Tuesday, 6 May 2014

The Palestinian get-together

The recently trumpeted Fatah-Hamas reconciliation brings to mind the notorious Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939 a totally cynical alliance of sworn enemies, conceived in the temporary self-interest of the two parties without any regard for principle, and destined to be torn asunder within two years.

What did each of the parties hope to gain from this Fatah-Hamas get-together? 

Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas must have seen a tempting selection of benefits.

In the first place, it was a certain way to exit gracefully from a peace process that had clearly foundered.  As the nine months allotted to the peace talks ran inexorably out, US Secretary of State John Kerry had been turning somersaults to try to cobble together an agreement from both sides to continue talking.  Abbas saw this last-ditch effort as simply extending the stalemate into an indefinite future.  He knew perfectly well that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, would never agree to continue talks with a PA that incorporated Hamas, dedicated as it was to Israel’s destruction.  So in formalizing the reconciliation with Hamas, Abbas was effectively putting paid to the peace negotiations and setting out on his alternative path to  international recognition.

His plans to by-pass the peace talks and obtain the world’s agreement to the establishment of a sovereign Palestine, in name if not in deed, were already well advanced. Even before the deadline of April 29 had been reached, he had applied to join fifteen international organizations and treaties in the name of the State of Palestine.  Although this was presented at the time as an immediate reaction to Israel’s delay in releasing a last tranche of convicted prisoners, it was an initiative that must have taken months in the planning.  One cannot overnight identify fifteen organisations, obtain their assurance that an application would be successful, and draw up the necessary documents.   At the signing ceremony PLO Secretary-General Yasser Abed Rabbo confirmed that this was a first step towards joining all 60-odd United Nations agencies. 

Coming to terms with Hamas suited Abbas’s book in other ways.  Ever since Hamas had taken up arms against Abbas’s national unity government in 2007 and chased Fatah, bag and baggage, out of Gaza, he had known that he had two options: beat Hamas or join them.  He was perfectly well aware that his claim to speak for all the Palestinian people was a hollow one as long as his writ did not run in what was a significant part of any future sovereign Palestine, namely the Gaza strip.

He was, moreover, equally aware that his personal position as PA President was vulnerable.  He had been elected for a four-year term in 2005.  From 2009 onwards various attempts to set up parliamentary and presidential elections to renew his mandate had been scuppered by Hamas’s intransigence.  And so Abbas had soldiered on, renewing his presidency by diktat from time to time, but clearly suffering from a widening democratic deficit.  The deal with Hamas includes the assurance of parliamentary and presidential elections across the whole of the Palestinian body politic within six months and thus solves one of Abbas’s intractable problems.  Meanwhile, he is acknowledged by Hamas as president of the PA’s interim government a reversal of its previous refusal to do so.

So Abbas and Fatah have not done badly out of the reconciliation.  What of Hamas?

The first thing that Hamas have won is an end to the peace talks a development they rejected from the outset.  Despite occasional oblique references from time to time, by this leading Hamas figure or that, to the possibility of accepting a sovereign Palestine within pre-June 1967 boundaries, Hamas has consistently opposed all negotiations with Israel and all the efforts by Abbas within the United Nations to gain acceptance for a sovereign Palestine as part of a two-state solution.  If Palestine is one of the two states, Israel is the other and the basis of Hamas’s existence is, as its 1988 charter states, that Hamas "strives to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine".   

The Hamas leadership is well aware that its glory days are past.  A few years ago it stood tall in the world.  It had actually won a majority of the votes within Gaza in a democratic election, had used this as an excuse to renege from its agreement to form a united Palestinian government, had turned on its political allies Fatah in a bloody fratricidal coup, and seized power in the Gaza strip.

When the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt, and its adherent Mohamed Morsi was elected president in June 2012, Hamas’s expectations rocketed.  They hoped for the Gaza-Egypt borders to be flung open, perhaps even for a semi-autonomous Gazan state to be established with Egypt’s blessing.  Hamas’s rocket attacks on Israel increased exponentially, and when Israel’s patience finally snapped and it launched Pillar of Defense – its second response in four years it was Hamas who, in Palestinian eyes, was conducting the “armed struggle” against Israel. And finally it was Hamas, as one of the two principals, which agreed the cease-fire terms negotiated under the auspices of Egypt’s President Morsi.  The result – a self-declared “victory” − greatly increased Hamas’s prestige in Palestinian popular opinion.

Building on that, Hamas made continuous attempts to undermine Abbas’s authority. Not only did it refuse to recognise Abbas as PA president, it began infiltrating supporters into the West Bank, recruiting university students through a  program called “Kutla,” which entailed spreading jihadi ideology among them, and through its “Da’wa” social aid program mixed with indoctrination, attempting to enhance its standing among the general population.

All that is past.  The Muslim Brotherhood – and with it Hamas’s prestige have plummeted.  Not only did the Brotherhood and its president lose power in Egypt after little more than a year, but it has since been declared an illegal terrorist organisation in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. So now Hamas can see positive hope in the prospect of the parliamentary and presidential elections in-built into the terms of the reconciliation with Fatah.

Given the result of the last Palestinian ballot, it is not unreasonable for Hamas to expect to emerge from the forthcoming elections much strengthened.  It will then have achieved, by democratic means, the control over the West Bank that it has been seeking since 2007.  Moreover, Abbas is in his 80th year; he cannot go on forever.  With increased political power, Hamas might be able to ensure a new president more to its liking. The result? A Hamas-dominated PA, and with it a probable renewal of terrorist activity rockets emanating not only from Gaza, but from the West Bank

So the likely outcome of this Fatah-Hamas reconciliation is further Palestinian-Israeli conflict conducted diplomatically if Fatah prevails, and if Hamas does, militarily.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 7 May 2014:

No comments:

Post a Comment