Is Palestinian Reconciliation Viable This Time?

I. Introduction

After an eleven-year-old rift marked by intermittent violence and bitter recriminations, the two main Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, met under Egyptian auspices on October 10-11, 2017 and signed a reconciliation agreement to put their deeply rooted disagreements to rest. The agreement, once fully implemented, is expected to end, in principle, the “geographic separation” of the Gaza Strip from the West Bank.

The current conflict between the two political rivals erupted in 2006 after Hamas defeated Fatah in democratically conducted legislative elections. The elections resulted in a short-lived national unity government designed to govern the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Soon thereafter, however, Hamas militias clashed with Fatah security forces in Gaza and overcame them militarily, thus extending their control over the Strip in 2007. The factional competition, coupled with semi-ideological and sociopolitical differences between the two groups, quickly deteriorated into a bitter, low-intensity, and protracted conflict over governing authority in Palestine. The agreement signed between them on October 12 is a clear function of that fierce rivalry.

The recent wave of negotiations, initiated in early October in Gaza and concluded in Cairo, produced several political steps that eluded Fatah and Hamas throughout the past decade despite recurrent attempts at reconciliation. Past failures at achieving lasting national reconciliation between 2006 and 2016 in Gaza, Mecca, Sanaa, Cairo, and Doha, among other venues, contributed to a long-lasting legacy of doubt and mistrust in the minds of a skeptical Palestinian public. Nevertheless, reconciliation gradually became a top national security demand in the eyes of an overwhelming majority of the Palestinian people. In a poll conducted by the Jerusalem Media and Communication Centre (JMCC) in March 2013, 90.3 percent of Palestinians believed that Hamas and Fatah should pursue national reconciliation even if this leads to the United States and Israel imposing sanctions on the Palestinian people.

Yet, despite this consistently vast support over the past decade, a recent survey (Poll no. 65) conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) showed that 61 percent expressed pessimism at the success of reconciliation efforts, with only 31 percent claiming optimism about their outcome. The pessimism reflected public disappointment in the persistent failure of both factions to conclude an agreement. A plurality of 48 percent blamed Fatah and 15 percent fingered Hamas for the failure of national reconciliation efforts.

II. The National Reconciliation Agreement

According to a leaked version of the document, the agreement included the following key provisions:

  1. Hamas offered voluntarily to end its unilateral control over Gaza and enable the National Reconciliation Government headed by Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah (of the Palestinian Authority) to extend its administrative functions and responsibilities from Ramallah in the West Bank to the Gaza Strip by December 1, 2017.
  2. The Hamdallah government was charged with resolving the issue of Palestinian public servants appointed by Hamas to administer Gaza since 2007 and assume responsibility for their payroll and tax withholdings.
  3. The agreement authorized the Hamdallah government to exert full control over all crossings of the Gaza Strip with Egypt and Israel by January 11, 2018.
  4. Palestinian security agencies in the West Bank and Gaza will hold joint discussions to identify mechanisms for rebuilding unified security services for both areas.
  5. The parties agreed to call for a joint meeting to be held in Cairo in early December 2017 to evaluate progress in implementing the signed agreement.
  6. The parties scheduled another meeting for November 14, 2017, to include all signatories to the “Palestinian National Accord” of May 4, 2011, to discuss the provisions of the current agreement.

III. The Palestinian and Arab Reaction

As expected, Fatah and Hamas welcomed the agreement which both parties portrayed as a national victory for the Palestinian people aimed at uniting the West Bank and Gaza and potentially offering Gazans a respite from the Israeli siege of the Strip and the miserable economic and social conditions imposed on its inhabitants. PLO Executive Committee member Dr. Hanan Ashrawi stated that “The reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas signals a qualitative development in contemporary Palestinian history.” She characterized the agreement signed in Cairo as “an expression of firm commitment and support to bring about genuine reconciliation and national unity in Palestine.” Ashrawi acknowledged the patronage and support of the Egyptian government that “played a pivotal role in bringing about this agreement.”

