Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Déjà Vu in the West Bank and Gaza

Hamas and Fatah's latest unity agreement is doomed to failure. So why do the Palestinian factions keep trying?

Andrew Burton
Andrew Burton

Six months ago, the Palestinians’ warring factions, Hamas and Fatah, surprised the world by announcing a new unity government after years of trying to overcome their differences. Outraged Israeli negotiators cancelled meetings with their Palestinian counterparts while American lawmakers decried Hamas’s involvement in any Palestinian Authority (PA) government. Palestinian officials, on the other hand, cheered the agreement, insisting that national elections would be held in six months, thereby putting an end to the schisms that have hindered diplomatic progress as much as any Israeli actions in Gaza or the West Bank have.

In the intervening period, that hopeful attempt at a unity government fell apart dramatically. Between kidnappings, all-out war, and possible coup attempts, relations between the two sides hit rock bottom. But last week, Palestinian officials met once again in Cairo, their go-to arena for negotiations. And again, they agreed to the very same principles they had agreed to six months earlier. But they are no closer to elections, and perhaps more pointedly, no closer to true unity. It’s calculated cynicism — not hopeful harmony — that brought the two sides together again. And it won’t last.

If it seems like there wasn’t anything new in the Sept. 25 agreement, that’s because there wasn’t. The agreement, much like the other deals signed between Fatah and Hamas in the past, was noticeably light on details. Apart from the proclamation that the PA would now be charged with governing Gaza, the document offered broad platitudes about the need for reconciliation, a recommitment to the establishment of a Palestinian state, and a desire to end the Israeli blockade of Gaza and prepare for an international donor conference in October for post-war reconstruction efforts in Gaza.

Buried beneath all that was one sentence dedicated to stressing the need to "quickly provide conditions for holding elections in accordance with what is stated in the [previous] agreements and understandings."

In short, don’t hold your breath for any new elections.

Perhaps the most noticeable thing about this round of the reconciliation dance is the timing: Trust between Hamas and Fatah is at an all-time low. In June, Israel accused Hamas of kidnapping and killing three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank — accusations that were later confirmed when a senior Hamas leader in Turkey lauded the operation at a conference that included Turkey’s deputy prime minister. PA President and Fatah chief Mahmoud Abbas condemned the kidnapping and murders, even going so far as to increase security cooperation with Israel during the manhunt for Hamas members in the West Bank.

Then there was the war in Gaza, which Hamas started, and which Abbas and the Fatah leadership clearly did not want. From Fatah’s perspective, the war was a political maneuver by a Machiavellian Hamas seeking to boost its popularity among Palestinians and sideline Fatah. With each passing day of the 50-day-long conflict, Abbas looked weaker and weaker compared to Hamas, which was trading blows with the Israeli military. (Never mind the fact that the Hamas leadership was either situated comfortably outside of Gaza or deep beneath the ground in fortified bunkers.) In polls after the war, Abbas’s unease was confirmed as Hamas’s popularity surged.

If it looked like Hamas was trying to draw the West Bank into conflict, there was good reason for such suspicions. Reports surfaced earlier this month that a Hamas cell in the West Bank was planning to leverage the unrest to launch an armed takeover of the PA. Abbas, already scheduled to meet with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Doha in September, was furious. As leaked documents show, the meeting was tense, ending in a shouting match in which Abbas declared that he trusted the Israeli intelligence reports more than Meshaal.

With ties between Fatah and Hamas on the rocks, the question remains as to the motivations for recommitting to this unity agreement. Even less clear is how the two sides agreed to come back to the negotiating table. It’s not as if Egypt, which negotiated the cease-fire deal with the Israelis, has terrific sway with either faction right now. One obvious answer would be to respond to the wishes of the Palestinian public, which seeks to reunify the West Bank and Gaza Strip under one leader. The actual answer might be less quixotic: money. There is a huge amount of it on the table for both sides right now and both factions will benefit, if they can agree to unify.

In fact, apart from their antipathy for Israel, one of the only things the two sides have been able to agree on is the need for a large donor conference to raise funds for the reconstruction in Gaza after this summer’s war. Throw in Israel’s demands that any donated supplies be vetted and monitored before going into Gaza, not to mention the recent U.S. court ruling against the Arab Bank (the only bank with real reach into Gaza) that banks can now be prosecuted as complicit in processing transactions that fund terror groups and subsequent attacks, and the situation becomes more complicated for courting potential donors.

