Prospects for elusive Palestinian unity

Prospects for elusive Palestinian unity

THE HANS INDIA |   Nov 10,2017 , 10:51 PM IST

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On October 12, 2017, Fatah and Hamas, the two dominant factions in Palestinian politics, signed a reconciliation agreement in Cairo to end their decade-long conflict. Calling for the implementation of their previous accord signed in Cairo in May 2011, the latest agreement lays down the steps that will eventually lead to a fully functional Palestinian Authority (PA) and an elected Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC). 

The agreement lays down six conditions that should be fulfilled not later than a year from the date of signing. These include formation of an interim national unity government not later than December 1, 2017, bringing the Gaza Strip under the complete control of the Palestinian Authority, and, a meeting on November 14, 2017 of all Palestinian factions signatory to the 2011 Cairo deal to discuss all its clauses.

The October 12 agreement between Fatah and Hamas is the latest in a series of reconciliation attempts going back to 2005. The rupture between Hamas and Fatah began at the time of the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1994, which Hamas refused to accept since it was tantamount to the recognition of Israel.

Over time, this essential difference in their respective approaches toward Israel deepened the division in Palestinian politics and even led to occasional armed confrontations. But in the wake of the Al-Aqsa intifada, Egyptian mediation led to Fatah and Hamas signing the Cairo Declaration in 2005, which called for unity among the Palestinian factions and legislative elections to lead the Palestinian Authority.

Subsequently, elections to the PLC were indeed held in January 2006. Hamas emerged as the surprise winner with a 44 per cent vote share and 74 seats in the 132-member PLC, and formed a government led by Ismail Haniyeh in March 2006.

However, Israel, the US and the Middle East Quartet (United Nations, the United States, European Union and Russia) refused to recognize the Hamas-led government because of its past terrorist acts and its refusal to disarm. Due to international pressure and Fatah’s unwillingness to yield full control of the Palestinian Authority, the Hamas-led government was rendered dysfunctional, which in turn created widespread chaos. 

Despite several reconciliation efforts, including the February 2007 Mecca Agreement that mandated an end to violent Palestinian infighting and the formation of a national unity government, the situation did not improve.

On the contrary, the differences between Hamas and Fatah erupted into a full-fledged civil war by late 2006 and eventually, amidst violent confrontations, Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007. This led to a split in Palestinian Authority, with the Fatah-led PLO in control of the West Bank and Hamas establishing its rule in the Gaza Strip. Since then, various attempts at reconciliation, mediated mainly by Egypt and Qatar, have failed principally due to Hamas’s refusal to recognize Israel as well as disarm.

While previous attempts at reconciliation failed, the situation this time around appears a little more favourable due to three factors. Firstly, Hamas, under pressure from various quarters, has shown an inclination to adopt a more pragmatic approach towards the Palestinian national struggle.

The clearest sign of this so far has been the issuance of a new Hamas charter on May 1, 2017, which states that “Hamas considers the establishment of a fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital along the lines of the 4th of June 1967, with the return of the refugees and the displaced to their homes from which they were expelled, to be a formula of national consensus.” This is a major departure from Hamas’s rhetoric of the land of Palestine as that lying between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea. This change in posture has occurred because Hamas is losing support both internally and externally…

At the same time, Hamas’s external policies, especially after the outbreak of Arab Spring, has caused the shrinking of its regional support base.  Among the countries that extended support to Hamas in terms of financial aid and training its armed militia until 2011 were Iran and Syria.

However, after the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, Hamas made a strategic miscalculation by choosing to take the side of the Islamist opposition and committed itself to opposing the Bashar al-Assad regime. This placed it at odds with Iran, which not only declared support for Assad but also intervened in Syria in support of the beleaguered regime, and led to the burning of its bridges with Tehran.

Hamas made a similar mistake in the case of Egypt. After the fall of Mubarak (February 2011), Hamas forged close cooperation with the Mohammed Morsi-led Muslim Brotherhood government (June 2012). And even after the Egyptian military dismissed the Morsi government and assumed power, Hamas failed to promptly distance itself from the Brotherhood.

This upset not only the Abdel Fattah El-Sisi regime in Egypt but also the regimes in Arab Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and UEA which preferred the pre-Arab Spring status quo in Egypt. Even countries such as Turkey and Qatar, which have continued support for Hamas, have become circumspect due to mounting pressure from regional heavyweights including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and UAE to scale down such support.

Secondly, the fast-changing geopolitical situation in the Middle East has put countries such as Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia under pressure due to growing Iranian influence…Saudi Arabia, which sees a resurgent Iran as a major threat, has been facing domestic and external challenges…

Egypt too faces serious internal problems due to continued political instability, growing threat from radicalism and ISIS, unending economic woes and a restive population. And its regional influence has diminished because of inability to maintain primary position in Arab affairs.

Both Egypt and Saudi Arabia understand the significance of the Palestinian issue in these circumstances. A renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace process will divert attention, even if temporarily, from internal problems confronting them.

Any breakthrough, howsoever unlikely, will enhance their regional status…There is also a convergence of interests between Israel and Arab Gulf countries due to their common threat perceptions vis-à-vis Iran and radical Islamism….

Thirdly, President Donald Trump has shown significant interest in reviving the Middle East peace process…Even though the chances of a revival of the peace process remains grim, there are indications that Trump’s faith that Saudi Arabia and Egypt would be able to exert pressure on the Palestinian factions has borne fruit in terms of bringing them to the negotiating table. 

While the Egyptian role in mediating between Hamas and Fatah has been evident, Saudi Arabia and UAE have extended support to this effort and appear inclined to establish contacts with Israel. Riyadh has also been instrumental in the re-adoption of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative by the Arab Summit at its meeting in Amman in March 2017. Though not significant if seen individually, all these dots viewed together signal a possible revival of the peace process.

Given the step-by-step approach adopted in the latest attempt at Fatah-Hamas reconciliation and the interplay among these three factors, the chances of success of the latest reconciliation attempt might be higher. The measured international reaction, notwithstanding the American and Israeli rejection on account of Hamas’s refusal to disarm, bodes well for the reconciliation deal.

A reconciliation between the Palestinian factions is not only important for Israel and Palestine but also for regional players including Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Trump too has shown enthusiasm for bringing the peace process back on track.

The stakes are even higher for the Palestinian national movement because each time the peace process fails, it enhances the security risk not only for the Palestinian people but also of Arab regimes. Nevertheless, given the intractable nature of the conflict, and the domestic political dynamics in Israel and Palestine, it is too early to vest great hope on the latest reconciliation bid. 

(Courtesy: www.idsa.in; Quamar is Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses; Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India)

By Md Muddassir Quamar



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