership in Gaza seems to have hardened its position, in part to counter the growing dissatisfaction among its constituents over the lack of economic and political progress. 16
Even if reconciliation is the talk of the town, there are no talks on the ground. In the past, Egypt took the lead in the mediation efforts. However, Hamas perceived Egypt as pro-Fatah and former President Mubarak was not able to achieve a breakthrough.17 The transformations in the region might change the status quo. Possibly, the new leadership in Egypt will play a more even-handed role, or the two sides might accept a new mediator. Turkey would be a good option for Hamas, but Fatah refused its involvement.18 The Arab League has indicated that it is willing to host reconciliation talks. “But in the end,” argues Gazan human rights activist Jaber Wishah, “they will have to settle their differences without external help. What might be a trigger is grassroots pressure.”19
Spoilers to the formation of a national unity government
Both parties have opposing views on the timing and purpose of a national unity government. For President Abbas it is a priority in order to prepare the parliamentary and presidential elections within six months. He believes that right now he cannot find a common agenda with Hamas, which is why he wants elections as soon as possible.20 His objective in visiting Gaza would be to reach a reconciliation agreement. Hamas is opposed to a transitional government of independents and elections in the absence of reconciliation. It first wants to hold a dialogue in order to overcome the Palestinian division. Yet, advocates for unity, such as the ‘Reconciliation Committee’, believe that it should be possible to form a national unity government or a government of independents to execute the terms of a reconciliation agreement, particularly on the security issues.
However, other external actors are active spoilers of the process. The Israelis strongly oppose a national unity government and announced the suspension of peace talks in case one is established. They want to maintain the division and perpetuate a policy of separation, hoping to cut off the Gaza Strip in the long term. In 2007 the US actively promoted Palestinian division as well. Will the current administration accept a unity government? According to American legislation, the US cannot accept a government in which Hamas is represented.
Obviously, this is not an appealing prospect for Hamas, making it more difficult for the pragmatic forces to prevail in the debate on unity. Hamas’ acceptance of a national unity government is dependent on its participation in it. In its vision the only viable option is a government that consists of Hamas, Fatah and a couple of independent technocrats. It believes that the international community could engage with this government if Hamas does not hold the key branches such as Finance.21
Elections might produce more problems than benefits
Most observers are convinced that there can be no parliamentary and presidential elections in the absence of reconciliation. Therefore, the timing of elections by September might be quite unrealistic and even counterproductive. Yet, the lack of legitimate leadership in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip cannot be addressed without elections.
However, in the current situation elections might further entrench the tensions between and within the two parties. Fatah and Hamas would be running against each other and enhance the competition for Palestinian votes. At the same time, if Hamas decides to participate, it is uncertain whether the international community would respect the election results. If it decides not to participate and elections are held in the West Bank alone, they would not be representative. A Fatah win in an uncontested election would probably produce bitter rivalries within the movement.22
The crux of the matter is that neither side conceives of a situation where it does not hold power and neither is willing to genuinely consider power-sharing. Some observers believe that once elections are held, the PLO could play a stabilising role, by supervising the new government.23 There are more calls for a revival of the national liberation movement as a way out of the deadlock. One of the demands of the 15 March protests was holding elections of the Palestinian National Council (PNC), the dormant Palestinian parliament representing the more than 10 million Palestinians world wide.
Can the PLO contribute to a solution?
As the parliament of the PLO, the PNC could once claim the legitimacy of the national liberation movement. According to close observers like Karma Nabulsi, “the call for PNC elections unifies every Palestinian because it rises above faction, ideology and political orientation.” Nathan Brown doubts whether the PLO as a structure can offer an alternative. “It was subordinated to the Palestinian National Authority during Arafat’s reign and it is mainly controlled by Fatah. It could offer a framework for discussions between Fatah and Hamas, but it can not offer a way out of the impasse in inter-Palestinian politics.’’24
The debate on PLO reform is not new. The Cairo agreement of 2005 foresaw PLO reform, in order to include Hamas. Yet, no real reform involving power-sharing has been carried out. In the past Hamas refused to become part of the PLO over fears that majority decisions would be imposed on it, without the power to veto them.25.Hamas would only join the PLO if it could take the lead.26 Some people within Hamas pleaded for a new platform to replace the PLO, but the Arab League objects. The PLO remains the sole representative of the Palestinian people, and its symbolic importance cannot be cast aside.
