The Persistent Illusion of Palestinian Reconciliation

Representatives of 14 Palestinian political factions, including Fatah and Hamas, were invited to the Egyptian coastal city of El-Alamein on July 30, 2023 for reconciliation talks hosted by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Facing challenges from the recurrent and increasingly violent onslaught by Jewish settlers and Israeli occupation forces throughout the West Bank since the beginning of the year, and from political fallout caused by the unprecedented political upheaval unfolding in Israel over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s so-called judicial overhaul, Palestinian leaders of various factional affiliations are concerned about both their own eroding popularity at home and their growing marginalization abroad.

On the one hand, the leadership in Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority (PA), is facing severe criticism from Palestinians due to political paralysis and their inability to serve their restless constituents. Many critics are focusing on the PA’s failure to protect refugee camps and Palestinian towns and villages targeted by Israeli troops and settlers, including those in Area A, where the PA is granted power under the Oslo Accords to administer both civil and security affairs. On the other hand, the PA is also being blamed for failing to respond effectively and to take advantage of recent political developments and unrest in Israel. Indeed, as reflected by successive public opinion polls, the overwhelming majority of Palestinians blame the ineffective and fractured institutions of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and other factions for their inaction and their failure to rise to the occasion in defending Palestinian national interests. More importantly, they accuse them of failing to protect individual Palestinian lives at this critical juncture of growing confrontations with Israel.

The leadership in Ramallah is facing severe criticism from Palestinians due to political paralysis.

The meeting in Egypt did admittedly raise restrained hopes in the region, particularly among Palestinians and other Arabs invested in the process, that Palestinian factions might overcome their political differences this time around and achieve some measure of a long-awaited national reconciliation. However, given the dismal record of similar gatherings, which have never been able to put an end to factional divisions and hammer out a modus vivendi conducive to cooperation and peaceful coexistence, public skepticism among both Palestinians at large and keen analysts remains high, despite this recent resumption of reconciliation talks.

The Elusive Goal of National Unity

Palestinian unity has been a widely popular yet elusive national objective since the very inception of the Palestinian national movement in the mid-to-late 1960s, which seeks self-determination and independent statehood in all or in parts of historic Palestine. Indeed, as the movement fragmented over time into numerous political and military factions and organizations with competing missions, goals, and strategies, the Palestinian people’s yearning for a semblance of functional unity became an assertive and prevalent component of Palestinian public opinion in the occupied territories, as well as in the diaspora, despite the lack of progress in countless diplomatic attempts at realizing such a modicum of cooperation or partnership.

With Hamas’s humiliating defeat of Fatah and its takeover of the Gaza Strip in June 2007, Palestinian differences became more acute and institutionalized. This allowed Israel and the rest of the international community to deal with a divided Palestinian entity, which rendered the already difficult possibility of resolving the Palestine conflict with Israel even more remote because it deprived the PA in Ramallah of the option of claiming full representation of the Palestinian people, as the PLO was once able to do. Public opinion in Palestine became more focused on the demand for reconciliation, a clearly less ambitious goal than unity, as a national priority.

Over a dozen attempts at reconciliation between the two factions have failed to bear fruit.

Consequently, over a dozen attempts at reconciliation between the two factions were sponsored by countries like Algeria, Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Turkey, Russia, and others. Several agreements were reached and widely touted as victories, including the Mecca Agreement (2007), the Sanaa Declaration (2008), the Cairo Agreement (2011), the Doha Agreement (2012), the 2012 and 2014 Cairo Agreements, the 2020 Fatah-Hamas Agreement, and the Algiers Agreement of 2022. The results were not positive or lasting by any standard. No wonder certain Arab governments and their respective publics have become disinterested and indifferent about being involved in what they perceive as a futile exercise.

The politically savvy Palestinian public was not immune to drawing the same conclusion. According to polls conducted regularly over the past decade by various local polling initiatives, including the authoritative Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR), an overwhelming majority of Palestinians (74 percent) consider reconciliation efforts between Palestinian factions, including Fatah and Hamas, as unserious or insufficient, while 81 percent continue to express pessimism about their success under the current Shtayyeh government. Only a meager 16 percent expect potential success in 2023.

Is Palestinian Reconciliation Feasible?

Palestinian reconciliation is not impossible. However, as evidenced by the abovementioned list of failures, the process requires a thoughtful redefinition of the objective and a significantly more serious commitment by the parties to pursue it—two requirements that remain missing from the current political domain in Palestine. Furthermore, it is quite clear that the absence of democracy and democratic practices—including parliamentary and presidential elections—in Palestinian politics has been a major impediment to this endeavor. Consequently, Fatah has failed miserably in its effort to govern democratically while Hamas and other factions of various ideological persuasions—whether secular or sectarian, progressive or conservative—have also failed to serve as effective opposition to keep the authoritarian tendencies of Fatah’s leadership in check.

Fatah has failed miserably in its effort to govern democratically while Hamas and other factions have also failed to serve as effective opposition.

Naturally, these are not the only challenges faced by the stateless population in Palestine, which is controlled by a formidable and protracted occupation. However, the failure of Palestinian leadership—both the PLO and the PA in the West Bank, as well as Hamas in the Gaza Strip—to circumvent the unyielding restrictions imposed through 56 years of Israeli occupation by establishing the basic institutions for an independent state is unacceptable and unjustified by any standard. Therefore, one cannot blame the 50 percent of residents in the West Bank and Gaza Strip who conclude that their interest as Palestinians lies in the PA’s dissolution or collapse.

The Outcome of the El-Alamein Meeting

Although it may be premature to pass final judgement on a summit that ended just a few days ago in El-Alamein, all indications thus far point to the fact that the talks, like the many rounds that have preceded them since 2007, ended with no significant progress. Arab and international media outlets covering the event reported that the participants in this round of reconciliation talks succeeded only in forming an “intra-Palestinian reconciliation committee” to follow up on their deliberations toward bridging existing divisions.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas continues to insist on returning to “a single state, a single system, a single law, and a single legitimate army.” Frankly speaking, however, the formation of another committee to pursue the elusive matter of reconciliation is nothing short of another moral and political catastrophe. Tragically, attempts at achieving national reconciliation clashed with factional divisions at El-Alamein, and once more lost the battle. Meanwhile, reports from the occupied West Bank indicate that the number of Palestinians murdered by Israeli troops and settlers since the beginning of the year has reached 207, including 35 children.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: WAFA