Though the dramatic images of popular uprisings, mass mobilisations, and counter-revolutionary violence in North Africa and the Middle East have elicited the lion’s share of media attention in the past few weeks, the less spectacular unity deal signed between Hamas and Fatah on 27 April may have as much to tell us about the nature and future implications of recent shifts in regional, as well as international, power dynamics.
Revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia and popular mobilisation and uprisings elsewhere in the region have been domestically focused, concerning a litany of both political and economic malaises including corruption, poverty, rising food prices, inequality, unemployment, political repression, lack of meaningful citizenship and respect for human rights and civil liberties. Yet despite the best efforts of the US and its European and regional allies to ignore them, international and regional factors that enabled the domestic power structures to remain in place for so long have also been the focus of protesters’ grievances and demands.
In addition to expressing their anger at the long-term economic, diplomatic and military support provided by the US and EU states to their repressive rulers in the name of maintaining ‘order and stability’, spreading neoliberal economic ‘reform’, and, perhaps most importantly in the last ten years, ‘fighting terrorism’, protesters have also criticised the subservient role played by their leaders in promoting US foreign policy interests in the region, in particular vis-a-vis the Israel-Palestine ‘conflict’.
From the perspective of many of the actors involved in the Egyptian revolution in particular, their government’s complicity in Israel’s blatant and repeated violations of international law, aimed at the human rights and national aspirations of the Palestinian people, deserved just as much condemnation as western complicity in the crimes committed by their governments against their own people.
It is no surprise that amongst the demands for justice, accountability and transparency in the transitional process, one of the most prominent themes of recent protest has been the call for an end to Egyptian collaboration with Israel. The chants at one recent protest outside the Israeli embassy in Cairo included: ‘the people demand the cancellation of normalization’, and in reference to recent revelations of a 2005 deal in which Israel, relying on 40 percent of its natural gas needs from its southern neighbour, obtained submarket prices: ‘the gas must stop.’
Palestinian struggle in the ‘Arab spring’
It is not surprising because the Palestinian struggle itself paved the way for these revolutions. Palestinian social-political activist, Lubna Masarwa, cites a twofold influence: strategic and inspirational. In terms of strategy, Masarwa believes the uprisings have been greatly influenced by the long history of Palestinian non-violent resistance, itself part of a broader history of nonviolent anti-colonial struggle in the region, dating back to the 1936-39 ‘Great Revolt’ and including the civil disobedience and strikes of the First Intifada, as well as the current protests around the ‘Apartheid Wall’, and mobilisation of international solidarity through the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, and joint direct actions with international activists such as the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. The struggle has also served as a constant reminder and source of shame for Arab leaders. Their failure to confront Israeli aggression and sycophantic dependence on western economic and military support has, along with the manifold domestic grievances, further delegitimized their rule in the eyes of their populations and stood in stark contrast to the resilience and perseverance, or sumud, of the Palestinian resistance, in the face of gross injustice and unrelenting repression.
Now, changes that have been set in motion by the Egyptian revolution in particular, could have a massive impact on the Palestinian struggle. Under Mubarak’s leadership, and in an effort to maintain the flow of ‘peace dividends’ gained from its 1979 peace deal with Israel, Egypt’s role vis-a-vis the Israel-Palestine ‘conflict’ was essentially to help uphold the status quo, and to throw a spanner in the works whenever any development challenged this, such as Hamas’ unexpected success in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections. Signs that dramatic changes to Egyptian foreign policy were on the horizon were evident in early March with the appointment of a new cabinet for the interim government that included the career diplomat Nabil el-Arabi as Egypt’s new foreign minister. At a democracy forum in late February, el-Arabi expressed his opinion that Egypt’s foreign policy should be more in line with the country’s own interests, including ‘holding Israel accountable when it does not respect its obligations.’
It therefore came as no surprise to close observers of Egyptian politics when, in mid-March, el-Arabi sent a letter to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, warning it about the consequences of an escalation of military action against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, saying that ‘any military action against Gaza will have serious repercussions on the region as a whole’. Apart from discussing renegotiating natural gas deals between the two countries along lines more favourable to the Egyptian people, the foreign minister has made it clear that lifting the Israeli-imposed siege of Gaza - supported by the deposed Mubarak regime - is a main concern for the new government in Cairo.
