Palestinian politics has long been divided. Issues as diverse as economic development and institution building are rarely tackled by the major parties along the same lines. Palestine’s most significant political groupings, Hamas and Fatah, have contrary strategic interests in “high politics” as well, with the former distrustful of the West and the latter owing its very survival to foreign donors. But the most complicated issue within the Palestinian political sphere is how to go about dealing with Israel, a country that the Fatah party has long tried to negotiate with.
The impasse between Hamas and Fatah started long before the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections but most Middle East observers consider that contest to be the jump off point for what has essentially become a fragmented Palestinian government.
After a stunning electoral campaign that painted Fatah as corrupt and incompetent, Hamas won the election and reestablished itself as the most important player in Palestine, at least politically. The United States, Europe and many Arab countries (except perhaps Syria) woke up the next morning with utter shock at Hamas’ overwhelming success. In a blink of an eye, the Fatah party that had dominated Palestinian politics since the emergence of Yasser Arafat was relegated to the lowest position it would ever know.
Understandably, Palestinian President (and Fatah leader) Mahmoud Abbas was upset about the results, remaining at his post with the full hearted support of Washington and their Europeans. The rift deepened a year later however when Hamas overthrew Abbas’ forces in the Gaza Strip, effectively taking territorial control over the small coastal area.
The Palestinian electorate has been divided ever since. The Palestinian Authority, with Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in the leadership, solidified themselves in their Ramallah offices and rebuilt the West Bank from the ground up. Hamas, meanwhile, was forced to transform itself from a religiously inspired anti-Israel ideological movement into a legitimate administrative apparatus. Gaza Strip residents, suffering immense poverty relative to their West Bank counterparts, were now under the command and control of a young Hamas cadre learning on the job.
The Hamas-Fatah split may have been traumatic for the Palestinians but it proved to be an opportunity for Israel under Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu to push for a harder line in negotiations. Israeli settlements were expanded deep into the West Bank as the weakened Palestinian Authority controlled just half of Palestinian territory. The division also provided Israel with a chance to pressure Hamas in new ways, just as the Islamist movement was attempting to change course and assert itself as a government.
It surely sounded like a dismal situation in an otherwise never ending conflict. That is until this past Wednesday, April 27, when Hamas and Fatah party officials wrapped up talks and produced a reconciliation package.
The contents of the accord, which calls for a national unity government, an expansion of Hamas’ role in the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the promise of elections within a year, are still being studied by American, European and United Nations officials. But even as the details are meshed out, and the signing ceremony has yet to be planned, the agreement demonstrates to the world at large the readiness and desire of all major Palestinian leaders to cast aside old wounds for the sake of future unity.
Why, after a long four years of division, have Hamas and Fatah finally worked out their differences? There are a number of possible answers, one of which is a fear by Palestinian leaders of losing their status and legitimacy amid the popular demonstrations that have already overthrown two autocratic governments in the region. Over the past few weeks, Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank protested in front of their ministries for a political deal that would unite the parties and, in the process, unite the state. Sensing that the people’s patience had worn thin, Abbas and his Hamas colleagues launched a new round of intra-Palestinian negotiations, maybe to calm the protests.
That scenario is plausible but there is another justification that has thus far been ignored — a unity deal with Hamas adds more credibility to Abbas’ push for a sovereign and independent Palestine at the United Nations.
Abbas and Fayyad have gained widespread acceptance of Palestinian statehood over the past four months, most notably in South America where Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela have all endorsed their plans. Those cases, however significant, are only the start of the Palestinian Authority’s drive to win an independent state from the General Assembly this September. With Hamas on board, Abbas can claim that the Palestinians are no longer fighting among themselves and therefore ready to obtain the statehood that all Palestinian civilians desire. This claim may not be entirely accurate but it serves as a bolt of energy for the pro-Palestine camp.
Reconciliation agreements between Hamas and Fatah have been ongoing before, and it is premature to think that Hamas will abandon its platform of resistance now that they are an integral part of Palestine’s national coalition government. But this accord is an important step, both for Palestine’s image in the world and for Palestinian nationalism itself.