Hamas has also welcomed the deal but put its own spin on its actual provisions. Saleh Al-Arouri, the head of the Hamas delegation at the Cairo negotiations, declared that Palestinian unity was vital “so we can work together against the Zionist enterprise, which seeks to wipe out and trample the rights of our people.” He added, “We in Hamas are determined, serious and sincere this time and every time to end the division.” The relatively newly elected Hamas leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, declared during the negotiations that “achieving reconciliation is a strategic decision that the movement will not back down from, noting that the movement is united in this decision.”

The Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), chaired by Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, met in Ramallah on October 16 and “expressed support for the conciliation agreement that was reached in Cairo by Fatah and Hamas movements…because it would enable the government to end division, unite the political system and prepare for general elections.”

Asked whether the agreement with Hamas will interfere with peace efforts with Israel, President Abbas answered, “There’s no contradiction at all between unity and talks, and we’re committed to establishing a just peace based on a two-state solution.”

In addition to domestic Palestinian support, the agreement reached in Cairo enjoyed the collective support of the League of Arab States and key individual Arab countries including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Oman.

IV. The Israeli Reaction

The reaction by the government of Israel to the agreement was swift, although somewhat ambiguous. Israeli officials announced their opposition to any Palestinian reconciliation agreement that fails to disarm Hamas and to produce a unity government that does not recognize the state of Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas will make “peace much harder to achieve.” He stated on his Facebook page that “Israel opposes any reconciliation in which the terrorist organization Hamas does not disarm and end its war to destroy Israel.”

Although this Israeli stance is deemed negative by many analysts, it appears less obstructionist than previous governments unwilling to accept any form of Palestinian reconciliation. It was only few years ago that Netanyahu said that “The PA must choose either peace with Israel or peace with Hamas. There is no possibility for peace with both.” However, on October 16, 2017, Netanyahu seemed to change his tone by telling his own cabinet ministers that even though he will not recognize the Fatah-Hamas deal, “he will not cut ties to the PA.” Apparently, close Egyptian coordination with Israel and US assurances have softened current Israeli policy on Hamas.

Nonetheless, Israeli officials explained that any reconciliation between the (Fatah-dominated) Palestinian Authority and Hamas must include the following:

  1. Recognition by Hamas of the state of Israel.
  2. Renunciation of violence and demilitarization of Hamas.
  3. Declaration of commitment to previous international agreements between Israel and the Palestinians.
  4. Acceptance of the principles set out by the Middle East Quartet, which include the above three conditions.
  5. Cessation of terrorist attacks against Israel.
  6. Cessation of the building of “terror tunnels” in the Gaza Strip.
  7. Return of Israeli prisoners and the remains of dead Israeli soldiers held by Hamas.

Some Israeli leaders, including members of the Netanyahu cabinet, remained quite suspicious of the motives and the outcome of the reconciliation process. Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz stated that the “so-called reconciliation” between Hamas and Fatah is “a convenient cover for Hamas’s continued existence and activity as a terror organization while relinquishing civilian responsibility for the Gaza Strip.” Katz indicated that Abbas’s willingness to partner with Hamas leaders was a “cause for concern.”

V. The American Reaction

The initial reaction by the Trump Administration to the agreement between Fatah and Hamas was not surprising. Indeed, a month earlier, at the end of his tour of the Gaza border with Israel, the president’s special representative for international negotiations Jason Greenblatt said that “it is clear that the Palestinian Authority needs to resume its role in the administration of Gaza, as Hamas has substantially harmed the people of Gaza and has failed to meet their basic needs.” Therefore, on October 19, 2017, Greenblatt welcomed the opportunity for the PA “to assume full, genuine, and unhindered civil and security responsibilities in Gaza … to improve the humanitarian situation for Palestinians living there.” However, he essentially mimicked the Israeli response by demanding that Hamas “unambiguously and explicitly commit to nonviolence and recognize Israel, accept previous agreements and obligations between the parties—including to disarm terrorists—and commit to peaceful negotiations.” “If Hamas is to play any role in a Palestinian government,” Greenblatt emphasized, “it must accept these basic requirements.”

