A Fatah-Hamas Reconciliation. Has Anything Changed?

, October 3, 2017

Institute for Contemporary Affairs

Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation

Vol. 17, No. 28

  • Fatah and Hamas representatives will meet again in Cairo for a further round of talks on the difficult issues that so far have prevented a reconciliation.
  • No consensus was reached on the issues of the 40,000 Hamas government employees in Gaza, Hamas’ security and weapons, tunnels, control over border crossings, elections, Hamas’ integration into Fatah, and more.
  • According to Hamas and Fatah sources, the U.S. administration and Israel have dropped their opposition to internal Palestinian reconciliation. The U.S. administration wants to create a favorable regional atmosphere as it prepares to announce its “deal of the century” peace plan. The Israeli political echelon has come to terms with Hamas rule in Gaza and does not seek to replace it but, rather, to create long-term calm.
  • The PA chairman is apprehensive of the American peace plan. Aware that he has reached the end of his political road, Abbas hopes to make his exit as the leader who brought about a Palestinian national unification and reconciliation, and not as a figure who continued the rift between the West Bank and Gaza.
  • Abbas staunchly opposes Hamas’ aim of applying the model of Hizbullah’s rule in Lebanon to Gaza. Hamas wants the PA to deal only with providing services to the Strip’s population, while Hamas continues to wield the real reins of power based on its weapons, new weapons development, tunnels, and military might.

The rift between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip has already lasted 11 years, and Fatah-Hamas relations have seen ups and downs. None of the two sides’ agreements and understandings reached in these years have been upheld. The Palestinian street has gotten used to a state of separation that stems from ideological division and a struggle over power and authority that undermines Palestinian national interests.

Today, as well, despite an air of optimism generated by media and particularly Hamas media, the Palestinian street is taking a cautious, wait-and-see attitude.

After the celebrations in Gaza over the arrival of the Palestinian governmental delegation, led by Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, and the mutual declarations about the importance of Palestinian national unity, the test will come next week. Fatah and Hamas representatives will meet again in Cairo for a further round of talks on the difficult issues that so far have prevented a reconciliation.

Egypt has achieved a breakthrough by getting both sides to agree to implement the Cairo Agreement of 2011. No solution has yet been found, however, to the issues of the 40,000 Hamas government employees in Gaza, Hamas’ security and weapons, control over border crossings, elections, Hamas’ integration into Fatah, etc.

Nevertheless, senior Hamas and Fatah officials claim that this time, in light of regional developments and changes in the Palestinian arena, the reconciliation efforts are serious and the aim is to arrive at a full enactment of the reconciliation agreement.  What changed?

Egypt Has Resumed the Role of Regional Mediator

Over the past four months, Egypt has been diligently preparing for the reconciliation talks. With an eye to the American peace plan that will supposedly be announced by the end of the year, Egypt has made a strategic decision to resume the role of regional meditator and shepherd of the diplomatic process.

Egypt’s intensive involvement, along with its pressures on Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, has no precedent in the previous reconciliation attempts. Egypt’s goal is to devise a single Palestinian position on the negotiations that are soon to be renewed with Israel.

From a security standpoint, Egypt regards Gaza as its backyard and as an important asset.

Not wanting Gaza to become a terror hothouse that funnels weapons and terrorists to ISIS in northern Sinai, Egypt has eased its blockade of the Strip and sought to mend fences with Hamas.

The New Hamas Leadership

Hamas has elected a new leadership with Ismail Haniyeh and Yahya Sinwar at the top. Unlike the previous helmsman, Khaled Mashal, this new leadership is showing pragmatism and exercising total control of the movement’s military wing, with Sinwar playing a dual role as chief of the military wing and elected leader of Gaza.

That control makes the decision-making process much easier.

Hamas’ new leadership wants to influence the diplomatic process that is expected to emerge again in the coming weeks. While the new political document Hamas issued does not annul the anti-Semitic Hamas Charter of 1988, neither it nor Hamas’ desire to influence the future negotiations should be ignored.

The new document is aimed at appeasing the international community, enabling it to take a more moderate stance toward Hamas, and gaining a political foothold for Hamas in the future.

The crisis between Qatar and Arab states that accuse it of supporting terror has created a serious problem for Hamas. The movement’s headquarters are located in Qatar’s capital, Doha, and Qatar is a source of financial and diplomatic assistance.

Hamas has also had to officially sever its ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is considered a terror organization by Egypt and other Sunni Arab states.

