Just as the split between the two main Palestinian political factions, Fatah and Hamas, seemed to reach its lowest point in recent years, Ramallah and Gaza miraculously realized that after all, they need each other.
While Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas hailed the agreement as the “final deal,” the truth is this document leaves a lot to be desired and discussed — and the two political rivals are far from the finish line. The main problem remains the fact that their disagreements are built into their respective political raison d’être.
The reconciliation deal signed in Cairo on Thursday ended a decade-long rift between Hamas, the hardline Islamists ruling Gaza, and the secular Fatah, spearheading the internationally recognized PA based in West Bank.
For 10 years, Hamas ruled a de facto para-state in the Strip and was in a perpetual state of borderline humanitarian catastrophe and devastating wars with Israel. A particularly strict set of sanctions from the PA, which tentatively maintained a certain level of cooperation with Gaza, managed to rearrange the Hamas leaders’ priorities.
Several weeks of intense negotiations yielded an agreement brokered by the Egyptian government, stipulating that the PA will resume full control of the Gaza Strip by December 1.
The deadline for handing control of Gaza’s border crossings with Israel and Egypt to the PA was set for November 1. Hamas also promised to solve the issue of tens of thousands of civil servants employed in Gaza’s administration and government, with February 2018 as deadline. In exchange, the PA will lift all sanctions it imposed on Gaza.
Faced with looming questions about previous failed reconciliation attempts, Fatah negotiator Azzam al-Ahmad did not go into tricky details.
“The Egyptian attempt this time was different from all the preceding ones, and it’s clear to everyone that Egypt is the national guarantor of security for the Arab world,” he said at a news conference.
So far, so good, but after the celebrations in the streets of Gaza City and Ramallah are over, several nagging questions will remain.
Is Hamas Really Hamas Without Its Weapons?
The focal point of negotiations leading to the reconciliation deal was the question of disarming Hamas, with Abbas repeatedly stating that he would not allow a situation similar to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
“The Lebanese model cannot be applied in the PA territories. If there is no unified rule and administration by institutions subservient to the rule of law, as in every normal country, there can be no talk of true national reconciliation,” a senior PA official told Haaretz ahead of Cairo meeting.
“There are two groups of weapons: There are the weapons of the government, the police and security services,” Hamas’ Politburo Chief, Ismail Haniyeh, responded in an interview with Egyptian television. “And there are the weapons of the resistance. Regarding the weapons of the resistance, as long as there is a Zionist occupation on Palestinian land, it is the right of the Palestinian people to possess weapons and resist the occupation in all of forms of resistance.”
If this sounds irreconcilable, that’s because it is. However, once the details of the deal were revealed, it seemed like Fatah compromised on its major non-negotiable position, agreeing to deploy 3,000 police members to Gaza. While that may seem like a formidable number, it pales in comparison to Hamas’ military wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, consisting of 25,000 soldiers.
Furthermore, Israel Radio quoted Egyptian media reports saying Hamas agreed it would not use its weaponry “unless a resort to force was approved by a joint panel” and would not consider disarmament “before a peace deal is reached with Israel.”
Although Hamas went through several attempts at refurbishing its image, naively advertised in the international media as “adopting a moderate stance,” it remained a hardline Islamist terror group bent on the destruction of the State of Israel and deeply intolerant of differing political visions.
If actions speak louder than rearranged semantics, one should not look further than Hamas’ decision to name Saleh al-Arouri as its deputy chief and lead negotiator with Ramallah. After he was released from jail in a massive prisoner exchange, Arouri allegedly orchestrated a kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers, which triggered the devastating 2014 Gaza war.
Ultimately, following the deal signing in Cairo, Arouri had no qualms about expressing Hamas’ trademark stance. “Palestinian unity is vital so that we can all work together against the Zionist enterprise, which seeks to wipe out and trample the rights of our people,” he said.
If Hamas won’t disarm until there is peace, but by its sole existence, it does not accept any peace that does not include the (highly unlikely) destruction of Israel, it is safe to say that everyone at the negotiating table understands the futility of dealing with this circular reasoning.
And, if Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States and the European Union, and therefore cannot be a part of any internationally recognized Palestinian government, why would Fatah try to reconcile, knowing that its foe-turned-friend’s gun could easily turn on it?
The answer lies in timing — the first whispers of reconciliation were heard in the summer, in the midst of the Gaza electricity crisis, caused by Ramallah’s refusal to subsidize its rival para-government in the Strip.
These talks should not be taken as the product of some sort of epiphany for Palestinian leaders — as cynical as it may sound, the reconciliation is a product of intertwined necessities for both sides.
Dark Summer in Gaza
In the beginning of the summer, Mahmoud Abbas delivered on his promise to step up sanctions for Gaza, including cutting down on payments for electricity supplies, released prisoners and salaries of PA employees in the Strip.
The move aggravated what is already a dire situation in the Gaza Strip. The enclave has been under continuous ground, air and naval blockade by Israel and Egypt since Hamas won elections in Gaza and ousted Fatah from the Strip in a conflict that almost turned into a civil war.
Although Hamas formed a de facto parallel government in Gaza, the PA still subsidized it. By 2017, Abbas grew tired of financing Ramallah’s political rivals, knowing that a humanitarian crisis in the Strip could only harm Hamas or Israel.
But just as it seemed that the measure might deliver a final blow to one political rival, another one resurfaced to turn on the light as Gazans’ saving grace, and Mahmoud Abbas’ worst nightmare.