Both Palestinian factions know that a government under the control of Abbas and the PA is the only way to avoid the legal entanglements that would come with donating to a territory controlled by Hamas, which is designated as a terrorist organization by most Western countries. So, even though most donor nations understand that this unity arrangement is more Palestinian political stagecraft than a reflection of real reconciliation, they all understand that Gaza under the PA is decidedly more donor-friendly. With an Egypt-sponsored conference to collect donations for Gaza reconstruction two weeks away, the need to show that this non-partisan PA would be in control of Gaza was tantamount. The PA has not had to give up anything to fulfill this role, except for the fact that it is now effectively serving as a guarantor of a terrorist group.

U.S. lawmakers were grumbling about this arrangement in the spring, before billions of dollars were on the line. They believe that any unity arrangement will grant Hamas all the benefits of governing Gaza without the trouble of actually governing, while allowing Hamas to stay entrenched in the coastal enclave without having to disarm. Analysts are calling this the "Hezbollah model," whereby Hamas remains a threat to Israel (and the region) while working well beyond the reach of the governing authority (read: PA), as Hezbollah does in Lebanon.

Another issue with this new agreement is logistical: This government was initially only charged with preparing the West Bank and Gaza for elections. What it is now charged with, according to the latest agreement, is the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the Gaza Strip. And with the PA’s track record of corruption and mismanagement, it’s hard to imagine that it can deliver. Logistics alone could be challenging. How can Palestinians and observers expect the PA to reconstruct Gaza from its seat of power in the West Bank, when the distance from Ramallah to Gaza is more than 60 miles? The distrust between these two territories runs deep: The PA’s health minister wasn’t even able to enter Gaza in July without being stoned and kicked out.

Of course, this unity agreement could be nothing more than a vehicle for Mahmoud Abbas to advance his initiative to internationalize the conflict. He made a splash at the UN on Sept. 26, asking the international community to exert more pressure on Israel for a withdrawal from the West Bank. He certainly could not have done so without representing a united Palestinian front. But if the Palestinians are truly about to take this conflict international, they need a unified base. Whether or not they actually have it is up for debate.

Six months ago, the Palestinians’ warring factions, Hamas and Fatah, surprised the world by announcing a new unity government after years of trying to overcome their differences. Outraged Israeli negotiators cancelled meetings with their Palestinian counterparts while American lawmakers decried Hamas’s involvement in any Palestinian Authority (PA) government. Palestinian officials, on the other hand, cheered the agreement, insisting that national elections would be held in six months, thereby putting an end to the schisms that have hindered diplomatic progress as much as any Israeli actions in Gaza or the West Bank have.

In the intervening period, that hopeful attempt at a unity government fell apart dramatically. Between kidnappings, all-out war, and possible coup attempts, relations between the two sides hit rock bottom. But last week, Palestinian officials met once again in Cairo, their go-to arena for negotiations. And again, they agreed to the very same principles they had agreed to six months earlier. But they are no closer to elections, and perhaps more pointedly, no closer to true unity. It’s calculated cynicism — not hopeful harmony — that brought the two sides together again. And it won’t last.

If it seems like there wasn’t anything new in the Sept. 25 agreement, that’s because there wasn’t. The agreement, much like the other deals signed between Fatah and Hamas in the past, was noticeably light on details. Apart from the proclamation that the PA would now be charged with governing Gaza, the document offered broad platitudes about the need for reconciliation, a recommitment to the establishment of a Palestinian state, and a desire to end the Israeli blockade of Gaza and prepare for an international donor conference in October for post-war reconstruction efforts in Gaza.

Buried beneath all that was one sentence dedicated to stressing the need to "quickly provide conditions for holding elections in accordance with what is stated in the [previous] agreements and understandings."

In short, don’t hold your breath for any new elections.

Perhaps the most noticeable thing about this round of the reconciliation dance is the timing: Trust between Hamas and Fatah is at an all-time low. In June, Israel accused Hamas of kidnapping and killing three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank — accusations that were later confirmed when a senior Hamas leader in Turkey lauded the operation at a conference that included Turkey’s deputy prime minister. PA President and Fatah chief Mahmoud Abbas condemned the kidnapping and murders, even going so far as to increase security cooperation with Israel during the manhunt for Hamas members in the West Bank.

