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What the Fatah/Hamas Reconciliation Means for the Region

Middle East In Focus

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Last week Fatah and Hamas reached an agreement, mediated by Egypt.  According to various news reports, it marks the beginning of efforts to create a technocratic unity government and lays the ground for new elections. The move took many by surprise, especially coming so soon after the fall of the Mubarak regime.  Predictably, the reconciliation efforts have elicited mixed responses from the region, while also raising hopes of a real way forward for the prospects of Palestinian statehood.

Kuwait Times  reports “Ismail Haniya, the prime minister of the Islamist Hamas movement in power in the Gaza Strip, said,...'I am prepared to tender my resignation as part of the reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah,' the secular party of Palestinian Authority (PA) president Mahmud Abbas. 'This agreement is very important and should boost efforts to end the divisions and encourage unity among Palestinians.' Syria yesterday said it welcomed the reconciliation agreement between the leaders of the main Palestinian factions, which is set to be signed in Cairo. 'Syria welcomes the positive results yielded by efforts to achieve agreement between Palestinian parties,' the foreign ministry said in a statement published on Saturday by the official news agency SANA. 'Syria sees the forthcoming signing of the reconciliation agreement as a major victory for the Palestinian people in their just struggle for the liberation of their land and the recovery of their rights, as protected by Syria,' the ministry statement added.”

News of the rapprochement between the two sides was received with relief by residents of the Occupied Territories. The official Palestinian Authority news agency Wafa reports, “Palestinians Wednesday celebrated at Manara Square in Ramallah the signing of the reconciliation agreement in Cairo. They gave out sweets and sang national songs to celebrate the major event; Palestinian and Egyptian flags were hoisted and balloons with the colors of the Palestinian flag filled the square. One of the people celebrating the reconciliation agreement told WAFA that 'this reconciliation must be real and we should not give attention to the Israeli threats.'”

However, talks of a possible joint government between Hamas and Fatah provoked a sharp rebuke from the Israeli side, which, according to Reuters, “ has suspended tax transfers to the Palestinians,... fearing the money will be used to fund Hamas after President Mahmoud Abbas struck a unity deal with the Islamists....Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said he had suspended a routine handover of 300 million shekels ($88 million) in customs and other levies that Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinians under interim peace deals....The tax transfers provide the PA, which exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank, with $1 billion to $1.4 billion annually. Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian official, said that by withholding the money, 'Israel has started a war even before the formation of the government'....In public remarks to the Israeli Cabinet, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reaffirmed his opposition to the unity pact and said the reconciliation should worry 'all those throughout the world' who aspire to Middle East peace.”

The open animosity of the Israeli government to the idea of unity between Hamas and Fatah was widely criticized by the regional media, who believe this is an internal Palestinian matter. Shimon Shaffer of Ynet believes that the Israeli government should consider talking to Hamas: “Netanyahu would do well to carefully weigh his steps and not cling to the initial response that rejects the Palestinian unity deal out of hand. In the past year we’ve heard more and more voices in Israel – for example, former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy – calling for efforts to engage in dialogue with Hamas as well. The main argument of dialogue supporters is that Israel cannot ignore what happened in the Gaza Strip: More than one and a half million Palestinians live there, and Hamas is therefore a legitimate candidate for dialogue. Now, Hamas’s legitimacy is growing.”

Gideon Levy, writing in Haaretz also believes the unity talks need to be given some time: “Why is it that every time there appears to be a chance for positive change, Israel is quick to make a sour face, to scaremonger and hunker down behind its rejectionism. Why? Because that is how we are....The path to Palestinian reconciliation is still long, and the path to statehood even longer. In the alleys of Jenin and the tunnels of Rafah there is still nothing to celebrate. In Jerusalem and Tel Aviv there is still nothing to worry about, to feel threatened by or even to rejoice about — as if we have been given a public relations "asset." If a unity government is set up, and if free elections are held, there will be a new possibility. Israel needs to welcome this, with the appropriate reservations.”

Editorials from other regional media also expressed their view that Israel must not interfere with the process. Arab News writes, “If peace is to happen, there has to be Palestinian unity, and it is what the Palestinian people have demanded in protests in both the West Bank and Gaza. Without it Israel will continue to run circles around the Palestinians. The sickening reality is that since 2006, in putting their rivalry ahead of national liberation, the two groups have been willing pawns in Israel’s game of divide and rule....There is still a long way to go, however, before that point. It is not yet clear if Hamas will be given a free run to operate and campaign in the West Bank or Fatah in Gaza. But there is every reason to believe, if there are problems, those responsible will be punished by the Palestinian electorate. They want peace between their leaders. They know that without it, there is no chance of the bigger peace deal with the Israelis.”

The editorial board at Gulf News goes further: “Palestinian affairs are not Israel's concern....This significant development has to be viewed within the context of the recent Arab revolutions, including large protests in Palestine itself last month. Leaders in both Hamas and Fatah rightly predicted that with the new Arab order, it would be very unwise to ignore the Palestinian youth's demand for reconciliation and elections....That Hamas and Fatah managed to confront their differences and resolve all their issues allows for a new phase of Palestinian politics that will bring back the focus on ending Israel's occupation and the Palestinian campaign for statehood... Israel should stay out of internal Palestinian matters and focus instead on whether or not it can choose a just peace with Palestinians over its illegal colony activities, among other things.

From an editorial in The National: “Palestinian unity strips Israel of its false pretenses”…“No lasting peace with the Palestinians can exclude Hamas and its supporters. If only a fraction of the Palestinian leadership strikes a deal with Israel, it is not a two-state solution, but an agreement to be co-opted. Mr. Netanyahu's government has consistently driven a wedge between Palestinian factions with just this goal in mind...Wednesday's deal in Cairo is still a fragile enterprise that either Fatah or Hamas could torpedo with a word. It is also the only way forward towards a unified Palestinian state. When Israel realises that this is in its interests, there will be a chance for peace.”

