North Africa, West Asia

Palestinian unity: a dream buried deep?

Neither Fatah nor Hamas are willing to accept power sharing, and the division between them is no longer merely ideological in nature.

Abdalhadi Alijla
2 May 2015

Palestinian women rally for peace between Fatah and Hamas. Yazan Majdi/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Almost eight years ago, destructive clashes erupted in the Gaza Strip between the Palestinians themselves. Hamas and the Islamic Movement were against both Fatah and the Palestinian National Authority’s (PNA) forces.

The result of this internal conflict was not only several thousands of casualties, including journalists, academics, militants and leaders, but also a political disaster comparable to the Nakba in 1948

Hamas, after winning parliamentary elections in 2006, was unable to rule due to their self-inflicted political and financial barriers. At the time, the international community and the Middle East Quartet (Russia, USA, EU, UN), asked Hamas to recognize Israel and abandon violence as a condition to pay PNA employee salaries. These employees were basically members or activists of Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

In 2007, as a result of the continued provocations carried out by a PA force established by Mohammed Dahlan to overthrow the elected Hamas government, Hamas retaliated using all means to gain control of the Gaza Strip, killing dozens of Fatah members.

For many years, it seemed that Dahlan was the most wanted and loathed person by Hamas. Several statements they issued in 2007-2008 clearly stated that their military actions were solely against Dahlan and his junta.

However, they were misleading the people, and in a very short period of time killed dozens of members of renowned families in Gaza as well as dozens of members of its rival Islamic parties, such as the Salafis and Islamic Jihad. As time passed, it became clear that Hamas was only interested in ruling Gaza, not fighting Dahlan or corruption.  

As violence erupted, the Arab League, Egyptian, Jordanian and Saudi governments mediated to avoid even more catastrophy, and Fatah and Hamas came to the negotiating table alongside Palestinian factions in Cairo and other Arab countries.

Prior to the “coup” in 2007, known as the Battle of Gaza, Palestinian political groups signed two power sharing and PLO reform agreements. Unfortunately, the principal agreement, the “Mecca Agreement”, was doomed in less than a month, as both Hamas and Fatah were clearly not ready to share power.

Hamas felt that the USA and EU were trying to bypass their electoral victory, as they directly dispatched finances to President Mahmoud Abbas’ office, supported the special forces led by Dahlan, and most importantly, somehow managed to shift public opinion in Palestine against Hamas.

When Hamas took over the Gaza Strip, it appointed its loyalists in both the public and civil sectors. New governmental institutions were created with their own employees, structure and hierarchy.

Prior to 2007, Hamas and Fatah had opposing ideologies. Since 2007, the differences between Hamas and Fatah and the PNA have been both ideological and institutional in nature. The settings and management of public policies and large human capacity prevent Hamas from bargaining bureaucratically with Fatah and the PA.

Hamas does not want to loose the minimal community support it has, especially in the aftermath of its wrongdoings in the Gaza Strip, and the unbearable humanitarian situation that resulted due to its miscalculations during the previous eight years.  

The long series of meetings and agreements are a clear indication that both parties, as well as their members, do not trust each other. A desire for revenge on Hamas’ fighters who killed Fatah members continues to linger.

Blocking Hamas’ financial channels played a decisive role in forcing it to go for a unity government. This funding was affected by numerous factors, such as Hamas’ stance towards the Syrian uprising and their accusation of the Syrian regime, which did not please Iran, a strong ally of the Syrian regime. Iran, as a result, stopped its funding, which had started in 2002 when Hamas lost its Gulf funders after 9/11.

Another crucial turning point was when the tunnels between the Gaza Strip and Egypt were closed. These tunnels averted Hamas’s ability to smuggle financial resources needed to sustain power. At this point, Hamas was no longer able to benefit from the taxes on goods smuggled from Egypt and as a result were unable to pay salaries to their employees for several months.  

This is why Hamas has surprisingly started to utter tones of acceptance of Mohammed Dahlan. They met his loyalists and facilitated his wife’s visit to the Gaza Strip. Moreover, they organized joint events including group weddings for Gazans.

Of course, Dahlan supported this due to his rival in the West Bank, President Mahmoud Abbas, accusing him of breaking the law, participating in killing many leaders and poisoning Arafat.

More recently, after several meetings since August 2014, Hamas and Iran appear to be reconciling. Iran is willing to continue funding Hamas, mainly the military wing and the hard line of Hamas’ leadership, Al-Zahar.  The reason for this is that Hamas has two blocs; the hardcore bloc led by Al-Zahar in Gaza is loyal to Iran; and another bloc led by by Khalid Misha’al that isn’t.

On the other hand, with current regional political changes, Saudi authorities have been calling Hamas’ leadership to take part in the new regional Sunni coalition they are trying to form with Turkey and Egypt against Iran. A clear sign of this is the war against Yemen's Houthis.

If Hamas accepts to stand with the Saudi coalition, the prize will be the Gaza Strip. Saudi Arabia can seduce Hamas by giving them the Gaza Strip with the help of Egypt, the US and Israel, as long as Hamas keeps the Gaza front calm. The coalition can convince Abbas to manage the Palestinian division by sharing power with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Of course, the Palestinian people are not taken into consideration in all these plans.

Another factor that stands against ending Palestinian division is the security issue and the armed militias. Hamas will not accept the return of the PA forces as they were prior to 2007; the PA and Fatah will not accept that Hamas keeps its weapons and militias as they are now.

Abbas, supported by many Arab nations and of course Israel, aims to de-militarize Hamas and the other militias. The two agendas will certainly not meet, and this is where the division will never end.  

Based on the above, it appears that nothing is going to change. Abbas’ advisor’s recent call on Arab forces to crack down on Hamas, and Hamas’ strong comeback are indicators that both sides are not willing to accept power sharing. 

Furthermore, the latest statements by Hamas, where the PA was accused of wanting security instability in the Gaza Strip, and the PA’s response, which was very unpleasant to say the least, further solidify that neither Fatah nor Hamas want to bridge the gap. Their intention seems to be to widen it strongly and consistently.

As such, the division between Fatah and Hamas is no longer of ideological nature. It is deeply rooted in the institutional capacities of both parties.

The hope to have real unity with one political strategy, one government and one legitimate authority sadly cannot be foreseen.

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