Peter Lagerquist, Foreign Policy - The reconciliation accord formally signed by Hamas and Fatah on May 2 is beginning to show its first cracks. The two movements agreed to jointly contest new elections in late 2012 and were scheduled to announce a transitional government in June. But Fatah leader and Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas’s insistence that it should be headed by his current prime minister, Salam Fayyad, infuriated Hamas. The Islamists loathe Fayyad, who has overseen a four-year crackdown on their membership in the West Bank in cooperation with Israeli forces, as much as he is feted by Western chanceries. The latter have agreed to keep funding the PA on the condition that he controls its purse strings. Abbas fears that a new unity government might face a financial crisis similar to that endured in 2006, when Hamas won PA elections. On June 21, he accordingly insisted on his prerogative to choose the new prime minister, formally contravening the text of the reconciliation accord. In response, Hamas complained that he had become little more than a collaborator with Israel.
Declaring that the new government must “preserve room for resistance,” Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh underscored why the odds on this political détente holding up had always seemed steep. If these odds are to improve, both factions will have to make new and steep rhetorical climb-downs. Yet signs indicate that Abbas in particular is reconsidering reconciliation, or at least looking for ways to mitigate the risks to which it has exposed him.
Since the split of the PA in 2007, Hamas and Fatah’s enmity has become a fact on the ground to most Palestinians no less intractable and debilitating than the settlements Israel has continued to build in the West Bank. Television footage of Abbas and Hamas politburo head Khaled Meshal clasping each other’s shoulders in Cairo in May was accordingly greeted with hope, but also much wariness, in Ramallah. “They are like two prisoners fighting over scraps of bread, instead of working on getting out of jail,” said one coffee shop patron over his water pipe. “So this agreement is good, but will they really change?” Scant more enthusiasm was on show in the following days, with perfunctory manifestations to mark the reconciliation easily outdone by drive-by rallies of local Real Madrid and Barcelona football club supporters, then battling it out for the Spanish league title.
Such lack of engagement reflected not only doubts about the viability of the Fatah-Hamas accord, but also a broader disenchantment with the political choices offered up by them. To most Palestinians, neither faction has produced political results, and their autocratic rules remain unpalatable. “People are afraid to say anything critical of the PA. If the wrong person hears you, the next day your cousin loses his job with such and such ministry,” whispers one coffee shop waiter. In Gaza, even many Palestinians who are deeply critical of Fatah have been disappointed by Hamas’s lurch into police state paranoia following 2007. “They have informants everywhere,” complains one social worker in Gaza City. “[They are] even paying kids a few shekels to report on people in their neighborhood.”
Inspired by popular uprisings in the region, parallel street demonstrations in the West Bank and Gaza on March 15 served as a first warning to their powers that be. Yet these first buds of Palestine’s own political spring were modest affairs. Ramallah’s small, central Manara roundabout would on any day be a poor imitation of Cairo’s Tahrir Square; the 1,000-some locals who would ultimately make their way there on the date Facebooked as Palestine’s answer to Egypt’s January 25, were less likely to have felt the stirrings of a new future than the dead weight of history. Overhead banners featuring Yasir Arafat presided over smaller insets of assassinated Hamas figurehead Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and other martyred notables from both movements. Flanked by customary heavies, current PA Minister of Economy Hasan Abu Libdeh rubbed shoulders in the crowd with former Preventive Security chief Jibril Rajoub, the West Bank’s onetime answer to Omar Suleiman. “I’m not responsible for the division!” one beaming functionary said, only furthering the impression that politicians had themselves become spectators.
Cast in stark relief by such scenes were the limits of the day’s slogan: “The people want the end of the division!” While Egyptians and Tunisians had by then jettisoned Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s Rally for Constitutional Democracy, the March 15 movement was in effect asking Palestinian equivalencies not to disband, but team up. The irony was not lost on many more radical demonstrators. “We don’t want these two leaderships to reunite; we want them to be rid of them,” explained one prominent activist. “This is about more than Fatah and Hamas.”