Former Fatah member and PA security official in Gaza, Mohammad Dahlan, has spent several years in exile, but his presence is felt in the support he still enjoys on the streets and in the refugee camps of Palestinian territories, where he funds many charities.
Using his connections in Cairo’s political establishment, Dahlan temporarily alleviated the electricity crisis with emergency shipments from Egypt. By the end of August, he brokered a deal that would see the Gaza-Egypt border reopened, Qatar’s role in funding Gaza diminished and himself reinstated, with several of his closest aides returning from exile.
But Abbas could not let this pass. It would be an understatement to say the elderly Palestinian leader has overstayed his voters’ welcome — he was elected for a four-year term in 2005 and has refused ever since to organize elections that would most likely unseat him.
With a stalled peace process with Israel, intensified settlement building by Netanyahu’s government, internal division and a worsening economic situation, Abbas’ legacy was likely to perish with him. Things went from bad to worse when U.S. President Donald Trump assumed office, since he refused to officially commit to the two-state solution and failing to present any concrete plan for the talks with Israel.
For Arab leaders, entangled in various regional conflicts and major power shifts, Palestinians are low on the priority list, while Israel emerges as a desirable partner. Foreign funding for the PA, which is one of its main sources of income, has dropped by 50 percent compared to the last four years, constituting only a quarter of its budget.
With everything going against the Palestinians at the moment, it is understandable why Abbas feels vulnerable. The arguably pointless summer showdown with Israel at the Temple Mount may have reminded Israel that its sovereignty in Jerusalem has its limits, but it failed to put the Palestinian issue back on Arab leaders’ agendas.
While Abbas was busy making a statement, Dahlan worked out a deal, and the only way to counter him was to work out something greater, by standing on his bitter rival’s shoulders.
“Mohammad Dahlan has been pushed aside by Abbas once again, because at the end of the day, Abbas comes from the position of greater power. He is an elected Palestinian representative,” Fellow at the Mitvim Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, Ido Zelkovitz, told Intelligencer Post. “Clearly, Egypt used Dahlan, not the other way around — they may consider him an ally, but this time they decided to sacrifice him.”
Sit Back and Let the Egyptians Work
And sacrificed he was — for the greater good. Gaza under Hamas has been a headache for Egypt, as much as it was for Israel. Cairo’s internal struggles with Salafist movements — mainly Muslim Brotherhood, of whom Hamas is an ideological offshoot, and jihadists active in the Sinai Peninsula — pushed Gaza to the top of Egyptian regional agenda.
But this reconciliation truly showed what an intricate political game Cairo has been playing for a while. Egypt has been as strict with Gaza as Israel was, but during the electricity crisis, it found a way to use some soft power, emerging as Palestine’s savior alongside Dahlan.
Once Abbas was ready to sit at the negotiating table, Dahlan was no longer needed. As the talks intensified, the question of Hamas’ arms emerged, and many were rightfully doubtful when the conversation stalled.
However, rather than spearhead the issue, the Egyptians managed to pressure both sides into temporarily circumventing it with a symbolic deployment of 3,000 PA police officers.
If one looks closer, one cannot see anything concrete regarding the focal issues, but this may be intentional, rather than due to the incompetence of the deal’s sponsor. Egypt is perfectly capable of pressuring the Palestinians into compromise by exploiting rival factions’ vulnerabilities — Abbas’ desperate need for legacy, and Hamas’ desperate realization that it cannot govern.
The Israeli media characterized Netanyahu’s statement regarding the reconciliation as “tepid” and “restrained.”
“Any reconciliation between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas must meet the Quartet’s conditions — accepting international agreements, recognizing Israel and disarming Hamas. Israel objects to any reconciliation that does not include these components,” the statement read, but despite meandering from Netanyahu’s usual tough stance, it made perfect sense.
“The Egyptians have more tools and greater need to put pressure on the Gaza Strip than Israel. From the Egyptian perspective, it’s a serious threat to their national security. Cairo wants to make sure to cut all the ties between Hamas and Salafist movements in the Sinai Peninsula, so the smartest thing to do is let them deal with this,” says Zelkovitz. “Israel should not interfere or try to manipulate the outcome — if someone is making pressure, it should be Egypt or the Palestinian Authority.”
While Egypt may be wise to treat the problems one by one, without grandiose visions and solutions, one should remember that the Middle East is a volatile region, where public opinions and policies dramatically shift on a monthly basis.
So for how long can Egypt walk the line by restraining Hamas? This brings the story back to the basics — to the question of why there is such a deep rift between Fatah and Hamas in the first place.
While the two parties can agree on matters of small daily governance, their ideological core, a vision of Palestinian nation, society and future aren’t merely a set of different policies — they are mutually exclusive social contracts. In order for one to live, one has to disappear.
“Even when things seemed like they were going in his direction, Dahlan didn’t want to be a part of the alternative government in the Gaza Strip that would challenge the Palestinian Authority,” Zelkovitz noted about the politician who never had qualms about cooperating with foes, be it Hamas this summer, or Israel and the U.S. back in 2007.
It is up for discussion whether his decision was motivated by personal ambition or the greater good. Whatever the case may be, in both calculations, Hamas is a losing side.
The reconciliation, therefore, comes down to the truce, giving Fatah and Hamas time to lick their wounds. Both sides came to a painful realization that the world around them has changed, while Palestinians, to some extent, remained the same.
If Fatah, by its nature, has more capacity for a change, The Reconciliation might set the stage for Hamas’ departure. Whether it is a slow withering or a bang that may destroy Palestine’s statehood aspirations remains in the details that are yet to be built into the final picture.