In the aftermath of the most recent Israeli onslaught on the Gaza Strip, some voices, both in the coastal enclave and the West Bank, have increased calls for a unified Palestinian front.
Today, a feud mars relations between the West Bank’s Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.
Disagreements between the Palestine Liberation Organisation – which includes Fatah and represents Palestinians in international fora – and Hamas are nothing new. Each has long held onto its own vision of what a future Palestinian state might look like and how to address the Israeli occupation.
The recent conflict in Gaza came to an end after efforts by Egypt to mediate a ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinians. And while many debated who were the winners and losers, the political leaders of Hamas and Fatah took several steps to reconcile their differences.
‘Spirit of unity’
“The spirit of unity is being shown by the political strata from top to bottom,” said PA spokeswoman Nour Odeh. “There is a political commitment to enshrine this sense of unity in more than slogans following the UN bid. The public will no longer tolerate any obstruction or delay in achieving a reconciliation.”
In a televised address last week, PA President Mahmoud Abbas stressed that talks with Hamas would immediately follow the Palestinians’ bid to upgrade their status at the UN General Assembly – an effort that succeeded on Thursday.
“Today [we head to] the UN, and tomorrow we have another task: national reconciliation, which we must achieve,” Abbas said before the vote. “I hope that all pending issues will be resolved so that Gaza enjoys safety, security and stability.”
Talks were scheduled to take place between Fatah and Hamas in Cairo immediately after the UN pitch. Following Egypt’s success in securing a ceasefire in Gaza, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi indicated his eagerness to host talks between the rival factions.
Abbas did not travel to the Gaza Strip during the Israeli onslaught, despite calls to do so by leading Fatah members such as Marwan Barghouti – currently held in an Israeli prison serving a life-sentence for murder. He instead dispatched senior Fatah official Nabil Sha’ath, who, during his visit, said “unity” was more urgent than ever.
As fighting raged earlier this month, Hamas supporters in the West Bank marched with their Fatah compatriots while chanting for unity – a highly unusual spectacle in the PA’s stronghold, Ramallah.
“The celebrations following the ceasefire were a testament to the public sentiment and the political parties are reflecting the will of their constituents,” Odeh said. “There is a huge sense of responsibility because the danger is grave. No Palestinian group can survive on its own without being part of the larger political system. All factions must find a way to make it work.”
The rally symbolised Abbas’ efforts to secure a rapprochement. Since the collapse of a short-lived unity government in 2007, many Hamas members stopped venturing into the streets after the PA staged a far-reaching clampdown on the group’s activities in the West Bank. In Gaza, Hamas also suppressed Fatah affiliates, jailing them and subjecting them to inhumane conditions, according to Fatah.
In 2011, the two groups signed a reconciliation agreement outlining steps to release political prisoners as a prerequisite to implementing the plan. This was never carried out, with both sides denying they were imprisoning affiliates in their respective jails. A year later, Hamas’ Politburo Chief Khalid Meshal and Abbas signed another agreement to end the division, but that too was delayed.
But since the end of the Israeli assault, both groups have expressed willingness to tackle the issue of prisoners as a gesture of goodwill. Last week, Hamas spokesman Taher al-Nunu said the group would grant amnesty to some 30 Fatah-affiliated political prisoners held after the group took over the Gaza Strip in 2007. And Fatah’s Sha’ath, also speaking in Gaza, said preparations were underway to release dozens of Hamas prisoners being held in the West Bank.
The Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR) has expressed optimism that the amnesty announcement would pave the way for more fruitful reconciliation talks.
Speaking after a meeting with Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh on Wednesday, ICHR Commissioner-General Ahmad Harb said the only path forward from the Gaza onslaught was to end the division, starting with a prisoner release. Haniyeh said a number of political prisoners not involved in murder cases have already been released, according to Harb.
On Thursday, rallies took place in the Gaza Strip in support of the UN bid, with all factions, including Fatah, participating. In Ramallah, events marking the UN vote included key speeches by senior leaders from several factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
High-level meetings between leaders on both sides have been taking place in the past week. On Tuesday, Haniyeh met with a visiting Fatah delegation, including Amin Maqboul, the secretary general of the party’s Revolutionary Council, who participated in a joint event commemorating the victims of the latest Israeli onslaught.
Meanwhile, in Ramallah, Abbas held talks with senior Hamas leaders in his presidential headquarters. “There was discussion of serious and practical steps to take because the realisation after Gaza is that it is no longer acceptable to get caught in the details,” Odeh said.
Sha’ath said Hamas representatives in the West Bank would begin to take part in leadership meetings, including the Executive Committee of the PLO. “Once the meetings in Cairo are over, the natural thing is for Hamas to be integrated into the political system. The most important thing is that Hamas has supported the UN bid,” Odeh said.
Differences between the two seem to be waning for now, following a statement by Meshal reiterating the group’s willingness to accept a Palestinian state based on the 1967 armistice line. In an interview held in Cairo with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, he also said the group was ready to put down its weapons if certain national demands were met – namely, “the elimination of occupation and the [creation of a] Palestinian state and ending the occupation and the wall”. His statements seemed to be more in line with the demands of the Fatah-dominated PA.
With the exception of Mahmoud al-Zahhar, a co-founder of Hamas, the group is backing the PA’s UN pitch. Nasser al-Shaer, a Hamas deputy, met with Abbas this week and reiterated his group’s stance, while spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said Hamas expressed its support for the move as long as it “did not caus[e] any harm to the national Palestinian rights”.
Al-Zahhar, however, expressed scepticism and hostility at the move. “Heading to the UN is final proof that [Abbas] has given up on the 1948 territories,” he said.
There are fears that reconciliation efforts would be thwarted by Israel, which has repeatedly refused to accept or deal with any unity government that includes Hamas. “The main factor here is the Israeli occupation,” said Ghassan al-Khatib, a professor at Birzeit University in Ramallah. “Israel is in control of the West Bank and it won’t allow a national unity government that includes Hamas to function.”
Despite the steps taken to turn vows of reconciliation into action, al-Khatib said he was pessimistic that recent regional changes could only mean more of the same. “I think the Arab Spring, which ended up strengthening Islamists in some Arab countries – especially Egypt – is discouraging Hamas from reconciliation because they feel time is on their side,” al-Khatib said. “They feel they are part of the future of the region and that Fatah is part of its past.”