Official co-optation of the March demonstrations, also in Gaza, signaled an awareness by both Fatah and Hamas that they may have to ride rather than buck the gathering tide of public discontent. Several reconciliation attempts had already been made in recent years, twice following Israel’s bloody May 31, 2010, interception of the Gaza freedom flotilla and the subsequent easing of Israel’s and Egypt’s boycott on the Gaza Strip, which cut into already fraying hopes that Hamas could otherwise be pressured into submission. In both instances, however, U.S. opposition presented Abbas with an impossible choice, recapitulated starkly by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after May 2: “It’s either Hamas, or peace with Israel.” With Mubarak’s Egypt shoring up a still-biting Gaza blockade, meanwhile, and taking Fatah’s side as the final arbitrator of reconciliation with Hamas, Abbas could keep the Islamists bottled up.
Since then, however, Abbas’s position has deteriorated. Barack Obama’s inability last fall to back the Palestinian leader’s pursuit of an Israeli settlement freeze in the West Bank demonstrated one time too many how little Abbas’s dearly purchased goodwill in the West was worth. With Mubarak’s fall, meanwhile, and the impending ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas looked poised to break its economic and political confinement. And for the first time, Abbas now needed if not a principled political agreement with the Islamists, then at least domestic accord. For a while his refusal to climb down from the proverbial settlement-freeze tree prevented Abbas’s domestic credibility from plummeting further, but it also left him without a political strategy.
In lieu of negotiations with Israel, the PA president has mortgaged the remainder of his shaky political house on seeking U.N. recognition for a Palestinian state in September. The gambit is unlikely to pass U.S. approval in the Security Council; even if successful, it proffers doubtful leverage in his tug of war with Tel Aviv. Although Syria is an independent state, in 44 years it hasn’t managed to pry the Golan Heights away from Israel; a Palestinian state is unlikely to do better with the 60 percent of the West Bank that remains under full Israeli control. Legally dubious without Gaza under a unified PA administration, a U.N. appeal lacking Hamas’s support would also have left Abbas with no political cover if recognition proves inconsequential. Abbas and Fayyad may themselves harbor doubts, having in 2010 suppressed a skeptical assessment by PLO legal advisors of their U.N. strategy. Former lead negotiator Saeb Erakat has since given plenty of hints that they would be happy to abandon their stunt if the United States would only get negotiations started again.
Although the outlook appeared more promising for Hamas, regional change came at once too slow and too fast for the Islamists’ liking. In Egypt, it left a cautious military junta in place that is domestically embarrassed by the Mubarak-era blockade of Gaza, but wary of cozying up too rapidly to an international pariah government. Meanwhile, Hamas’s Syrian patron regime has started to totter. This has left Hamas at a fraught impasse. Its participation in the 2006 elections signaled a desire for greater recognition as a full-fledged player in Palestinian politics and that it is keen to broaden its popular appeal; its aims are frustrated by a continuing diplomatic boycott of the movement and the persistence of an 80 percent poverty rate in the strip. However approximate, opinion polls giving Hamas less than 10 percent national support are a far cry from the plurality that it briefly enjoyed after its 2006 election victory. When Egypt’s rulers accordingly offered to ease the Gaza blockade and thaw relations in exchange for reconciliation, the Hama leadership saw an overdue opening.
Reconciliation seemed at the outset to require a modest political down payment from the Islamists, while allowing them to capitalize on the de facto compromises they have already made in recent years. Abbas’s precondition for the reconciliation — that they allow him to pursue his quest for a Palestinian state delimited to the West Bank and Gaza — are now digestible to Hamas. And as itsradical detractors in Gaza frequently complain, it has largely enforced a cease-fire with Israel since the end of the 2009 Gaza war, policing militancy no less than the PA in the West Bank. Otherwise, its core political positions often diverge less from Fatah than is internationally acknowledged. Both movements refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish state; both continue to insist on a right of return for Palestinian refugees; the prerogative of armed resistance also remains enshrined in Fatah’s own charter. And critically, until the 2012 elections, an increase in coordination as much as an integration was likely to be the name of their game, with each faction preserving control of some autonomous forces. Change could work for both, it was accordingly hoped, because for the moment, little may change.
