When Mubarak eventually stepped down in February 2011 to be replaced by an interim military administration ahead of parliamentary elections planned for later this year, there were mixed reactions in the Middle East. For Israel, Mubarak represented an ideal ally willing to work the 1979 peace treaty following the Camp David Accords in return for US aid and diplomatic support. Mubarak’s strong-armed regime kept a lid on the aspirations of civil society at home and closed Egypt’s southern border crossing into the Gaza Strip at Rafah. Thus the removal of Mubarak has created anxiety in Tel Aviv and Washington where the impetus toward democratic change in Egypt and other parts of the region offers the possibility of a reconfigured Arab position on the question of Palestine.
There is also evidence that the Arab uprisings have inspired a renewed assertiveness among the political actors in Palestine itself, with the call for UN recognition of a Palestinian state in a vote in the General Assembly slated for September. The Palestinian Authority has calculated that ‘in the absence of serious negotiations with Israel for a state, the UN route is their best option for furthering their cause’. And Israel clearly regards the vote as a threat to its international standing in diplomatic circles: according to the Israeli Haaretz newspaper, Tel Aviv has ordered its diplomats in embassies around the world ‘to convey that this would delegitimize Israel and foil any chance for future peace talks’. While a vote for Palestinian statehood may have only symbolic value given facts on the ground, it could force major European powers to take a stand on the issue and perhaps strengthen the Palestinian hand in future talks if the vote is carried with significant support from EU members. The Arab Spring therefore already appears to have had an impact on Palestine with Egypt’s conditional re-opening of the Rafah crossing and more pro-active, even-handed intervention in brokering the Cairo agreement.
Agreement in Cairo
The Arab Rebellion has given Fatah and Hamas reasons to re-assess their positions within Palestine and internationally. For Hamas, the weakening of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, a key ally in the region, has raised concerns within the movement which is headquartered in Damascus. Also, the emergence of Egypt’s interim administration as a more even-handed and trusted negotiator, a relationship not enjoyed under President Mubarak, has created a more reliable means of communications between Hamas and Fatah. For its part, Fatah may have seized the agreement as a means of bolstering its flagging popularity in Palestine following the release of WikiLeaks cables in December 2010 reporting that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Fatah movement had ‘established a very good working relationship’ with the Israeli Security Agency in 2007 following the Hamas takeover of Gaza. This revelation angered many of Fatah’s core supporters, given the level of Israeli oppression across the Occupied Territories.
An additional factor that may explain the Cairo agreement has been the rising level of frustration within Palestinian civil society at the political stalemate in the territory in a period of rapid change in neighbouring states. As one religious leader in Palestine said: ‘[p]eople are tired of the [Fatah-Hamas] split. They want real change; above and beyond the two factions. They want the real problems of the territories and its people addressed’ (Asia News, 5 March 2011). This growing impatience for change may have persuaded Fatah and Hamas that there was a real possibility that demonstrations like those in Tunis or Cairo could occur in Gaza and the West Bank.
The agreement calls for a caretaker government to prepare Palestinian presidential and parliamentary elections to be held concurrently within a year. But for these elections to be undertaken successfully the Cairo agreement needs to hold, which will be difficult given the violent recent history between the two sides. The Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens' Rights reported over 600 lives lost in total resulting from the internal conflict (Ynet News, 6 June 2007). The memory of those lost and the hatred that underpinned the violence will test all parties to the Cairo agreement.
What may sustain the agreement is the absence of any viable alternative to internal co-operation, with the Obama administration unwilling to draw Israel into meaningful negotiations. President Obama found himself humiliated last November by Israel’s refusal to halt the building of settlements for 90 days in return for twenty F-35 fighter jets and additional incentives worth $3billion. Also, the resignation of his Peace Envoy to the Middle-East, George Mitchell, in May 2011 after two years of diplomacy showed that the Middle-East peace process is going nowhere without US willingness to apply the stick as well as the carrot. It might be a different matter if Washington threatened a withdrawal of its annual subvention to Israel and the withholding of diplomatic support in the UN and other international institutions unless and until Israel becomes a genuine partner for peace. Only effective international intercession can halt the rapidly changing situation on the ground in the West Bank resulting from Israel’s strategy for the region.
Israel’s strategy in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) appears to have three key objectives. First to solidify the separation between Gaza and the West Bank through physical barriers that obstruct the movement of people and goods between the territories. The border between Israel and the West Bank, the wall with its associated infrastructure including Israeli only roads, closed military zones and settlements has not only ‘cantonised’ the West Bank but has resulted in 42 per cent of its land being off limits to Palestinians. By 2009, the unrelenting construction of Israeli settlements had already deposited 517,774 settlers in the West Bank alone. These realities of Israeli colonization in the West Bank combined with the blockade of Gaza renders a functioning Palestinian State as an organized political economy providing for the welfare of its citizens and in control of its borders and air-space an impossibility.
A second objective of the Israeli strategy appears to be one of fermenting division among the Palestinian people themselves, particularly the dominant political groups, Fatah and Hamas. When the Egyptian interim administration brokered an agreement between Fatah and Hamas in May 2011 ahead of elections in 2012, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described it as ‘a tremendous blow to peace and a great victory for terrorism’. In an address to the powerful Israeli lobby group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), President Obama described the agreement as ‘an enormous obstacle to peace’. In this Orwellian world of US / Israeli international relations reconciliation is a route to division and Palestinian unity a ‘victory for terrorism’. A less jaundiced view of the Cairo agreement was expressed by Ian Black in the Guardian when he said ‘[t]he agreement is, in its way, a version of the Arab spring shaking regimes from Libya to Syria and giving hope of change after years of impasse’. In fact, the Cairo agreement has represented the first sprinkling of hope to enter Palestine since the fracture in Fatah-Hamas relations following the 2006 elections.
The third objective is the presentation of Israel to the international media as a reasonable and ready partner in peace frustrated by the querulous and difficult factions in Palestine, while it relentlessly pursues its policy of altering ‘facts on the ground’, based on the calculation that ‘should the state eventually be forced into some kind of negotiated "compromise", the more land that has already been colonised then the more crumbs there are to toss from the table’.
In terms of greater Palestinian and Arab unity, there are two very significant ballots over the next year which will have an important impact on the future of the territory. First, the Egyptian parliamentary elections scheduled for November which will help shape Cairo’s future role in Palestine, particularly in managing the southern border with Gaza. And second, Palestinian parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for 2012. It is essential that the result of the Palestinian elections are accepted by the international community to strengthen democracy in the OPT and weaken the hand of extremists opposed to any form of negotiated settlement.
The democratic process would undoubtedly be strengthened by an immediate lifting of the Israeli blockade of Gaza which is illegal, immoral and a dehumanizing agent within the state of Israel as well as imposing great suffering on the people of Gaza. A recent poll has shown that ‘there is a cautious optimism’ among a slight majority of Palestinians regarding the building of the Palestinian economy following the recent rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas. The history of this region is littered with false dawns and agreements that have turned to dust, but the Arab Spring may pave the way for a more united Palestine with a stronger sense of its own agency for change.