Jason Greenblatt’s remarks were not well received in Gaza or the West Bank. Hamas official Bassem Naim denounced the US statement as “blatant interference in Palestinian affairs.” Ghassan Khatib of Birzeit University described Greenblatt’s statement as “completely unnecessary and has negative consequences because the Palestinians are not in the process of forming a government that is not compatible with its previous commitments.”

According to Barak Ravid, diplomatic correspondent of Haaretz, the US position was significantly more nuanced than revealed by the Greenblatt statement. Ravid wrote that the administration was quite supportive of the Egyptian role in the reconciliation process, implying some level of coordination between Cairo and Washington. He quoted a senior White House official as saying, “Egypt has helped us crack open a door to Gaza that didn’t exist a few weeks ago, and we see it as a possible opportunity.” This statement indicates the possibility of close coordination between Washington, Cairo, Tel Aviv, and Ramallah throughout the reconciliation negotiations in Cairo.

VI. The Implementation Process

Despite a flood of statements from both sides of the agreement committing to a speedy and thorough implementation, the early phase of the process has not proceeded very smoothly. On October 26, 2017, two PA ministers announced that Hamas representatives in Gaza refused to allow them to assume their responsibilities in the Strip as provided in the agreement.

The first case involved Adalah Al-Atira, the head of the Palestinian Environmental Protection Authority (PEPA), who was prevented by her Hamas-appointed predecessor, Kanaan Obeid, from assuming her office functions in Gaza. Al-Atira expressed her frustrations, saying that “Most of the infrastructure are weak as a result of the siege, division and the failure of many donor countries to implement some projects in water and sewage networks,” adding, “We lost 10 years; if we calculate the hours, minutes, capabilities and efforts in Gaza, Gaza would have become like Singapore by now.”

A similar case occurred at the Land Authority, where Minister Saeb Nazif and his staff returned empty-handed to Ramallah after the Hamas-appointed director of the authority, Kamil Abu Madi, refused to transfer his duties1 to Nazif.

On the positive side, according to Al Jazeera, the Palestinian Authority did successfully assume “full control of the border crossings between the Gaza Strip and Egypt … in a handover that is considered to be the first real test of the reconciliation agreement signed a few weeks ago in Cairo between the PA and Hamas.” In a serious change since 2007, Hamas official Mohammed Abu Zaid told reporters, “From now on, we have no relationship with crossings and our employees are not present inside them.”

In spite of the mixed results in the implementation process thus far, both sides blamed the few hiccups on the lack of coordination at the local levels in Gaza. However, both Fatah and Hamas continue to be upbeat and insist on their unequivocal commitment to fully abide by the provisions of their historic agreement. In a short but rather overly optimistic speech following the transfer of the Rafah crossing to Fatah, PA Public Works Minister Mufeed al-Hasayneh declared that “the word ‘split’ will not exist in the Palestinian dictionary anymore.” He added, “There is no yellow and green. All our Palestinian people are under the Palestinian flag.”

On the Israeli border, Hamas has withdrawn its forces and employees from the crossing points where coordination is proceeding directly between Israeli and PA security services. Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai confirmed that meetings were underway between Israeli and Palestinian Authority officials to “define the joint working processes, the Israeli security demands and criteria for the crossings with an emphasis on having no presence of any Hamas official or anyone on its behalf operating the crossings or be adjacent to them.”

