Saturday, 14 June 2014

This Palestinian façade

        Full marks to Egypt’s newly elected president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.  Alone among the world’s statesmen, he has refused to recognize the cobbled-together Fatah-Hamas “unity” government.  Hamas is formally designated a “terrorist organization” by the United States and the European Union, just as it is by Egypt.  All the same, based upon Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas’s assurances that his new administration is composed solely of non-political technocrats, that it will honour all agreements entered into by the PA, recognize Israel and reject terror, the US and the EU, together with the United Nations and China, have declared that they accept and will work with the new administration. 

        Once again, led by the US, the world as a whole prefers to turn a blind eye to stark reality in favour of insubstantial hopes and unachievable promises.

        UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the Fatah-Hamas unity government, said the UN was prepared to support it and its efforts to reunite the West Bank and Gaza, and hoped that the move would provide new opportunities to progress the peace process with Israel.

        The EU was equally forthcoming. "We welcome the declaration by President Abbas that this new government is committed to the principle of the two state solution based on the 1967 borders, and to the recognition of Israel's legitimate right to exist. The EU's engagement with the new Palestinian government will be based on its adherence to these policies and commitments."

        Yet when on June 11 a rocket was fired from Gaza into southern Israel, narrowly missing a major traffic highway, the US said it did not hold the PA responsible. “We acknowledge the reality that Hamas currently controls Gaza,” said US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki to reporters in Washington.

        So, although Abbas heads a Fatah-Hamas unity government, it is not to be held to account for the continued terrorist activities of one of the partners.  If Israel decided to bring these crimes against humanity to the International Court of Justice, that body might not take the same view.

        Egypt’s el-Sisi sees the situation more pragmatically.  He knows Hamas for what it is – an extremist Islamist organisation, closely tied to the Muslim Brotherhood, intent on overthrowing the new Egyptian administration by supporting terrorist activity both in the Sinai and within Egypt itself.  So when the PA and Hamas claimed that Sisi, as a gesture of support for the new Palestinian government, would open the Rafah crossing from Gaza to Egyptian Sinai, they were wide of the mark.

        Cairo’s response was that the border terminals would remain open only if PA security forces from Ramallah assumed control of the borders and officiated at the crossings. But Hamas has no intention of handing this strategic resource over to Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah. Any PA bid to take over control of the Gaza crossings would be forcibly resisted.  A standoff has therefore already developed between the two partners.

        In the event, not only has Cairo kept the Rafah crossing shut, but it has strengthened military oversight on its borders with Gaza to prevent incursions at any point. In addition, a law has been drafted by the Egyptian authorities proposing long prison sentences for anyone attempting to “prepare, dig or use” a tunnel connecting Egypt to a foreign “entity” or nation (in other words Hamas or the Palestinian government) for the passage of goods or persons.

        Under the unity deal, the PA is obligated to urge Egypt to end its blockade of Gaza.  Success in that particular venture is, to say the least, dubious.

        This Fatah-Hamas “reconciliation” papers over wide discrepancies of policy, bitter enmity and divergent aspirations between the two partners.  For example, the unity deal stipulates that Hamas will incorporate Fatah-led PA forces in Gaza, and that this will be reciprocated in the West Bank.  This is an aspiration likely, in the words of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, to be “more honored in the breach than the observance.”  For how will Hamas and the PA coordinate on security when they have continued to target each other's members since the signing of the reconciliation deal? The Freedoms Committee, which was set up to help implement the agreement, says the ongoing arrests of Hamas members in the West Bank has "strained the reconciliation atmosphere", and that the charging of Fatah members in Gaza is also continuing.  

        How will Hamas and Fatah forces coordinate vis-à-vis Israel, particularly given the PA’s cooperation with Israel on security issues, including the arrest of Hamas members – a hugely unpopular policy among Palestinians. Just last week, Abbas described the "security relationship" with Israel as "sacred", adding that it would continue regardless of a Palestinian unity government or any disagreements with Israel.

        This, and his insistence that the new government will adhere to non-violence, contrasts with statements by Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh who has said that the reconciliation deal "aims to unite the Palestinian people against the prime enemy, the Zionist enemy", and that "it aims to pursue the choice of resistance in all forms".

        The UN, the EU, and the US choose to ignore or discount the glaringly obvious fact that Hamas defiantly remains what it has always been – an Islamist, terrorist organization intent on supporting the Muslim Brotherhood’s subversion of the new Egyptian administration, and of pursuing the so-called armed struggle against Israel.  It has chosen to associate itself with its prime internal enemy, the Fatah-led PA, for its own reasons – doubtless hoping to participate, and to triumph, in the forthcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, as a vital step towards replacing the PA in the West Bank, just as it did in Gaza. And what’s in it for Abbas?  Why, he has regained some sort of nominal foothold in Gaza – the great weakness he has had to cope with since 2007.

         The New York Times, in an editorial on June 7, puts in a nutshell the dilemma that the Obama administration has manoeuvred itself into. “The United States and other countries that consider Hamas a terrorist group may find it impossible to continue aiding the Palestinians if Hamas plays a more pronounced role,” it wrote, adding that the US “has to be careful to somehow distinguish between its support for the new government and an endorsement of Hamas and its violent, hateful behavior. To have some hope of doing that, the United States and Europe must continue to insist that Mr. Abbas stick to his promises and not allow Hamas to get the upper hand.”

        It seems pretty obvious that this Fatah-Hamas unity deal, far from representing reconciliation, is a façade that conceals as violent a fraternal struggle for power and supremacy as ever.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 18 June 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 14 June 2014:

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