Hamas’s dramatic announcement Sunday morning that it would dismantle its government in the Gaza Strip is especially significant as it comes days before Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is due to meet US President Donald Trump and address the United Nations.
Hamas’s establishment in May of an “administrative committee” to run the Gaza Strip in place of Abbas’s Ramallah government led the Palestinian Authority to slash funding to the coastal enclave, sparking the most severe power crisis the Strip has ever known.
Even if one takes a cynical, skeptical view of Hamas’s commitment to dismantling the administrative committee — and indeed, it doesn’t actually herald the end of the terror group or its departure from the Strip — it is still a major concession.
For many months now, Hamas has said that it will only dismantle the administrative committee once the Palestinian Authority ends its punishing financial sanctions against the Strip, including the drastic cut to Gaza electricity subsidies. Now, with no preconditions, Hamas has changed its approach and announced that it will dismantle the body, which was the main catalyst of the recent escalation in the crisis between the two sides.
Furthermore, Hamas’s announcement, made by its delegation in Cairo, said the organization is prepared to hold general elections at the earliest opportunity, to conduct negotiations with Abbas and his Fatah movement, and to form a national unity government.
On the face of it, Hamas has caved in to all of Abbas’s demands, and the timing could hardly be more significant.
A Hamas delegation featuring the group’s leader Ismail Haniyeh, and its Gaza chief Yahya Sinwar, has been in Cairo since early last week for talks with the Egyptian intelligence agencies about Palestinian unity. On Friday, a Fatah delegation, led by senior official Azzam al-Ahmad, arrived in Cairo for talks with the Egyptians mediating between the sides.
The main problem with the timing from Fatah’s point of view is that in three days, Abbas is due to meet with Trump on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
One can only imagine how Abbas’s meeting with the United States president will be perceived if he will have just agreed to form a national unity government with a terror group, and especially if he speaks about reconciliation with Hamas in his UN speech.
Abbas will want answers from Trump about his administration’s as-yet-unstated commitment to a two-state solution. It would be odd for Abbas to talk up a Palestinian state after agreeing to share power with a group that calls for the destruction of Israel.
Thus, it is likely that for the next week at least, Fatah will try to draw out any negotiations with Hamas to avoid reaching an agreement immediately, if only to allow the meeting with Trump to go smoothly.
The recent major push for unity isn’t the first in the decade since Hamas seized power in Gaza in a violent coup. Invariably, the agreements fell apart when it came to the nitty-gritty issues.
In any agreement between Fatah and Hamas, the devil is in the details. Who would, in practice, run Gaza? What would happen to the Hamas security forces and the border crossings? These are only a few of the many major questions that remain to be answered.
Still, it is important to reiterate that the Hamas leadership today, with Haniyeh and Sinwar, differs fundamentally from that of their predecessor Khaled Mashaal.
Sinwar has already proved more than once that ascending to power fundamentally shifts one’s perspective and priorities.
He has turned out to be a pragmatic leader, thoughtful in his moves and extremely cautious, in a departure from his past reputation as an extremist.
Sinwar has drawn close to Fatah’s former Gaza strongman Mohammad Dahlan, who hates Hamas, and he has agreed to take dramatic steps to appease Egypt, including arresting members of Islamic State and putting an end to the cross-border smuggling.
Haniyeh, meanwhile, is carrying on with the same policies he held during the many years he led Hamas in the Strip. He was appointed to head the group’s political bureau a few months ago as a man of the people, and thus represents the people to a large extent.
He demonstrated that tendency during the 2014 war with Israel, when he went against the political bureau in pressuring for a ceasefire, and he is taking the same approach now. Haniyeh understands that, with little hope on the horizon, the severe economic crisis in Gaza can end in one of two ways: war with Israel, which could decimate the movement’s leadership and turn the population against it, or a “Gaza Spring” that would have similar results.
The best he can do under the circumstances is compromise, even if others say he caved in.