By Nicholas Noe & Walid Raad
Seven months after the competing Palestinian factions signed a reconciliation pact, some Arab commentators say they may finally enact it. It's not that Fatah and Hamas are suddenly reasonable, they argue, but that they are out of other moves.
The factional split occurred in 2007. After winning legislative elections in 2006, Hamas, a militant Islamist group, took control of the Gaza Strip, limiting the authority of Fatah, the largest party within the Palestine Liberation Organization, to the West Bank. In advance of meetings that started this week in Cairo aimed at implementation of the pact, columnist Khairallah Khairallah wrote in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai al-Aam, "The Palestinians no longer have any other choice but that of national reconciliation.” He added, "Everyone needs reconciliation because everyone is at an impasse."
In September, Fatah's Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, which under Israeli-Palestinian accords is charged with limited self-rule over the Palestinian territories, submitted a request for UN admission of an independent Palestinian state. However, the Security Council never agreed to consider the matter, as Abbas intended, stating as a main reason that Palestinian power is divided between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Currently, peace negotiations offer Abbas no option for advancing the Palestinian cause, Khairallah wrote. All the Israeli and U.S. governments want, he charged, “is to negotiate for the sake of negotiations.” For Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “The negotiations have become a goal in themselves in order to pass time and to create a new reality on the ground,” a reference to expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Hamas, Khairallah noted, is faring no better. In its longstanding campaign against Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, Hamas has relied on the argument that violent resistance “represents the alternative to negotiations. But Hamas discovered that ‘resistance’ is not a solution and that the rockets it launched from Gaza in the direction of Israel were an expensive choice.”
Hamas's problems were compounded by the unrest in Syria, which has hosted the organization's top leadership for more than a decade. Wrote Khairallah:
The movement could not side with the regime that was using it and sheltering it, since this regime clashed with its people and with the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is an unbreakable part.
The UN estimates that more than 5,000 people have been killed in Syria since anti-regime protests broke out in March.
Recent news reports in the Arab media, subsequently downplayed by Hamas, have cited unnamed sources saying that Hamas leaders and cadres were leaving Damascus for Egypt and the Gaza Strip as part of a strategy by the movement to distance itself from its embattled patron.
“Negotiations are no longer an option, and ‘resistance’ is no longer possible,” said Khairallah. Both Abbas and Hamas, he said, are “fleeing forward.” Still, Khairallah was hesitant to conclude that a partnership could be consecrated.
Columnist Yusuf Rizqah was even less sanguine, writing in the pro-Hamas, Gaza-based Felesteen:
Without a doubt there are objective circumstances that prompted Hamas and Fatah to start a real reconciliation that would lead to a full political partnership. Nevertheless, the objective circumstances that push reconciliation into oblivion still exist.
Rizqah noted that Abbas and Hamas chief Khalid Meshal made a number of mutually supportive statements and concessions after they met in late November in Cairo, and the Palestinian media have been increasing expectations that this week's follow-up meetings could bring breakthroughs on several key issues. But he warned that U.S. objections, in particular, would likely prove too strong to overcome.
U.S. officials have rejected reconciliation unless Hamas forswears violence, among other conditions. And Israel objects to including East Jerusalem in new Palestinian elections, a demand that Hamas is now pressing. Thus Rizqah concluded that only a strong, politically costly "push back" by both Palestinian factions against the U.S. and Israel could bring reconciliation.
Are outside objections the only obstacles hindering a united front among Palestinians?
Abbas told journalists after his November meeting with Meshal that “there are no differences between us now at all, and we have agreed to work as partners who have one responsibility.” Meshal said, “We have turned a new, large and real page of partnership concerning all that is related to the Palestinian house.”
Yet columnist Tawfiq Wasfi wrote in the pro-Abbas Al-Ayyam that the Palestinian people are “confused, unsure and somewhat pessimistic about the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas.” They want to believe “the promises of a new political era” made in statements issued after that November meeting. However, security crackdowns by Fatah in the West Bank against Hamas and by Hamas in the Gaza Strip against Fatah only exacerbate existing divisions. Further, Wasfi wrote, some of the concessions reputedly made by either side are based on vague formulations that are unlikely to stand up to scrutiny. He concluded:
It appears that the strategy of both Fatah and Hamas is based on suspicion of the other and letting the other party know one has the upper hand. In these circumstances, we cannot even imagine an end to this suffering.
Even Abbas’s main mouthpiece in the West Bank, Al-Hayat al-Jadidah, while running several pieces in recent weeks filled with hope and praise for Hamas, also offered pointed criticism of some of “Hamas’s tools and spokespersons” who continue to “reproduce the old slogans” against Fatah, as columnist Adel Abdul Rahman put it.
Rahman went so far as to ask whether either of the two movements “are truly motivated to proceed with national reconciliation or is the use of this reconciliation temporary until this or that movement can exit its predicament?” It was an extraordinary statement, given that the paper falls under the purview of Abbas’s government.
(Nicholas Noe and Walid Raad are the Beirut correspondents for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are their own.)
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