Palestinian unity seems as far off as ever

Ismail Haniyeh (l) and Mahmoud Abbas (r)

Amid signs of a rapprochement between the two major Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas, who are divided by geography and ideology, Abdel Bari Atwan questions whether Palestinian unity can ever be achieved.

Surely I’m not the only one who is highly sceptical regarding the latest meetings held and agreements concluded by Fatah and Hamas, the two heavyweights of the Palestinian political scene, under Egyptian auspices in Cairo.

This is not due to the challenges involved; rather it is because, over the years, we have been here before on several occasions, and the level of trust between all concerned is acutely low.

Fatah and Hamas are both in internal turmoil and feel increasingly marginalised – on the Arab, international and domestic levels alike. Both of them need to find a way out and stage a political and media comeback. So they have reverted to an old stratagem as an attempt to gain time without angering the Egyptian go-betweens who both sides are eager to appease.

Much has changed since the first reconciliation agreement signed in Cairo in 2011. The Egyptian leadership has changed, as has the top man at Egyptian intelligence which is in charge of this dossier, with Gen. Khaled Fawzi taking over from the late Omar Suleiman.

Hamas has changed too: It has elected a new political bureau, and a younger and tougher leadership within the Gaza Strip, which is unsullied by inter-Arab and even intra-Palestinian disputes.

The one thing that has not changed is the leadership of Fateh and the Palestinian Authority (PA).  The same faces, the same approach, the same president, the same negotiators and the same denial.

Shrewed tactics

Purely as an observer, one must concede that Hamas’ current leaders have proven to be far more pro-active and better at manoeuvring compared to their counterparts in Ramallah. They rebuilt bridges with Egypt, and dealt a body-blow to Fatah by starting a dialogue with Egyptian-backed leadership contender Muhammad Dahlan and reached understandings with him under Cairo’s auspices.

At the same time, they rebuilt alliances with Iran and Hezbollah and washed their hands of all or most of the previous leadership’s Arab alliances, and are poised to restore ties with both Syria and some Gulf states.

Hamas supporters

In contrast, Fatah – and specifically the PA leadership – committed catastrophic blunders. It sought to compound the suffering of the two million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip as a way of punishing Hamas, but the move backfired disastrously, revealing both petulance and poor judgement in the decision-making process.

The PA reduced electricity supplies to the enclave, cut the salaries of 60,000 public employees (most of them Fatah supporters), forced 6,000 into early retirement, and did its best to keep the Rafah crossing – the Gaza Strip’s only link to the outside world — closed.

But this neither weakened Hamas nor provoked residents into taking to the streets in protest against its rule. The move backfired, and drove Hamas into the arms of Dahlan, arch-rival of Fatah leader and President Mahmoud Abbas.

By starting a dialogue with Dahlan it gained credit with his Egyptian sponsors and other like-minded Arab states, resulting in opening times being extended at the Rafah crossing and supplies of Egyptian fuel being sent to the Strip’s sole power station.

What’s wrong with the PA’s approach?

The PA leadership’s problem is that it is not sufficiently in touch with changes on the international and regional scene and within Palestinian society. It behaves in a high-handed and exclusionist manner, as though it still thinks it is as powerful and popular as the PLO was in its heyday.

While Hamas – which it accuses of being obscurantist and backward – has changed its leadership and political bureau via internal elections at least three times, Fatah’s ageing leaders and Central Committee members remain resolutely in place.

True, Abbas still holds the card of “legitimacy” but the PA’s legitimacy is eroding fast thanks to the collapse of its main underpinning, the 24-year-old Oslo Accords, plus rampant Israeli colonisation, waning popular support, and the transformation of the PA into a supplicant for international charity with suffocating strings attached.

The most recent opinion poll published in The Guardian newspaper suggests that if elections were held Hamas would win in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. But who can persuade Abbas and his Central Committee to believe this inconvenient fact, acknowledge the reality, and engage in a measure of self-criticism or revision?

What does this agreement consist of?

The meetings between Hamas and Fatah resulted in some dramatic-sounding agreements. Hamas expressed its willingness to immediately dissolve its government (Administrative Council) in Gaza and hold elections to the PA presidency and legislature and also the Palestine National Council.

It also agreed to restructure its security apparatus and hand all levers of power to a “government of national accord” for an interim period pending the formation of a “government of national unity.”

But one can scrutinise all documents and statements in vain for any reference to the PA ending security coordination with Israel, or of reactivating resistance in all its forms against the occupation, or reinstating stipends for Palestinian political prisoners in the occupation’s jails or rescinding salary cuts for employees in Gaza. No mention was made of any of these issues.

President Mahmoud Abbas

The Palestinians’ most important recent achievement was to force Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to abandon his plans to tighten Israeli security control over the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

This victory was achieved without the direct or indirect involvement of either Fatah or Hamas, or any of the other factions which are poised to engage in yet another round of headline-grabbing dialogues and reconciliations that make them feel relevant again. This accurately and eloquently sums up the current condition of Palestinian politics.

They want us to take heart in the dissolution of the Gaza Administrative Council and at the sight of Hamas and Fatah representatives embracing, on the grounds that reconciliation is on its way. No problem, we will comply with their wishes.

But how optimistic can we be, and how many weeks or months will it take? What are the practical mechanisms for implementing the agreements? How will the new government look? Will there be any guarantees of genuine reform in all sorts of areas, or that corruption will indeed be uprooted?

It is exhausting and painful to keep writing about these reconciliation meetings and agreements. It has become tedious due to constant repetition, and the difficulty of finding anything new to say. This applies equally to writers and readers.

It is for this reason that Palestine has ceased to be the central cause of the Arab world, and petty Arab rulers feel free to lord it over the Palestinians and cosy up to the Israelis as their new protectors.

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