As a crowd of hundreds of Palestinians, many of them waving flags, and a Hamas police honor guard greeted Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah Monday upon his arrival in Gaza, a question hovered in the air: Is this Palestinian reconciliation effort different from all other reconciliation efforts? In the decade since Hamas seized control of Gaza, all unity bids have failed, with neither Hamas nor Fatah ultimately willing to give up a de facto monopoly on power in their respective areas.
This time, there are a bevy of optimistic voices on both sides insisting it will work. Hamas spokesman Fawzy Barhoum told the Maan news agency that he was confident about the success of reconciliation, citing “unprecedented Palestinian will by all parties.” He said Hamas will push for the success of bilateral talks with Fatah under Egyptian supervision next week in Cairo that will follow up the thus far only symbolic restart of the PA government in Gaza.
Abdullah Abdullah, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council who supports PA President Mahmoud Abbas, said: “There is a good chance it will work. We have to make it a success.”
“Hamas and Fatah are serious,” said Palestinian Legislative Council deputy speaker Hasan Khreisheh, an independent. “Hamas needs Egypt and needs to open the borders, while the authority wants to show America and Israel that they represent all Palestinian people, whether in Gaza or the West Bank. Both sides have an interest. This marriage is a necessity and I think they will do it.”
Indeed, there are reasons to believe the shidduch could work this time, although there are also perhaps more compelling reasons to believe the couple is still incompatible and that the marriage, if it takes place, will be short lived.
On the plus side is that an increasingly isolated Hamas cannot afford to alienate the Egyptian mediators pushing hard for this to work. Abbas also is reluctant to be blamed by Cairo for the failure of the bid.
Also militating in favor of an agreement is that unity is deeply desired by Palestinian public opinion, especially Gazans weary from war, severe economic distress and Egyptian and Israeli partial blockades. “The time has come to work for ending the suffering of Gaza and its people and we are preparing a series of steps for this.” Hamdallah said yesterday.
Neither Hamas nor Abbas want to be blamed for letting the public down or be seen as prioritizing narrow selfish interests over the national interest.
Hamas’s weak position is another factor that makes reconciliation appear to be more in reach than the past. The plans for resumption of the PA role in Gaza – and Hamdallah’s visit – were made possible when Hamas decided to scrap an administrative committee it named to govern Gaza six months ago. At the same time, the movement said it would welcome the PA back in the Strip.
Analysts say the Hamas shift came about because of factors including hard-hitting economic steps imposed by Abbas, such as cutting electricity payments to Israel, which caused blackouts, and the slashing of salaries of civil servants. But they also say the weakening and isolation of Hamas’s main financial backer, Qatar – after Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain imposed an economic boycott over its alleged support for terrorism – also played a key role.
At the same time, Abbas could be interested in making the reconciliation work to strengthen his hand in possible US-led peace diplomacy.
But, tellingly, he has not lifted the sanctions on the Strip. If he does not do that to coincide with Tuesday’s PA cabinet meeting in Gaza, it will be an indication he is still skeptical about the reconciliation.
And skepticism is appropriate, since besides agreeing to talk, the two sides have not really done anything yet. In particular, they have not made concessions on the thorniest issues. One of these is the fate of 43,000 Hamas-appointed government employees in Gaza. A 2014 reconciliation agreement foundered over this, with Fatah saying they should be sacked and Hamas insisting on their integration into the PA administration.
An even greater challenge is security. Abbas and the PA want full security control of Gaza and to avoid having a Hezbollah-like situation in the Strip, while Hamas is adamant that its Izzedin al-Qassam brigades be left intact so that it can combat Israel. Hamas deputy political chief Musa Abu Marzouk was quoted in media reports recently as saying Hamas will not agree to discuss a change in the brigades’ status with Fatah. “We are talking about weapons whose purpose is to defend the Palestinian people and as long as the Palestinian people is under occupation this weaponry will continue to be ready for every scenario.”
And Hamas leader Yihya Sinwar boasted over the weekend of the brigades’ ability to barrage Tel Aviv with many rockets in a short period of time.
Ashraf Ajrami, a former PA minister said it is possible, however, that in order to allow the reconciliation to proceed, Abbas will agree that the Qassam brigades keep their weapons for now, as long as they do not interfere in the working of the PA government or take actions that could cause war with Israel.
That would entail a seemingly unlikely turn for Abbas from his long-held insistence that there only be one set of weapons for one authority. In practice, it is hard to see any way the PA can govern the Strip in a sustained way while Hamas retains the military power it refuses to relinquish.