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Last Wednesday the Fatah-led Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and Hamas announced a national unity deal to end eight years of division between the two largest Palestinian parties. In response the Israeli government withdrew from peace talks ending the nine-month Kerry initiative of the US secretary of state.
Since the agreement is not unprecedented, with previously unfulfilled agreements in 2011 and 2012, Palestinians have reacted to it cautiously and more than a few commentators have even decried the reconciliation as ‘stillborn’. However there is some hope, even if minimal, that this agreement might yield better results.
Firstly, this time round the agreement has been signed with the Gaza-based leaders of Hamas as opposed to its far less influential exiled leadership. Secondly, both groups signed the agreement in the midst of experiencing serious crises and have an interest in its implementation. For Hamas, various factors have intensified the Israeli siege of Gaza, such as the overthrow of the Morsi government in Egypt, the loss of its operations in Syria, reduction of Iranian support, the Saudi-led suspicion of everything related to the Muslim Brotherhood and especially the closure of the tunnels leading into Egypt. They simply need to find partners for existential reasons.
As for Fatah, its policy of negotiating with Israel has led to another dead-end especially with the US supporting the new Israeli demand for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Abbas’ leadership has suffered a serious decrease in popularity and by signing this deal he stands to cement his place as the legitimate Palestinian national leader. So, unlike previous agreements which did not lead to any concrete steps because both parties viewed compromise as a loss in their power, both Hamas and Fatah stand to gain from this agreement.
Thirdly, without the presence of external mediators, such as Egypt or Qatar in the previous instances, the two factions have initiated this agreement on their own accord. Another factor that gives cause for some optimism relates to the PLO’s official recognition of Hamas and Islamic Jihad as legitimate actors within the Palestinian political spectrum. This recognition can lead to unified demands and the chance of reaching a settlement with Israel that will be more acceptable to greater section of Palestinians. Feeling empowered when pitted against Israel is important for both groups because their division has not only emboldened Israel to continue with its siege of Gaza but also its colonialist expansion into the West Bank.
Nonetheless, for this last eventuality to transpire Israel also needs to recognize Hamas as a partner in the peace process. This is where complications arise. Israel’s position on Hamas, unless radically altered, does not allow any room for future negotiations. The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, had warned Abbas that he cannot choose both reconciliation with Hamas and negotiations with Israel. The Israelis, along with the US, are bent on viewing Hamas as a terrorist organization ‘dedicated to the destruction of Israel’, despite Hamas’ repeated offers for an indefinite peaceful coexistence under the terms of a hudna (truce). Yet, Israeli intransigence does not necessarily signal a death blow for reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. Rather, it gives them a chance to re-strategize on the question of confronting Israel.
The immediate effect this reconciliation can have vis-à-vis Israel is to highlight how farcical the Israeli and US governments' demands have been on the question of finding a legitimate Palestinian dialogue partner.
While it has castigated Fatah for not being representative of the Palestinian population, it has also simultaneously ruled out dialogue with Hamas. It was evident that there is a growing recognition of such manipulative tactics by Israel in the questions the US State Department spokesperson had to contend with upon announcing disagreement with the Palestinian unity deal. However, what is more significant is the fact that the European Union applauded the agreement, saying that such an understanding was an ‘important element for the unity of a future Palestinian state and reaching a two-state solution’.
This opening with the EU might be the signal the Palestinian unity government needs to rethink its previous approach on dialogue with Israel. It would involve recognizing the failure of talks and US mediation and continuing with the efforts to sign international treaties and join the International Criminal Court and other UN bodies.
Of course while pursuing such a path the Palestinian Authority would have to contend with many issues, such as financial strangulation from the US and Israel. But this also presents an opportunity, because in finding such independence from the US and Israel, the Hamas-Fatah government might involve other international players, such as the EU and the Gulf states, to offer their support for the revamped Palestinian Authority. This is obviously a tall order and hardly a guaranteed path to a two-state solution. It might be the case that eventually Palestinians will have no option but to resort to a popular South African-style struggle in a one-state solution instead of a diplomatic path to peace envisioned under the Oslo accords. However, in the interim, such a step would highlight the futility of the last twenty one years of the alleged ‘peace process’ and the united-will of the Palestinian factions to ponder alternate paths to their independence and sovereignty.
Is this likely to occur? Is the Fatah-Hamas deal a signal that Palestinian political groups are ready to envision a joint strategy beyond the parameters set by and beneficial to the Israeli government? The larger point is that the Fatah-Hamas agreement should not just be viewed as an exercise in inevitable futility. It allows for some hope even if it is heavily tinged with the bitter memories of past attempts.