Fatah-Hamas Agreement Starts Palestinians on a Rocky Road to Independence

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Ignoring the objections of Israel and the United States, the rival Palestinian movements Fatah and Hamas have agreed to bury their differences – well, not exactly bury them, but at least to pursue them through democratic competition, rather than via a civil war. Hamas won the last elections, in January 2006, but Fatah — spurred on by the Bush Administration — refused to allow the Islamist party to govern. The resulting standoff ended in a violent showdown in 2007 that saw Hamas militias take control of Gaza. Since then, an authoritarian Fatah administration has run the West Bank, while an authoritarian Hamas administration has controlled Gaza. But despite Wednesday’s promises to “close a dark chapter” in Palestinian history, it’s not entirely clear just what Fatah and Hamas have agreed, and how they plan to overcome some of the major obstacles on the ground to implementing the accord.

The broad outlines of the new accord, brokered by Egypt’s post-Mubarak military rulers who have broken from the U.S.-Israeli script on Hamas, are simple enough: Fatah and Hamas will pick a unity government composed of unaffiliated technocrats, tasked with preparing for new elections that will be held within a year. President Mahmoud Abbas will remain in his executive position despite his term of office having expired, as will the Hamas-dominated Palestinian legislature, whose term has also expired.

Abbas would be free to pursue any negotiations with Israel – although the peace process was on the rocks even before the Palestinian unity agreement, which the Israelis say precludes talks with Abbas. Political negotiations with Israel are conducted not by the Palestinian Authority, but by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) of which Abbas is the chairman.

Hamas is not part of the PLO, although its leaders have been agitating for a democratization of the body recognized by the United Nations as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.” The new agreement instructs the unity government to prepare not only for new PA elections, but also for Palestine National Council (PNC) elections — the PNC is the broad leadership body of the PLO, although it has never been directly elected.

Wednesday’s agreement specifies that the unity government not operate in conflict with the PLO leadership, which would mean it can’t prevent Abbas from negotiating with Israel or from going to the U.N. General Assembly in September to seek recognition of Palestinian statehood. Not that Hamas intended to do that, anyway:¬†Hamas officials say they won’t object to further peace talks, despite their abiding skepticism that such talks can produce any gains for the Palestinians. And, as Hamas leader Khaled Meshal said at the signing ceremony, “Our aim is to establish a free and completely sovereign Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, whose capital is Jerusalem, without any settlers and without giving up a single inch of land and without giving up on the right of return (of Palestinian refugees).” As a negotiating position, that may be a non-starter for Israel, but it remains within the bounds of the two-state concept.

On the new government, Hamas has insisted that Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, a Western favorite, cannot keep his job. That demand may enjoy considerable support even within the Fatah leadership, much of which sees the former World Bank official as having been appointed Prime Minister at the behest of the Bush White House in 2006, rather than elected by Palestinians. But because Fayyad is a trusted conduit for Western aid monies to the PA, Abbas may hope to keep him on as finance minister. (Fayyad is not a affiliated with either Fatah or Hamas.)

A trickier problem concerns prisoners: Although the agreement signed on Wednesday makes no mention of the issue, it has been reported that the two factions were seeking agreement to release Fatah prisoners held in Gaza, and Hamas prisoners held in the West Bank. The latter represents a huge security challenge, however, ¬†because the PA security forces in the West Bank, coached and funded by the U.S. and assisted by the Israelis, have detained hundreds of Hamas activists. Israel won’t accept their release, and could well move to grab them itself — which would provoke a security crisis.

Washington has been building Palestinian security forces and the governing capacity of Fayyad’s administration as part of a war against Hamas. Now that Abbas has called a halt to that war, it’s far from clear how the security architecture on the West Bank will change — and the agreement is vague to the point of being inscrutable on this issue, specifying only that Abbas would form a “Higher Security Committee” of professional officers based on consensus. (This could mean, simply, that Hamas security forces remain in control of Gaza while Fatah’s control the West Bank, and Hamas maintains its informal cease-fire with Israel.)

But the security issues also cloud the political ones: The reason that the Palestinian Legislative Council has not met, for example, is that Israel has locked up enough legislators from the Hamas majority to prevent a quorum being achieved. (That’s suited Abbas until now.) Even now, Israel holds enough of those legislators to prevent Hamas seating a legislative majority. And, of course, Israel has hardly bought into Abbas’ new deal with Hamas.

A democratic election a year from now would require political freedom in both Gaza and the West Bank — something tolerated neither by Hamas nor by Fatah. Even if both sides changed their authoritarian ways, would the Israelis allow Hamas to campaign openly in the West Bank and East Jerusalem? Unlikely. And no matter what Fatah and Hamas agree, the Palestinian polity continues to operate within limits set by the Israeli occupation.

It’s also worth remembering that this is not the first Hamas-Fatah unity agreement: Indeed, it was precisely the breakdown over implementing the last one — brokered by Saudi Arabia in early 2007 — that triggered the violent power struggle that saw Hamas take control of Gaza. It’s quite conceivable that this one will break down, too. Then again, what’s different now is the fact that Mubarak has gone — and with him a willingness of the Egyptians to enable a war against Hamas — swept away by an Arab spring that no longer tolerates its leaders cooperating with U.S. and Israeli interests at the expense of the Palestinians. Then there’s the growing recognition in the West and the Arab world that the Bush Administration’s policies aimed at toppling Hamas have failed. And, of course, the fact that Hamas-Fatah reconciliation is the key consensus demand of the grassroots base of both parties.

So, even while there’ll be plenty of roadblocks and land-mines along the way, the unity government appears to signal a new path by the Palestinian leadership that takes it increasingly outside of Washington’s orbit. The “peace process”, as we knew it, is dead, and the rules of the Middle East game have changed. That doesn’t necessarily mean no peace, but it does mean that getting there will require a new process whose terms may be quite different.