Clueless in Gaza

It’s time for the Palestinians to change the discourse from reconciliation to elections.


On July 17, six years of Palestinian unification talks met their demise as Hamas, the far-right militarized movement and ruling party in Gaza, swiftly rejected an ultimatum by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, to come to truce with its political rival Fatah. 

Efforts to patch up differences between the two groups are anything but new. Three agreements have been signed by both sides under Saudi, Qatari, and Egyptian patronage. Dozens of reconciliatory meetings have taken place. And yet Gaza remains politically separated from the West Bank. For many, Palestinian reconciliation has become a mantra, an elusive goal that is taking the Palestinians nowhere at a time when talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians are set to resume. 

Fatah, the party in control of the West Bank, is consistently at odds with Hamas over the Israel-Palestine peace process and who represents the Palestinians. This difference in perspective has led to profound disagreements over management of Palestine, most visibly manifesting in the organizing of presidential and parliamentary elections — which are supposed to be held contiguously every four years. With the 2009 elections disrupted again and again by disagreements over electoral law, President Abbas, backed by Fatah, has been ruling Palestine with a long expired mandate. 

In an effort to present a unified front capable of combating the Gaza Strip blockade, the Palestinian National Authority (PA) is making a stand to call for elections. During a meeting to discuss U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s Israel-Palestine peace efforts with David Carroll of The Carter Center, a senior Fatah official said that August 14 (coinciding with the resumption of Israel-Palestine peace talks on the same day) would be Hamas’s "last chance" to embrace unity.

But Hamas isn’t having any of it. In a statement to local media, a Hamas political advisor, Yusif Rizqah, called the ultimatum "worthless," with special mention of the fact that there has been no communication between political leaders since Abbas has been "busy in meetings with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry." Speaking to AFP, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri went on to assert that Abbas had "no legitimacy to negotiate in the name of the Palestinian people on the core issues." Spokesman Ihab al-Ghossein added that "the Palestinian people will not accept those who negotiate on its behalf without a mandate." 

The kicker, however, is that if Hamas continues to refuse to participate, then whomever Fatah puts forth, either Abbas or his successor, will have sufficient authority to directly negotiate the final-status issues, e.g. borders, Jerusalem, and refugees, with Israel. 

Speak to any Palestinian politician or media pundit nowadays and you will certainly hear fancy phrases about the necessity to achieve "reconciliation" between the two groups. But with this cool response from Hamas, the time has come to change the discourse. Hamas-Fatah talks have been held sporadically under Arab mediation since 2008, but they have resoundingly failed to achieve anything. Nor is there any reason to believe that they will. 

Since there is clearly little incentive for the sides to overcome their disagreements, it is imperative to change the discourse from reconciliation to elections in order to end the Fatah-Hamas split. True, Hamas won the legislative elections in 2006. Since then, however, it has refused to hold any elections in the Gaza Strip under the pretext that mending the ties with Fatah must precede elections. 

But reality has caught up with Palestinians. Unification efforts need to take a backseat in light of the harsh consequences of delay and stagnation. Signs of frustration with Hamas have recently become more visible, making a change in tactics crucial. The Syrian conflict has meant a reduction in aid from Iran after Hamas publicly sided with the Syrian rebels against Tehran’s ally Bashar al-Assad. This has cost Hamas its ability to pay the monthly salaries of civil servants and policemen. The illegal tunnels under Gaza’s border with Egypt also recently collapsed, which was relied upon to blunt the impact of Israel’s blockade. Today, 39 percent of Gaza’s 1.5 million residents living below the poverty line, self-immolation has become the last resort for many. A Palestinian health official said that around 30 cases of attempted suicide are received monthly in Gaza hospitals. 

Hamas appears to have run out of options to meet the costs of running a viable government. 

Incidents of clashes between Hamas’s police force and Palestinian civilians are also on the lips of every Gazan. The fear of Hamas, which previously found pride in its ability to impose law and order to what has been a lawless territory, seems to be vanishing. A pro-Hamas commentator has recently called for taking a "decisive position" to respond to this phenomenon, a comment reflective of the Islamist group’s concern about its waning control. 

But it is essential that such an effort — when it happens — should come to life with the clear goal of holding elections instead of becoming a random, short fit of public anger. Fatah’s members in Gaza are under close scrutiny by Hamas’s internal security apparatus, while other Palestinian factions are in no better straits. Members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) have been arrested and beaten by Hamas police for handing out leaflets critical of the ruling party’s policies. Even Islamic groups are not safe; the pro-Hezbollah Islamic Jihad saw one of its field commanders die in clashes with Hamas’s police force following a raid on his house. 

Hamas is responding to its apparent weakness and its failure to solve the public’s problems in its habitual style: It rounded up dozens of what it described as collaborators with Israel amid much local media fanfare. Some of the collaborators were handed hasty death sentences. Few have already been executed while others find themselves imprisoned on death row. 

So what to do if Hamas is unwilling to play ball? 

Non-partisan civil society in Gaza includes around 860 NGOs and hundreds more smaller community-based organizations (CBOs) that are capable of pulling off waves of public protest. Indeed, Palestinian civil society activists in the West Bank and Gaza have repeatedly attempted to end the division and put pressure on Hamas and Fatah to bridge their rift. 

One movement, organized over Facebook in early 2011, succeeded in gaining the support of tens of thousands in Gaza and the West Bank who took to the streets to demand unity. These protests were received well in the West Bank by the Palestinian Authority, which reportedly sent the protesters falafel sandwiches. (They were rejected, however, by hunger strikers protesting the detention of Palestinians by Israel.) Hamas initially approved the March 15 gatherings in Gaza City before hijacking the protest with its own partisan discourse and activists. When the disgruntled young protesters went to another location in the city, Hamas’s riot police were waiting there with their batons. 

The failed 2011 attempt was an early reminder that Hamas is not willing to voluntarily relinquish its control of Gaza. But it also showed that Palestinians have had enough of the fighting. Efforts at promoting unity above all else run the risk of artificially papering over the genuine divergences of interest among various groups, leaving important differences to simmer unaddressed. The virtue of elections is that they allow for the peaceful articulation of such differences and (ideally) create conditions for the different groups involved to craft solutions. 

A Palestinian poll in March 2013 found a "dramatic reversal" in Palestinian attitudes towards reconciliation. Around half of the sample believed reconciliation was impossible and required regime change in either Gaza or the West Bank, or in both areas. The poll also showed that two thirds to three quarters of the Palestinians thought it was impossible for Fatah and Hamas to reconcile without a set date for elections. 

We cannot simply fault Israel for all the problems in Palestine. Elections in Palestine are therefore likely to be welcomed by the weary public. It will give them the final say over the destination of the Palestinian national movement and put an end to the six-year saga of wasted negotiations between Hamas and Fatah. 

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