Then there was the war in Gaza, which Hamas started, and which Abbas and the Fatah leadership clearly did not want. From Fatah’s perspective, the war was a political maneuver by a Machiavellian Hamas seeking to boost its popularity among Palestinians and sideline Fatah. With each passing day of the 50-day-long conflict, Abbas looked weaker and weaker compared to Hamas, which was trading blows with the Israeli military. (Never mind the fact that the Hamas leadership was either situated comfortably outside of Gaza or deep beneath the ground in fortified bunkers.) In polls after the war, Abbas’s unease was confirmed as Hamas’s popularity surged.

If it looked like Hamas was trying to draw the West Bank into conflict, there was good reason for such suspicions. Reports surfaced earlier this month that a Hamas cell in the West Bank was planning to leverage the unrest to launch an armed takeover of the PA. Abbas, already scheduled to meet with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Doha in September, was furious. As leaked documents show, the meeting was tense, ending in a shouting match in which Abbas declared that he trusted the Israeli intelligence reports more than Meshaal.

With ties between Fatah and Hamas on the rocks, the question remains as to the motivations for recommitting to this unity agreement. Even less clear is how the two sides agreed to come back to the negotiating table. It’s not as if Egypt, which negotiated the cease-fire deal with the Israelis, has terrific sway with either faction right now. One obvious answer would be to respond to the wishes of the Palestinian public, which seeks to reunify the West Bank and Gaza Strip under one leader. The actual answer might be less quixotic: money. There is a huge amount of it on the table for both sides right now and both factions will benefit, if they can agree to unify.

In fact, apart from their antipathy for Israel, one of the only things the two sides have been able to agree on is the need for a large donor conference to raise funds for the reconstruction in Gaza after this summer’s war. Throw in Israel’s demands that any donated supplies be vetted and monitored before going into Gaza, not to mention the recent U.S. court ruling against the Arab Bank (the only bank with real reach into Gaza) that banks can now be prosecuted as complicit in processing transactions that fund terror groups and subsequent attacks, and the situation becomes more complicated for courting potential donors.

Both Palestinian factions know that a government under the control of Abbas and the PA is the only way to avoid the legal entanglements that would come with donating to a territory controlled by Hamas, which is designated as a terrorist organization by most Western countries. So, even though most donor nations understand that this unity arrangement is more Palestinian political stagecraft than a reflection of real reconciliation, they all understand that Gaza under the PA is decidedly more donor-friendly. With an Egypt-sponsored conference to collect donations for Gaza reconstruction two weeks away, the need to show that this non-partisan PA would be in control of Gaza was tantamount. The PA has not had to give up anything to fulfill this role, except for the fact that it is now effectively serving as a guarantor of a terrorist group.

U.S. lawmakers were grumbling about this arrangement in the spring, before billions of dollars were on the line. They believe that any unity arrangement will grant Hamas all the benefits of governing Gaza without the trouble of actually governing, while allowing Hamas to stay entrenched in the coastal enclave without having to disarm. Analysts are calling this the "Hezbollah model," whereby Hamas remains a threat to Israel (and the region) while working well beyond the reach of the governing authority (read: PA), as Hezbollah does in Lebanon.

Another issue with this new agreement is logistical: This government was initially only charged with preparing the West Bank and Gaza for elections. What it is now charged with, according to the latest agreement, is the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the Gaza Strip. And with the PA’s track record of corruption and mismanagement, it’s hard to imagine that it can deliver. Logistics alone could be challenging. How can Palestinians and observers expect the PA to reconstruct Gaza from its seat of power in the West Bank, when the distance from Ramallah to Gaza is more than 60 miles? The distrust between these two territories runs deep: The PA’s health minister wasn’t even able to enter Gaza in July without being stoned and kicked out.

Of course, this unity agreement could be nothing more than a vehicle for Mahmoud Abbas to advance his initiative to internationalize the conflict. He made a splash at the UN on Sept. 26, asking the international community to exert more pressure on Israel for a withdrawal from the West Bank. He certainly could not have done so without representing a united Palestinian front. But if the Palestinians are truly about to take this conflict international, they need a unified base. Whether or not they actually have it is up for debate.

Grant Rumley is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the co-author of the forthcoming book The Last Palestinian: The Rise and Reign of Mahmoud Abbas (Prometheus, July 2017).

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