The decade-long split between the two leading movements, Fatah and Hamas, has weakened the Palestinians domestically and internationally, and all previous attempts to restore unity failed. But an Egyptian-brokered reconciliation agreement in October between the two rival factions gave some hope that this problem was about to be rectified.
The first signs were promising. But as the date for implementing the deal drew closer, the past rivalries, resentments and even hatred resurfaced, revealing just how deep the scars on both sides are from years of confrontation. This has resulted in mutual distrust that is crippling the ability of both sides to operate constructively together.
Both sides harbor memories of violence, false imprisonment, executions and torture by members of the other movement. For Hamas and its supporters, the Palestinian Authority (PA) is essentially a subcontractor for the Israeli security forces.
For President Mahmoud Abbas, the humiliation of his people expelled from Gaza during the civil war with Hamas in 2007, and years of summary executions of individuals suspected of collaborating with Fatah, remain fresh in his memory.
Consequently, a third party was needed, not only to negotiate a reconciliation but also to enforce it. Egypt had an incentive to do so, and due to its proximity and power, was best positioned to take on the job.
Its protracted struggle with Daesh-affiliated militancy in the Sinai Peninsula, which it accused Hamas of supporting, incentivized Cairo to advance a process that would see an end to the Hamas government in Gaza. For Hamas, making concessions to Egypt meant increasing the prospect of opening the Rafah border crossing to people and goods.
A reconciliation is possible at this time because it reflects both protagonists’ current vulnerabilities, not just their strengths. Fatah is weak and losing support, while Hamas has failed to ensure either the security or wellbeing of the people of Gaza. Egypt urgently needs to harness Hamas’ security forces in order to deprive militant movements in the Sinai of their smuggling routes for weapons and operatives.
Under the agreement, the West Bank-based PA was supposed to resume full control of Gaza by Dec. 1. So far, it has managed to mainly take control of border crossings, but not beyond. Handing over control of Gaza to the PA had to be postponed for at least 10 days, revealing the depth of suspicion between both sides, which were accusing each other of deliberately planting obstacles.
At the heart of the disagreements is the fate of public employees in Gaza and control of the security forces in this tiny territory. Fresh in the memory of the Gazan people is Abbas’ demand to Israel this summer that it cut the power supply, resulting in a reduction to just four hours of electricity per day.
The challenge of self-determination requires all factions in the Palestinian political system to learn to work together, at least constructively if not in harmony.
No doubt the most contentious issue was and remains the future of the Hamas military wing. Its 25,000 heavily armed fighters are not going to give up their weapons easily, as this would deprive them of their only remaining reason to exist — resisting Israel — in addition to being exposed to retribution from the PA’s security forces.
Hamas’ decision to sign the reconciliation agreement represents a paradigm shift in its thinking about its future in Palestinian affairs. Personnel changes — which saw Yahya Sinwar, former commander of the movement’s military wing, replacing Ismail Haniyeh as prime minster in Gaza — also changed Hamas’ approach to its role in Palestinian society.
Its raison d’etre has been to resist militarily Israel’s occupation, and to challenge the more secular Fatah movement for leadership of the Palestinians. Initially, it did this outside the political establishment. Its original source of popularity was based on its provision of charity and education, and on its military resistance to the Israeli occupation. Its decision to compete in elections and thereby govern seems to have backfired.
Its current resolve to hand over Gaza to the PA might be part of a decision to abandon its part in day-to-day politics, which after 10 years in power has failed the Gazan people miserably. Hamas has ruled by force while disregarding human rights. By militarily challenging Israel and to an extent Egypt, Hamas entangled itself in conflicts that it could never win.
Its current leadership would rather operate as a security player but not a political one, and thus stay out of government. This is partly because it recognizes that it has been marginalized by the rest of the Palestinian people because of its failures in Gaza.
It is time for Abbas and the PA to enable a smooth transition that does not humiliate Hamas and its members. The challenge of self-determination requires all factions in the Palestinian political system to learn to work together, at least constructively if not in harmony. An orderly transfer of Gaza to the PA, and fresh elections, would be a good start.
• 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