Under Egyptian pressure, Hamas, which wants to build a strategic partnership with Egypt and ease the blockade on Gaza, has acceded to all of PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas’ preconditions. They entail dismantling the “shadow government” Hamas established in Gaza and handing power back to the Palestinian government in Ramallah, setting up a national unity government, and preparing for general elections. Hamas’ acquiescence in effect undercuts Abbas’ arguments against reconciling with it.   

Lifting the American-Israeli Veto

According to Hamas and Fatah sources, the U.S. administration and Israel have dropped their opposition to internal Palestinian reconciliation.

At the sidelines of September’s General Assembly 2017 session in New York, President Trump discussed the issue in meetings with Egyptian President Sisi, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, and Abbas.

The American consent enables Abbas to make progress on the reconciliation issue without fear of U.S. sanctions or aid cuts.

The administration wants to create a favorable regional atmosphere as it prepares to announce its “deal of the century” peace plan.

Last week, the Quartet (the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and Russia) issued a statement praising the reconciliation efforts without mentioning Hamas at all. In the past, the Quartet has been sharply critical of the movement.  

Senior Hamas official Mousa Abu Marzouk said Western diplomats had told him that U.S. policy has changed and the administration wants to see an internal Palestinian reconciliation.

Israel Wants Quiet on the Southern Front

The Israeli political echelon has come to terms with Hamas rule in Gaza and does not seek to replace it but, rather, to create long-term calm.

Israel is busy with the issue of Iran and its entrenchment in Syria. It is preparing for an escalation on its northern border and wants total quiet on its southern border with Gaza.

Palestinian internal reconciliation could help calm the situation in Gaza and along the border with Israel.

Abbas’ Political Considerations

The PA chairman is apprehensive of the American peace plan. He regards it as including two elements – enhanced autonomy and “regional peace” between Israel and the moderate Arab states – that will come at the Palestinians’ expense.

Abbas needs the help of all the Palestinian factions, and most of all Hamas, to reject President Trump’s plan out of hand.

Aware that he has reached the end of his political road, Abbas hopes to make his exit as the leader who brought about a Palestinian national unification and reconciliation, and not as a figure who continued the rift between the West Bank and Gaza.

Abbas Wants to Scuttle the Hamas-Dahlan Understandings

The PA chairman wants to prevent the return to the Palestinian political arena of Muhammad Dahlan, his bitter political rival, at any price.

Last June, under Egyptian patronage, Dahlan reached a set of understandings with Hamas that afford him a foothold in Gaza and an important role in sharing the leadership responsibilities with Hamas there.

Abbas, as a condition for a rapprochement with Hamas, is demanding the cancellation of the understandings with Dahlan. He believes that can be achieved if he reconciles with Hamas.

As Fatah-Hamas contacts on a reconciliation progress, and with the Hamdallah delegation’s visit to Gaza, Dahlan has already been pushed to the sidelines.  

Where Are Things Headed?

Abbas staunchly opposes Hamas’ aim of applying the model of Hizbullah’s rule in Lebanon to Gaza.

Hamas wants the PA to deal only with providing services to the Strip’s population, while Hamas continues to wield the real reins of power based on its weapons, new weapons development, tunnels, and military might.

Weapons are the most sensitive issue, and senior Hamas officials declare at every opportunity that the movement’s weapons will remain in its hands and will not be dismantled or handed over to the PA under any circumstances.

Hence, it appears that Egypt will try to formulate a roadmap, enabling slow progress towards a reconciliation that both sides can accept.

Possibly next week’s Fatah-Hamas talks in Cairo will make progress by temporarily bypassing the difficult obstacles. The Egyptians do not want the talks to break down; they would like to see them advance slowly while deferring the sensitive issues, such as Hamas’ continued possession of its weapons, to the future.

The weapons in Hamas’ hands are indeed a difficult matter for Abbas. Although Hamas claims it wants to keep them for purposes of fighting Israel, in reality, it has already used them to expel Fatah from Gaza in 2007.

And while recent months have indeed seen important regional changes as well as changes in Hamas, the Fatah leadership has remained as it is.

The question of whether those changes can suffice to bring both sides to a genuine, interest-based reconciliation does not have a clear answer at this point.

The situation is fluid, and the recent moves could be no more than a big show that will come apart as the gravity of the problems emerges.

Only time will tell, but one cannot entirely dismiss the possibility of reconciliation even if it is only short-lived. In the Middle East, anything is possible.

About Yoni Ben Menachem

Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as Director General and Chief Editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.