The ongoing disunity among the Palestinians is a major obstacle to their ability to politically resist the Israeli occupation and gain international credibility. Understandably, and healthily, the forces who have struggled for Palestinian self-determination have never been monolithic. Throughout the years they have reflected the diversity within Palestinian society in terms of views, values and also geographical dispersion.
However, until the appearance in the 1980s of the religious fundamentalist elements, Palestinian society and its representative organs have been in essence secular and more coherent in term of their objectives. The emergence of Hamas, and to a lesser extent Islamic terrorism, were watersheds on the Palestinian political scene and dramatically changed it: Since then it has developed independently of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which for decades was regarded as the sole representative of the Palestinian people and their cause.
In 2006, less than 20 years since its formation, Hamas won a shocking victory in the elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC). Those elections represent the political zenith of the movement, when it won more than half of the seats in the Palestinian legislature. Nevertheless, due to its fundamentalist ideology, its rejection of the Oslo Accords, and its refusal to abandon the armed struggle, its ascendance to power also spelt a long period of Palestinian disunity, several rounds of bloody hostilities with Israel, and international boycotts. At the end of a short, though deadly, armed conflict between the two leading Palestinian political parties in 2007, there emerged dual governments, one in the West Bank led by Fatah, and the other in Gaza led by Hamas. Since then no elections have been held in Palestine, leaving both leaderships suffering from a severe legitimacy deficit.
This abnormal situation has ended up serving some vested interests among the Palestinians and those in Israel who are using it as a pretext for not reaching a comprehensive and just peace. Attempts at reconciliation or forming a unity government have failed time and again, mainly because there has not been enough appetite among the leadership of both sides to make the necessary concessions and relinquish or share some of their powers. Israel has whipped Mahmoud Abbas repeatedly at every such attempt, conveniently and disingenuously accusing him of shifting closer to the Hamas position — heaven forbid that it might be the other way round, with Hamas slowly and pragmatically, though reluctantly, moving towards accepting the Jewish state as a fact of life.
The most recent Egyptian diplomatic effort to reach this elusive reconciliation stands a better chance than previous attempts, as it takes place at a point in time when the interests of Fatah and Hamas, as well as a number of regional powers, are in alignment. The situation in Gaza is steadily and worryingly deteriorating. The cruel Israeli blockade, Egypt’s closure of the Rafah crossing, and the Hamas government’s preoccupation with ideology and ensuring its own survival in power, are inflicting terrible misery on the people of Gaza.
Full reconciliation might still be a remote aspiration but restarting a process which results in a single political system for both Gaza and the West Bank is of vital importance for both parts of Palestine and for the sake of improving the daily lives of ordinary people.
According to one UN agency, by 2020, less than three years from now, the territory will be uninhabitable. Four hours of electricity a day, chronic shortages of water, and a near total ban on the movement of people in and out of the Gaza Strip, not to mention reduced support from Qatar due to its rift with other Arab countries, are piling the pressure on the Hamas government to adjust its positions. Conditions have worsened in the last few months as a result of Abbas’ decision to stop paying for Gaza’s electricity and reduce the salaries of public service employees, who have been on the PA’s payroll for many years. With no alternative to these resources, the lives of many have become even more intolerable.
Repairing the fractured Palestinian political system has also become an acute concern for Egypt. With the growing threat of extremists in Sinai, it became necessary for Egypt to block their movement between Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula with the help of the Hamas authorities in Gaza. For Abbas, this may provide the last chance to assert the leadership of the Palestinian Authority and the PLO over Gaza at a relatively low cost.
Reconciliation in the fullest meaning of the word might be still a remote aspiration. Yet, restarting a political process which results in a single political system for both Gaza and the West Bank is of vital importance for both parts of Palestine, for the sake of improving the daily lives of ordinary Palestinians and for standing any chance of negotiating successfully with Israel towards interim arrangements or a final status agreement.
Last week’s visit by Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah to Gaza, and the understanding it achieved, are positive signs that both political systems might be brought under one roof. Yet, it would be naive to think that the road towards this aim is not going to be bumpy, let alone a sure thing.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. Twitter: @YMekelberg