The sentiment is also reflected in Joharah Baker's piece on the Palestinian MIFTAH in which he regrets the response by both the United States and Israel: “The commentary [and advice] from these bosom buddies is unwarranted and, indeed, unwelcomed....It will be hard to resist the pressure. The two sides have not even signed a formal deal and Israel is pulling out all the stops. But the Palestinians, for whatever reason, have gotten it right this time. 'It is not Israel’s concern,' quipped presidential advisor Nabil Abu Rdeineh, a day after the initial agreement in Cairo last week. 'This is an internal affair and Israel had nothing to do with it, nor is it a party to it.' That pretty much sums it up. Neither Israel nor the United States has any business in internal Palestinian affairs. Besides, if you are a proponent of democracy, you better go all the way. Otherwise you just come out looking like a hypocrite.”

Moving beyond the initial reaction to the news, many have also tried to assess the challenges and obstacles that a Fatah/Hamas government would face and what Palestinian reconciliation means for the prospects for peace in the region. Some take a harder stance on the way forward. The Palestinian Alternative Information Center website publishes an article by Nassar Ibrahim, who believes “that the Palestinian political factions in general, and the Fatah and Hamas in particular, must now commence a comprehensive social and political process grounded first and foremost in Palestinian rights. This new stage necessitates the construction of a new political strategy based on a critical review of the Oslo process and its fifteen years of wasted time. The past process has failed, and those who talk of continuing it are radically unrealistic and unreflective, endangering everyone in the region. Peace can be attained through continued Palestinian resistance and a strengthening of the Palestinian position through an alliance with the Arab peoples and not the Arab regimes.”

At the other end of the spectrum, several Israeli commentators have expressed their satisfaction at the news since now it can become more evident than ever that Israel lacks a credible interlocutor with whom it can sign a peace deal. Writing on the hardline Israel National News site, Avi Perry calls the recent efforts “a blessing in disguise. We should not interrupt our enemy while they get it wrong….Can you imagine signing peace with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, only to see it annulled a short time later by the next Palestinian Hamas-inspired ruler? Wouldn't it be easier, less risky to renounce it now, before letting it grow and solidify, before consenting to the rule of terrorists over Judea and Samaria?...The Hamas-Fatah reunion should serve as a revelation. It should help the Israeli government and the rest of the world realize that even if this reunion does not materialize at this instant, it is a semi-dormant volcano ready to erupt at any moment in the very near future. You can't be safe living next to an active volcano unless you dismiss the Pompeii experience.  You can't make peace with a PA that changes its colors every other season unless you don't mind paving the road to an all out deadly war.”

Aaron Lerner asserts on the Israeli Insider that the true test of the new Palestinian government will be whether it will release Gilad Shalit: “It appears that the new Fatah-Hamas government — if it is indeed formed — will try to present the world with a western civilized face by appointing technocrats as ministers. But a cabinet of Palestinian Oxford and Harvard professors won’t be able to hide a very simple fact: Until now, the Hamas government ruling in Gaza has been holding Gilad Shalit hostage. And the moment that a Fatah-Hamas government is responsible for both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, that government is directly responsible for Gilad Shalit. What should Israel have to “trade” with a Fatah-Hamas government to gain the release of Gilad Shalit? Absolutely nothing. Because Palestinian terrorists kidnap and hold Israelis as hostages. A legitimate Palestinian governing body doesn’t.”

Others in the region, however, are more optimistic about what the future holds for the Palestinian people. In an exchange on the Bitter Lemons between Palestinian and Israeli scholars, Ghassan Khatib, believes “The reconciliation agreement...is good news for both the Palestinian people and the peace process. A united Palestinian people is more conducive to a successful peace process than Palestinians splintered and in conflict....[T]he tendency towards unity should be encouraged, particularly as its only immediate practical outcome is an interim government that has a political platform consistent with that of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Internal political dialogue over the course of the coming year until new elections are held should be used to attract Hamas to become part of the Palestinian political system, rather than remaining outside it as a spoiler, capable of ruining any serious negotiations or a potential peace deal.”

Michael Broning writes in the Palestinian Maan News, “The implementation of the deal that will be ceremonially signed in Cairo on Wednesday poses a number of challenges, the biggest of which will have to be faced by Western decision makers: will the new government be recognized or again be subjected to sanctions and boycotts? As of yet, the decision is still pending….Newly regained Palestinian unity has once more changed the parameters of Middle East peace making. For the first time in years, Palestinians will again be represented by a single government. This will strengthen their bargaining power and enable the Palestinian leadership to follow through on the plan to obtain statehood via a vote in the UN General Assembly in September with much more sway.”

Finally, the Jordan Times editorial perhaps expresses better than most the cautious optimism with which the matter should be approached: “The signing of a reconciliation accord in Cairo between Fateh and Hamas promises the start of a new era in inter-Palestinian relations. One nevertheless expresses optimism timidly; this is not the first time Fatah, the mainstream faction in the West Bank, and Hamas, the ruling faction in Gaza, have come close to sealing a peace deal, only to see it unravel later on under the strain of events that tested the depth of these accords….The first sign of a crack was over the divergent perspectives between Hamas and Fatah were on the killing of Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden. While the government of Mahmoud Abbas 'rejoiced' over his killing, Hamas did not, and described Bin Laden as a martyr. Of course, the next few months will put to the test the strength of the deal that is supposed to establish the groundwork for the establishment of an interim Palestinian government composed of technocrats, and prepare for holding presidential and parliamentary elections on a democratic basis.”


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