VII. Conclusions: Will Palestinian Reconciliation Succeed this Time?< As stated above, the October 12 agreement between Fatah and Hamas is not the first such arrangement between the two political and paramilitary factions. Similar accords over the past decade were stillborn or failed to be implemented as planned. Therefore, based on the history and internal dynamics of relations between Fatah and Hamas, the prospects for successful implementation this time are dim indeed. Although the current accord includes specific provisions aimed at anticipating and mitigating issues that derailed past agreements, it does, however, leave many issues unanswered or totally ignored. Frankly, this places the agreement at the mercy of its signatories’ acts of commission and omission. In his excellent analysis of the agreement, Head of the Political Science and Media Department at Umma University in Gaza, Dr. Adnan Abu Amer, identified three principal issues that could derail it. These include:

  1. Who will control Gaza in the future?
  2. What will become of Hamas’s military wing?
  3. What will happen with Gaza’s government employees?

Other critics have identified additional built-in weaknesses that limit the chances of the agreement for success. Ghassan Khatib, former Palestinian minister and current lecturer at Birzeit University, points out that “Hamas has no incentive to allow Fatah to take on governance duties in Gaza, because Fatah cannot reciprocate and allow Hamas to join in governing the West Bank.” “The West Bank,” he explained, “is under Israeli control, and Israel most likely would not allow that.” Khatib concludes that “The Hamas reconciliation initiative was merely tactical.”

Another procedural, yet vital, shortcoming in the agreement is the fact that Fatah and Hamas seemed so anxious to reach a deal that they dropped their guard and, as pointed out by Elior Levy, have “decided to start from the easy part of the reconciliation, perhaps even the easiest,” but left many crucial questions unanswered. Unfortunately, these issues are likely to become deal-breakers faster than the parties anticipate, as established by more than thirty years of Arab-Israeli peace-processing.

Although the agreement attempts to deal with these sensitive issues gingerly, it has essentially relegated them to the Palestinian Authority without revealing any long-term commitment or understanding about such thorny matters. Consequently, the Palestinian people are left only with a positive tone, good intentions, and vague official statements. For many Palestinians, this situation is too chaotic for comfort and will not prove conducive to increasing public confidence in the deal, particularly upon hearing contradictory statements from both sides.

For example, Palestinian President Abbas insisted during the negotiations in early October that “We, in the West Bank, operate according to a single law and a single authority,” quickly adding, “We will not agree to the Hezbollah model.” In other words, as Fatah operatives are fond of saying: There is one authority, one law, and one security service in Palestine.

On the other hand, the Hamas leader in Gaza Yahya Sinwar left no doubt in everyone’s mind that Hamas will never disarm nor recognize Israel. He was quite adamant in stating that, “Gone is the time in which Hamas discussed recognition of Israel.” Regarding the issue of arms, he added, “No one will disarm us. No one can disarm Hamas.” Clearly, if these statements remain valid after the agreement was signed on October 12, it does not bode well for its durability or for the credibility of its signatories.

In reality, this agreement is the product of political manipulation between parties that lack confidence in each other’s strategic objectives. Fatah and Hamas signed this agreement for totally different reasons that remain irreconcilable in the long term. Fatah wants to restore its authority over Gaza in preparation for an anticipated negotiations process with Israel to settle the Palestine conflict. Hamas, on the other hand, has failed to govern Gaza and reached the point of abdicating its governance of the Strip in favor of Fatah to deflect responsibility to the Palestinian Authority before chaos prevails in Gaza. Unfortunately, both sides are setting each other up for failure at the expense of Palestinian national interests.

What will happen when the Palestinian Authority assumes “full power” in Gaza and demands that Hamas turns over its weapons to PA security? Will the newly recruited PA security be accepted in Gaza? Will the PA succeed in merging its civil servants with those appointed by Hamas since 2007? Will Hamas be allowed to fully integrate in the PLO? And most importantly, will the material resources become available to support the full implementation of this historic agreement?

These are the ultimate questions that will determine the success or failure of the agreement.

Khalil E. Jahshan is the Executive Director of Arab Center Washington DC.

1 Source is in Arabic.