The Palestinian Reconciliation: A Shotgun Marriage

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Fatah and Hamas, the leading Palestinian factions that parted ways amid much bloodshed four years ago, are announcing a tentative agreement to form a unity government.  If it holds up, the reconciliation would mark a dramatic shift in the Israeli-Palestinian equation, in which the Palestinians move away from endless rounds of largely fruitless “talks” and toward a new dynamic characterized by independence from Washington or any other concern beyond the voters they have abruptly decided to consult after all.

It’s a clear consequence of the Arab Spring. Reconciliation would answer the most immediate demand of the Palestinian rank and file, which in repeated surveys — and just a handful of public demonstrations — has made clear the first priority of the Palestinian cause is to end the schism that left 1.5 million residents of the Gaza Strip with one government, controlled by the Islamic Resistance Movement, also known as Hamas, and the 2.5 million West Bank residents under the rule of Fatah, the secular faction driven out of Gaza by Hamas fighters in 2007.  Neither faction enjoys strong popular support, and both appeared spooked by a youth movement that, in an effort to channel the people power of the Tunisia and Egypt,  last month organized demonstrations in both Gaza and the West Bank urging an end to the division. Indeed a Fatah negotiator paid tribute to the efforts of “Palestinian youth” at the Cairo news conference where the agreement was confirmed.

But, like Fatah’s efforts to ask the U.N. General Assembly to recognize a sovereign Palestinian state this September, the move also forecloses any immediate deal to win the ultimate goal — an end to the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian territory. As a practical matter, withdrawal can come about only through negotiations with Israel. But Hamas has refused to recognize Israel’s right to exist, a precondition for talks held to firmly by both Israel and Washington, where the Obama administration on Wednesday immediately issued a statement repeating the demand.   Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu laid down his marker a month ago, publicly warning Fatah, which controls the Palestinian Authority: “You can’t have peace with Israel and Hamas.  It’s one or the other, but not both.”

Netanyahu went on television to repeat the warning Wednesday night, adding a dig: “The idea of reconciliation with Hamas demonstrates the weakness of the Palestinian Authority and makes one wonder whether Hamas will seize control of Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] the way it seized control of the Gaza Strip.”  That, in fact, is an abiding fear of the Israeli government, which for the last several years has worked closely with the PA to suppress Hamas on the West Bank.  But that cooperation, which leaves Fatah vulnerable to charges of “collaboration” with the occupier, has paid Fatah no political dividends: Israel has offered no concrete concessions on territory that Fatah leaders can point to, and senior Israeli officials plainly say none will be forthcoming.

It was unclear in the immediate rush of events whether Fatah’s security cooperation with Israel — a major reason for the precipitous drop in terror attacks in recent years — would be a casualty of the reconciliation with Hamas. Initial reports indicated Hamas would continue to handle security in Gaza and Fatah would do the same on the West Bank,  but a shared promise to stop “political arrests” may mean fewer Hamas loyalists are swept up by Palestinian Authority forces in Hebron and Ramallah.  Such details were among many that remained to be worked out.  The joint statement issued by both factions referred daintily to “formation of a caretaker government for certain tasks until the next parliamentary election.”

“It’s a kind of an outline draft,” Hamas official Ghazi Hamad told Al Jazeera English. “It is a good beginning.”

So: The caretaker government  is to be staffed by “technocrats” agreed by both sides. The elections will come next year, not in September, as Fatah proposed.  But who knows where  things will stand a year from now?  This rapprochement, considered laughable  as a prospect just months ago, was shepherded by an Egyptian government transformed by the Tahrir Square revolution into a broker that Hamas was willing to trust.  Hosni Mubarak, the ousted president, disdained the group, with its roots in the Muslim Brotherhood he despised, while openly favoring Fatah, which so feared Mubarak’s downfall it put down impromptu demonstrations in Ramallah supporting the Egyptian people calling just that.

But just as Fatah saw its patron fall to angry crowds, Hamas is seeing an uprising convulse Syria, where it keeps its headquarters.  Clearly the prudent move was to pay swift and heartfelt heed to the desires of their own constituents. Which were clear enough in a recent survey by Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki.  After watching the uprisings in Arab states, Palestinians  “want to emulate it, in the West Bank and Gaza,”  Shikaki reports. “The fury, the anger with their own government is more deeply seated in Gaza. Two thirds of Gazans and more than three-quarters of the young want regime change.”

On the West Bank, the pollster says, only a third of people wanted a new government. But folks in  neither territory were inclined to put their faith in anything but direct action. “Diplomacy and negotiations is the last thing on their minds,” Shikaki says. “They don’t think it’s going to happen.”