Palestinian reconciliation: Grand deal or temporary settlement?
The parties who signed the reconciliation agreement on Thursday between feuding Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas managed to temporarily avert a critical stumbling block. Questions about the fundamental ideological divide that has played a central role in prolonging the division between the two organisations were left off the agenda.
But failing to address the root causes of the decade-long dispute raises the concern that conflict will continue to simmer, causing unity negotiations to be drawn out indefinitely in a process that is not dissimilar to the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
The agreement brokered by Egypt is brief and neutrally worded, outlining practical steps towards bridging the administrative division between the West Bank and Gaza. This entails the unification of official institutions in the Palestinian territories under a joint national government headed by Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas.
The final document leaves out any mention of criteria for peace with Israel, a unified national framework and armed struggle, all key points of disagreement between the rival sides.
The agreement was the outcome of mounting international and regional pressure to conclude a unity deal, however tenuous, after repeated failures in recent years. Faced with the threat of sanctions against the side accused of thwarting reconciliation as well as a steady erosion of public support, officials on both sides were left with no choice but to respond to these pressures and adopt a conciliatory tone on the way to forming a unified leadership.
Failing to address the root causes of the decade-long dispute raises the concern that conflict will continue to simmer
But in the absence of a parallel process to reconcile the priorities and national programmes of the two most powerful players in Palestinian politics, the plan to bring the Gaza Strip fully under PA control will fail to achieve political unity, and it may only be a matter of time before conflict erupts again.
Roadblocks on the horizon
The emerging agreement calls for the Fatah-backed technocratic government to assume full administrative control of the Gaza Strip by 1 December. This entails running all institutions without exception, including ministries, border crossings and the security apparatus.
Though follow-up meetings will be scheduled to work out the majority of the details, it took all of two days to draft an agreement which both sides deemed sufficient. The speed at which an understanding was reached defied both historical precedent (similar deals were proposed in Mecca in 2007, Cairo in 2011, Doha in 2012 and Gaza in 2012) and the predictions of onlookers familiar with the depth of the rift between the two rivals.
As regional powers intensified the push for reconciliation, and with significant momentum created by Hamas to end the political rupture in response to deteriorating conditions in the war-torn Gaza Strip, sensitive matters were either deferred to the final stage of negotiations or avoided altogether.
Topping the list is the future of Hamas's military wing, which the Palestinian president demanded the group dissolve as a condition for reconciliation.
Hamas's security infrastructure, including outposts, personnel and military, is the group's largest asset and the foundation of its status and perhaps existence as a resistance movement. The group has indicated that its military arsenal of missiles, artillery and drones, Gaza's first and only line of defence against repeated Israeli aggression over the past decade, are not up for debate.
A future political role for Hamas in any capacity could be difficult to reconcile with the PA's obligations to the Middle East peace process
Also absent from the discussions was the political programme of a future government, a key sticking point that has derailed talks in the past and could do so again. This is partly because of an Israeli-American demand for Hamas’s public recognition of Israel’s right to exist and that any future government, including members of Hamas, should recognise that right too.
A future political role for Hamas in any capacity could be difficult to reconcile with the PA's obligations to the Middle East Peace process. It is highly unlikely that Hamas will accept diplomatic efforts towards statehood recognition based on Fatah’s principles for establishing a Palestinian state and the conditions of the Middle East quartet.
Without a clear mechanism to address these questions, the notion of an effective partnership compatible with each party’s political programme is difficult to imagine. As such, rushing into an agreement not only undermines prospects for true and lasting national harmony but may end up prolonging Gaza's misery, interfering with the ability to launch a concerted national effort to end the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of the territory and rebuild its shattered economy.
Avoiding the tough issues
For the time being, long-term solutions are likely to take a back seat to more immediate concerns of the parties involved.
Hamas has entered the agreement with a clear objective in mind: to escape the burden of having to govern the blockaded enclave with increasingly limited funds and resources. Free from its obligations as a ruling authority, the movement can direct its efforts towards planning its next move and rebuilding its legitimacy in the Palestinian, regional and international arenas.
Solving Gaza’s problems will restore the PA's status as a national movement and enhance its authority after years of decline due to its failure to achieve peace for Palestinians
With few allies in the region after its patron, Qatar, came under embargo led by Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt, the movement found itself at an all-time low. Improved ties with Tehran, Hamas's largest financial and military backer, were likely to become a liability as the Islamic republic's relations with the US and the region decline further.
The PA-dominated unity government will assume responsibility for the welfare of Gaza's two million inhabitants, including reconstruction, providing an adequate electricity supply, deciding the fate of thousands of civil servants and negotiating with Egypt the fate of the Rafah border, to name just a few of the beleaguered territory's most pressing concerns.
Solving Gaza's problems will restore the PA's status as a national movement and enhance its authority after years of decline due to its failure to achieve peace for Palestinians.
Considered through this prism, a rapprochement between the movements was driven more by internal weakness and rivalry rather than a meeting of minds, adding to its fragility and affirming the need to fully clarify the scope and conditions of the unity agreement in order to avoid future conflict.
After the dust settles
Setting aside deep disagreements to advance political and factional interests is a theme that has played out repeatedly on the path to achieving reconciliation.
Hamas's temporary alliance with excommunicated Fatah strongman Mohammed Dahlan, a former opponent accused of torturing hundreds of its detainees in his former post as PA security chief, symbolises the purely tactical nature of these relationships.
Hamas will likely comply with the framework of the two-state solution on which the PA’s legitimacy is built, without openly endorsing its principles
More importantly, however, it offers a clue into the movement's plans to reconcile its national liberation strategy, with Fatah's vision for Palestinian self-rule and the political and security commitments that come with it. By working to improve relations with former opponents, including Dahlan, the PA and the Egyptian regime, Hamas is attempting to cast itself as a legitimate player on the Palestinian scene and a willing partner to the PA on the path to unity and beyond.
Hamas's pragmatic moderation is a way for the movement to market itself as a responsible political entity, a party, albeit a powerful one, among a constellation of factions on the national scene. In support of this goal, Hamas amended its charter ahead of the reconciliation agreement to emphasis national discourse over religious ideology, and has agreed without question to all proposed measures to restore the PA's effective control on Gaza.
Though not explicitly stated, Hamas will likely comply with the framework of the two-state solution on which the PA’s legitimacy is built, without openly endorsing its principles.
It is doubtful whether this strategy will succeed in convincing the PA and its partners to overlook the fact that Hamas would remain the most powerful armed faction, commanding a well-equipped 25,000-strong independent military power operating outside the PA's legal framework. Moreover, even if Hamas were to defer to the Palestinian authority on issues of self-rule in order to avoid internal conflict, the conditions of the international quartet, which require Hamas to in order to gain international recognition, will not change.
After Hamas's bitter experience of power, if the movement is to return as a political vehicle, it may actually have to temporarily take a step back by not participating in a future Palestinian government so as not to violate agreements signed by the Palestinian authority and risk isolation. This does not exclude a political role for the movement, which can participate strongly in political life through the legislative council.
To redeem itself, avoid reproducing the previous crisis over fundamental disagreements, and reach a permanent status agreement with the PA that ensures the provision of relief to Palestinians in Gaza, Hamas must be willing to temper its political aspirations and display pragmatism and flexibility where it counts.
- Safa Joudeh is an independent journalist and doctoral researcher at SOAS, University of London.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: A man flies Palestinian flags in the central Gaza Strip during celebrations after Hamas said it had reached a deal with Fatah, 12 October 2017 (Reuters/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)