Popular boost for Palestinian unity
It was supposed to be a symbolic gesture by Hamas, the uncontested ruler of Gaza Strip since 2007. But last Friday’s rally, celebrating the 48th anniversary of the Fatah movement, took everyone by surprise. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from all walks of life attended the daylong event; the first of its kind since Hamas evicted the Fatah controlled Palestinian National Authority (PNA) from Gaza five years ago. It was probably the biggest Fatah rally since the death of its founder, Yasser Arafat, in 2004.
The huge turnout surprised both Hamas and Fatah. The former had allowed the largest faction of the PLO, and its main political rival, to organize the event in Gaza after the PNA permitted Hamas to mark its own anniversary in the West Bank few weeks ago. Again thousands of Palestinians joined the Hamas rally then, sending a strong message to President Mahmoud Abbas and his lieutenants that the Islamist movement still enjoyed popular support in the West Bank in spite of years of persecution.
But the Gaza celebration was also seen as a referendum on Hamas’ tight control of the beleaguered strip. Many of those who participated were young Palestinians who were raised under Hamas and who usually make up the main bulk of its followers. Between the Gaza event and the West Bank celebration weeks earlier the Palestinian people were sending a strong message to the two main political factions. They wanted unity and national reconciliation and they wanted them now!
This major turn of events comes in the wake of two important developments on the Palestinian scene. The first was Hamas’ perceived victory over Israel in the eight-day battle that Israel called “Operation Pillar of Defense.” Both Hamas and the Islamic Jihad military wings launched hundreds of short and medium range missiles, some homemade and others supplied by Iran, hitting Israeli towns and cities including Tel Aviv and occupied Jerusalem. Israeli jets bombarded key targets in Gaza, killing more than 100 Palestinians, mostly civilians, but were unable to stop the raining of missiles on Israel.
In the end Egyptian mediation resulted in a cease-fire and a deal that was seen as a victory for Hamas. Israel agreed to loosen its embargo and allow goods to enter Gaza. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to wage a ground offensive was shelved, and his gambit to destroy or weaken Hamas had to be abandoned.
The second event was President Abbas’ success at the UN General Assembly in gaining world recognition of Palestine as a non-member state at the world body, despite Israeli and American objections. The political victory was celebrated by Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza. Both events led to an unprecedented rapprochement between the two rivals, paving the way for a possible resumption of reconciliation talks.
But there is more to the celebratory events that took place in the West Bank and Gaza. Fatah, the oldest of Palestinian national resistance movements, had suffered setbacks since the establishment of the PNA. When Palestinians voted Fatah out in the 2006 elections in favor of Hamas, it was seen as a sign of Palestinian weariness of Fatah’s failure to deliver on the peace process. Also, Palestinians complained of festering corruption in the PNA which had tainted the movement’s long and illustrious history. The vote was seen as a reprimand to Fatah.
By coming out in the thousands in the West Bank to celebrate Hamas’ anniversary recently, Palestinians wanted to remind Abbas, the head of Fatah, that his movement must return to its roots and the cause of resistance. Despite Abbas’ political victory at the UN, Palestinians are growing frustrated over the failure of the peace process and Israel’s refusal to stop building settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. A recent poll found that more than half of the Palestinians now favor military operations as an answer to Israel’s intransigence, up from 29.3 percent in January 2011. And in recent weeks a number of Israeli intelligence experts had warned of a third Palestinian Intifada breaking out soon.
On the other hand, residents of the Gaza Strip are also tired of Hamas’ authoritarian rule and its hard-line policies that have stifled efforts to conclude national reconciliation. The visit to Gaza recently by Hamas top leader Khaled Meshaal was seen as an important step to end divisions within the Islamist movement itself. Meshaal is seen as a true believer in a process to bring about reconciliation between Hamas and the Fatah controlled PNA.
Egypt will soon host a new round of talks in Cairo in a bid to implement a plan that was agreed to in May 2011 and adopted again in May 2012. Under the plan Abbas would head a new national unity government that would organize new presidential and legislative elections. This would end all divisions and allow the PNA to regain presence in Gaza.
But this is easier said than done. Hamas wants a complete overhaul of the PLO, an idea that is gaining momentum especially since Abbas threatened to close down the PNA and hand over the keys to Netanyahu. The PNA is in dire financial trouble and Abbas is facing unusual attacks by Israel, which does not approve of his efforts to end the rift with Hamas. A new US secretary of state will soon take over while Netanyahu is expected to win the next general elections. Palestinians will gain a lot by coming together now in preparation for difficult times ahead!