Even before the reconciliation process started to crack, there was scant evidence that official repressiveness was on the wane either in Gaza or in the West Bank. New Palestinian elections in 2012, were they to be held, might have reanimated national politics. Yet Fatah in particular is deeply fractured and in need of renewal. At its sixth party congress in 2009, the most influential movers included party strongman and former PA Gaza Preventive Security Chief Mohammed Dahlan, long considered Abbas’s likeliest successor. Since fall 2010, however, Abbas has cut his erstwhile lieutenant down to size, and on May 13 he formally excommunicated him on a range of sordid charges, most notably for preparing a coup against the PA president. Never a man of subtlety, Dahlan hit back in a videotaped speech that belittled Abbas’s political record, branding his attempts at talks with Israel “a farce,” and pooh-poohing his latest attempt to seek recourse at the United Nations. Most of Fatah’s members would have noted that this was also a bleak verdict on their party’s own record.
Abbas has brooked no intraparty debate since Dahlan’s dismissal, a sign not only of his iron grip on the movement, but also its weakness as a movement, long ago reduced to an appendage of its leader and increasingly also his prime minister. Ironically, some Fatahwis would be as happy as Hamas to see the back of Fayyad: Not a party man, he has outgrown his remit, many of them feel; some openly fear that security cooperation with Israel is branding them as collaborators on the Palestinian street. Meanwhile, though better organized, Hamas briefly suggested it might take a leaf out of the Muslim Brotherhood’s updated democracy playbook and not seek power even if it wins the 2012 election, content to be a parliamentary overseer. Most fundamentally, then, the possibility of reconciliation re-posed questions about the PA as a vehicle for Palestinian politics. Is its function merely to administer, and if so, what use are political movements? If Hamas and Fatah fail to answer this question, a plurality of Palestinians may be inclined to see Fayyad continue his tenure. Whether or not PA salaries would continue to be paid was a central concern of local newspapers after the reconciliation agreement, and the prime minister has demonstrated his ability to keep the donor tap running.
Even the economic recovery that such aid has recently sustained in the West Bank, however, is playing to diminished expectations. Following years of retrenchment, per capita incomes are still barely higher than 11 years ago. Latest unemployment figures clock in at a U.S. Great Depression-level of 23 percent, and donors are warning that growth cannot be sustained in the coming years. Meanwhile, Israeli settlement construction and house demolitions in the Palestinians’ hoped-for capital fuel bitter talk in relatively better-off Ramallah. “In a year, there will be nothing left of Silwan,” mutters one restaurant owner, referring to one of East Jerusalem’s increasingly besettled neighborhoods. And though Abbas may have initially gambled that he would continue to enjoy U.S. support in a more domesticated rivalry with Hamas, many Palestinians have long ago stopped hoping that such support can be made to count.
Palestinian political energies are likely to be tuned inward in the coming year, and to the example set by their Arab neighbors. Among those groups who have to date pushed for domestic reform, however, there are doubts about whether the capacity to mobilize exists. “In Egypt, the youth groups and organizers had gone through a long process of preparations and discussions with each other ahead of the demonstrations,” says one poet-activist on the March 15 in Ramallah. “Here, it is as if they expected a revolution to descend from the sky through Facebook.” Yet there are also foci at close hand. On May 15, the date Palestinians commemorate their exile in 1948, activists from Aida refugee camp near Bethlehem who targeted the Israeli wall enclosing their community ultimately found themselves stoning PA police officers sent to protect the structure. Two teenagers were arrested.
If popular mobilization against Israel resumes, the PA will have to choose whether to continue interposing itself between its constituents and the source of their frustrations, or to stand aside, with all the risks that may entail. If it does not, it may not matter much whether it is a unified PA or not. One Ramallah resident, formerly employed by the PA President’s Office, says that he has a 12-year-old son who keeps asking him, “What has Abbas done for us? We should kick him out!” His father responds, “In two years he will be throwing stones not at the Israelis, but at the PA police.” Though Barcelona and Real Madrid flags still flutter in Ramallah, the grace period could be shorter than that.
This article originally appeared at Foreign Policy magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.
Peter Lagerquist is a writer who works on Israel and Palestine. He has previously contributed to Le Monde Diplomatique, the London Review of Books, and the Guardian, among other publications.