With the new Egyptian Finance Minister, Samir Radwan, reflecting public opinion when he stated in relation to Israel, that Egypt did not need investments from ‘the enemy’, concern at the possible impact of Egypt’s transformation on US and Israeli interests in the region was evident in vice-president Jo Biden’s recent comments justifying the US decision to take a back seat in NATO’s Libya mission. ‘The question is: where should our resources be?’ he asked. ‘Should we be spending more time knowing everything there is to know about the make-up of the opposition in Libya, or should we be having all the intelligence that is available to know and reasonably could be known in what’s going on in Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood?’
Meanwhile, the ‘Palestinian unity’ file, previously in the hands of Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s former lead intelligence officer, the ‘CIA's Man in Cairo’ and ‘torturer in chief’, has been passed on to Murad Muwafi, who is regarded as less biased towards Fatah and more committed to supporting real unity. The first tangible outcome of these changes has been the unity deal signed between Hamas and Fatah with Egyptian support. Though the details of the deal remain ambiguous, they are rumoured to devise an outline for resolving some of the underlying issues that resulted in the long-standing tension between the two parties, including those relating to Palestinian governance, elections, human rights abuses, security cooperation and reform of the PLO.
The deal and the response
If the introduction of a more fair-minded, third party mediator to the process, has combined with the continuing reverberations of the Palestine Papers revelations, to persuade Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah to engage in a last ditch effort to shore up Fatah’s legitimacy, regional changes have also impacted upon Hamas’ strategic considerations. Mass uprisings and increased instability in Syria, where more than 15 members of Hamas's Political Bureau, including its Chief, Khaled Mesh’al, have been operating in exile since 1999, have forced the Hamas leadership to engage in contingency planning. Indeed, recent news reports, denied by Hamas, claim that the politburo is set to disperse, with Mesh’al moving to Qatar while his deputy, Musa Abu Marzouk, will go to Egypt.
Add to the mix a resurgent youth movement newly inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, and using similar social networking and new media tools to mobilise various sectors of Palestinian civil society in support of the unity cause. The unity agreement became the only logical option available to both parties.
Seasoned Palestinian activists like Ali Abunimah argue, however, that real unity can only be achieved once the interests of all Palestinians are adequately represented in the nationalist leadership. Unity of the Palestinian people, they argue, raises questions that go far beyond Hamas and Fatah constituents, to include the Palestinian citizens of Israel, as well as the millions of Palestinian refugees living in neighbouring states and further afield.
The US response has thus far has been predictable, with Tommy Vietor, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, saying, ‘The United States supports Palestinian reconciliation on terms which promote the cause of peace... Hamas, however, is a terrorist organization which targets civilians.’ The US and Israel continue to insist that they will boycott any government that includes Hamas so long as the Islamo-nationalist party refuses to abide by the Quartert’s prerequisites.
The UN has yet to make a definitive statement on the deal, with Ban Ki-moon saying the body would ‘study carefully the agreement as soon as the details are available.’ Meanwhile, Israel is pressuring the EU, which gives millions of dollars annually to the Palestinian Authority, not to recognise the new unity government unless Hamas fulfils the Quartet preconditions and despite Abbas’ guarantees that the PA would not be in charge of negotiations with Israel or other political issues.
As in 2006, today these demands ring equally hollow as the prerequisites approach ignores Israel’s disproportionate use of violence, persistent violations of international law and failure to recognise the human rights and national aspirations of the Palestinian people. It ignores the damage done to the social and economic welfare of Palestinians in both the West Bank and, especially, Gaza, where the Hamas-Fatah division, according to Oxfam and its local partners, has exacerbated the impact of the Israeli siege, with ‘ordinary people paying the highest price’.
The US–led ‘international community’ must recognise that the region’s geo-strategic environment is radically different today compared even to five years ago. This transformation is due not only to the shift that has occurred in domestic politics, made possible by the tearing down of the ‘walls of fear’ so carefully erected by the region’s dictatorial regimes over the years. It is also the result of changes to the balance of power that have occurred at the international level, due to the global economic crisis and various strategic and military failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. US and EU national interests will not be served by ignoring the newly emergent regional order and carrying on with politics as usual.
For the first time in more than 60 years, the fate of Palestine, like that of Tunisia and Egypt, seems to be less intimately tied to the whims of US hegemonic power. This is certainly a positive development for the people of the region. Depending on their response, it could also be a positive development for the US and the EU states.