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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

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Palestinian unity attempt flounders yet again

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It’s beginning to sound like a broken record.

For the past few years, Fatah and Hamas, the two rival factions in the Palestinian national movement, have tried in vain to create a single Palestinian government in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Since the collapse in 2007 of the short-lived Palestinian national unity government, formed as a result of the Mecca Agreement, Fatah, a secular organization, and Hamas, an Islamic fundamentalist group, have signed three reconciliation accords.

All of them have imploded, dashing hopes that the Palestinians can settle their differences.

Recently, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi intervened in an attempt to broker a unity deal, inviting Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, and Khaled Meshal, a Hamas leader, to Cairo for talks.

They arrived in Egypt in the wake of significant developments in the Palestinian arena last November, December and January.

First, the United Nations granted the Palestinian Authority non-member observer status.

Second, Hamas and Israel fought an eight-day border war during which Israel bombarded targets in Gaza and Hamas fired rockets deep into Israel’s heartland.

Third, Fatah and Hamas exchanged two goodwill gestures. Fatah allowed Hamas to stage a rally in the West Bank town of Nablus to mark the 25th anniversary of its founding. Hamas reciprocated by permitting Fatah to hold a rally in Gaza for the first time since the summer of 2007, when Hamas violently seized Gaza from Fatah in a mini civil war.

Following the Gaza rally, billed as a show of unity by both Fatah and Hamas, Fatah leader Nabil Shaath declared, “The climate is excellent for reconciliation.” Responding to these overlapping events, Morsi invited the antagonists to send representatives to Cairo.

On the eve of their meeting, Marwan Barghouti, a leading Fatah figure serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison for his role in terrorist attacks against Israelis during the second intifadah, issued a statement from his cell imploring both sides to end their dispute. As he put it, “We need reconciliation now and without delay.”

The discussions in Cairo focused on ways to implement a reconciliation accord signed in April 2011. No progress was reported, and Abbas and Meshal left Cairo empty-handed, leaving two separate and feuding Palestinian entities in place in the West Bank and Gaza.

The divisions that keep Fatah and Hamas constantly at odds are substantive.

Israel, of course, is a key sticking point. Fatah, a major component of the Palestinian Authority, has accepted Israel’s existence within the pre-1967 armistice lines. Hamas rejects a two state solution and continues to call for armed struggle in a bid to create a single Palestinian state in place of Israel.

Toward the close of 2012, Ahmed Halabiyeh, head of Hamas’ Jerusalem department, called upon Palestinians to launch a third uprising and resume suicide bombings against Israel.

At around the same time, Meshal, following a visit to Gaza, vowed that Hamas would never recognize Israel and try to “free the land of Palestine inch by inch.”

Abbas, a moderate, has urged the Hamas leadership to recognize Israel, disavow terrorism and respect previous agreements signed by the Palestinian Authority and Israel. Hamas has balked, but has been amenable to observing a long-term truce with Israel.

Another area of contention turns on Hamas’ armed wing, the Izz Al-Din Al-Qassem Brigades. Fatah has demanded its dismantlement, but Hamas has stoutly rejected this condition.

One of the thorniest issues yet to be resolved concerns the Palestinian Authority’s security co-operation with Israel, sanctioned by the 1993 Oslo accords. Hamas staunchly opposes this partnership, which has been instrumental in quashing terrorist plots.

Fatah and Hamas are also at loggerheads over the issue of political arrests. Since their momentous falling out in June 2007, just months after the Mecca Agreement was signed and sealed, their respective security forces have been arresting each other’s operatives in the West Bank and Gaza, contributing to an atmosphere of mutual bitterness.

Fatah and Hamas have also clashed over four internal issues, beginning with the question of who will lead a national unity government. Would it be Abbas, Yasser Arafat’s designated successor? Or would it be Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister of the Hamas regime in Gaza?

Remarkably enough, Fatah and Hamas cannot even agree when presidential and parliamentary elections should be held.

Nor have they been able to reach a consensus as to how the Palestine Liberation Organization – established in 1964 and universally recognized as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinians and currently led by Abbas – would be reconstituted.

Finally, Fatah and Hamas have yet to decide whether Hamas would be admitted into the PLO, and if so, what role it would then play in that umbrella organization.

These differences are not likely to be resolved within the foreseeable future, if indeed at all.

But as Fatah and Hamas struggle for primacy, Hamas appears to have gained the upper hand in the battle for hearts and minds in the West Bank and Gaza.

The reasons seem clear.

Although the Israeli Air Force battered Hamas in the last round of fighting, Hamas fought Israel to a virtual draw, thereby gaining street credit in Gaza and the West Bank. Under the terms of the ceasefire negotiated by Egypt and the United States, Israel eased its blockade of Gaza, a clear tactical victory for Hamas.

On a strategic level, Hamas has become stronger now that the new Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt has lined up firmly behind it. Morsi’s predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, was hostile to Hamas and worked with Israel to keep Islamic fundamentalism in check.

Fatah, notwithstanding its success in upgrading its status at the United Nations, has grown correspondingly weaker. Although Abbas has renounced violence and clearly accepted Israel’s existence, he has not made any real headway toward achieving Palestinian statehood. And due to a lack of funding from foreign donors, the Palestinian Authority government in the West Bank faces a dire financial crisis.

Israel’s position on Palestinian unity seems contradictory.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned that a Palestinian unity agreement would put an end to a two-state solution. By the same token, Israel has observed that the split within Palestinian ranks jeopardizes the chances of peace. As Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s former foreign minister, noted, “We are ready to move forward, but we do not know who represents the Palestinians – Hamas or Fatah.”

At present, this remains an unanswered question.

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