Street protests and pressure for national unity
In December, the Facebook group Gaza Youth Breaks Out launched the Gaza youth manifesto, criticising Hamas, Fatah, Israel and the international community. Hamas perceived it as a threat as the authors point out how the space for civil society is restricted under its reign, violating political and civil rights. Hamas also violently suppressed the 15 March protests. Even if the protestors were calling for national unity, Hamas interpreted the demonstrations as criticism. According to Jaber Wishah, this crackdown indicates that Hamas is not sincere about reconciliation. “If it was, it would let the youth express themselves freely. But on the contrary, Hamas goes even further and forbids protests and media reports. This violates the Basic Law that stipulates that protesters do not need permission from the Ministry of Interior, they just need to notify it.’’27
Challenges to Hamas’ governance and the monopoly on force
According to Yezid Sayigh, “Hamas is firmly in control and will remain so for at least several years to come, unless major changes happen elsewhere.’’28 But Hamas is not in full control of the Gaza Strip. As the International Crisis Group points out, Hamas faces competition from more radical groups that object to its participation in the elections, its failure to implement the Sharia and its ceasefires with Israel. Hamas deals well with radical Salafi-Jihadi groups like Jund Ansar Allah and Jaysh al-Islam.29 According to Palestinian political scientist Azzam Tamimi, “the channels between Jund Ansar Allah, Jaysh al-Islam and Jaljalat do not count for much. They claim to be linked to Al-Qa’ida, but they might make these claims to boost their image.’’30 Most observers agree that these groups do not pose a big threat to Hamas’ monopoly on force. However, the radical groups might become more successful.
The alternative to Hamas is not necessarily Fatah, it could also be more radical groups. Sara Roy argues that there is no other option than to engage Hamas. “Hamas is, in effect, caught in an increasingly untenable position: on the one hand it must deal with the limited albeit rising threat emerging from the more radical Islamist groups and from growing divisions within its own movement, while on the other it continues to seek international legitimacy. If the international community engages Hamas, they will likely moderate; if it continues to isolate them, they will likely radicalise.’’31
1 Interview with Nathan Brown, Carnegie Endowment, 28 March 2011.
2 Interview with Sara Roy, Centre for Middle Eastern Studies of Harvard University, 1 April 2011.
3 Interview with Omar Shaban, Palthink, 31 March 2011.
4 Researcher Dimitrios Bouris interviewed 60 EU officials – 58 interviewees acknowledged that the ‘no contact policy’ towards Hamas had failed and that the EU made a mistake in following the U.S.’ vision.
5 Interview with Nathan Brown, Carnegie Endowment, 28 March 2011.
6 Interview with Sara Roy, Centre for Middle Eastern Studies of Harvard University, 1 April 2011.
7 Interview with Palestinian official, 25 March 2011.
8 Interview with Azzam Tamimi, Institute of Islamic Political Thought, 23 March 2011.
9 Sellwood E., State-building and political change: Options for Palestine 2011, March 2011, New York University, Centre for International Cooperation pp 7-9.
10 Interview with Palestinian official, 25 March 2011.
11 Interview with Yezid Sayigh, King’s College,14 March 2011.
12 Interview with Nathan Brown, Carnegie Endowment, 28 March 2011.
13 Interview with Palestinian official, 25 March 2011.
14 Sellwood E., State-building and political change: Options for Palestine 2011, March 2011, New York University, Centre for International Cooperation, pp7-9.
15 Interview with Nathan Brown, Carnegie Endowment, 28 March 2011.
16 Interview with Sara Roy, Centre for Middle Eastern Studies of Harvard University, 1 April 2011.
17 Interview with Omar Shaban, Palthink, 31 March 2011.
18 Interview with Azzam Tamimi, Institute of Islamic Political Thought, 23 March 2011.
19 Interview with Jaber Wishah, Palestinian Center for Human Rights, 31 March 2011.
20 Interview with Palestinian official, 25 March 2011.
21 Interview with Omar Shaban, Palthink, 31 March 2011.
22 Interview with Yezid Sayigh, King’s College, 14 March 2011.
23 Interview with Palestinian official, 25 March 2011.
24 Interview with Nathan Brown, Carnegie Endowment, 28 March 2011.
25 Interview with Nathan Brown, Carnegie Endowment, 28 March 2011.
26 Interview with Palestinian official, 25 March 2011.
27 Interview with Jaber Wishah, Palestinian Center for Human Rights, 31 March 2011.
28 Interview with Yezid Sayigh, King’s College, 14 March 2011.
29 Interview with Menachem Klein, University of Bar Ilan, 15 March 2011.
30 Interview with Azzam Tamimi, Institute of Islamic Political Thought, 23 March 2011.
31 Interview with Sara Roy, Centre for Middle Eastern Studies of Harvard University, 1 April 2011.