Hamas’s offer to submit to a long-delayed reconciliation process with its Fatah rivals signals that the balance of regional forces may be tipping in its favour and against Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, analysts say.
Officials from the Palestinian Authority (PA), led by Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, are due in Gaza on Monday, for the first time in three years, to test Hamas’s commitment to establishing a unity government.
The first weekly government meeting is scheduled to take place on Tuesday, with an Egyptian delegation overseeing the proceedings.
Most analysts expect the reconciliation process to fail, as previous attempts have. The biggest stumbling block is likely to be over long-promised elections. Polls suggest that Hamas would win in both Gaza and the West Bank.
Nonetheless, the move is being hailed by PA officials as a victory for Abbas, Fatah’s leader, after he imposed harsh sanctions on Gaza over the summer to punish Hamas for setting up what was viewed as a shadow government there.
Abbas more alone than ever?
Abbas’s measures have included cutting electricity to a few hours a day and slashing the salaries of thousands of government workers.
But experts argue that the move towards reconciliation initiated by Hamas puts it – not Abbas – in the driving seat, by helping it find a way out of its regional isolation.
Abbas, by contrast, appears more alone than ever, with no tangible support for his diplomatic campaign for Palestinian statehood from Israel, the US administration or the Gulf states.
“The severity of the measures against Hamas have in a sense backfired on Abbas,” said Nathan Thrall, a Jerusalem-based analyst with the International Crisis Group, a conflict resolution think-tank.
“[The sanctions] frightened everyone by deepening the humanitarian crisis and accelerating the gradual march towards renewed escalation between Israel and Hamas. Egypt had no choice but to react to try forestall another war.”
Thrall said the unpredictable consequences of such hostilities could include Gaza’s Palestinians storming the Rafah crossing into Egypt, or accusations from across the Arab world of Egyptian complicity with Israel.
Cairo has responded in part by easing conditions in Gaza, noted Thrall. It has been supplying fuel to the enclave – with Israel’s quiet approval – in defiance of Abbas’s sanctions.
But Cairo has also appeared ready to give Hamas the leeway necessary to cultivate a range of strategic ties across the region.
Egypt, Hamas have ‘shared interests’
After Abdel Fattah el-Sisi seized power in Egypt in 2013, he sealed off Gaza’s one border with Sinai, effectively joining Israel’s blockade. He justified his tough stance by accusing Hamas of aiding fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) in Sinai and conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s own Islamic movement, to subvert his rule.
Menachem Klein, a politics professor at Bar Ilan University, near Tel Aviv, and an expert on Israeli-Egyptian relations, said Hamas had been gradually winning Sisi’s confidence.
“The politicisation of Hamas has been gaining momentum since it took part in, and won, the 2006 [Palestinian national] elections,” he told Al Jazeera.
He pointed out that Hamas’s revised charter, published in May, had opened the door to further cooperation with Cairo by effectively renouncing the group’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.
“Egypt and Hamas have shared interests. Hamas can limit the influence of ISIL in Gaza and ensure [Gaza’s existing ISIL] supporters cannot connect with ISIS in Sinai. In return, Egypt can open the Rafah crossing and break Israel’s closure.”
Egypt’s biggest concession, however, may have been its tacit consent for Hamas to strengthen its ties to other regional actors, putting Abbas further on the back foot.
Thrall noted that, despite Egypt’s oversight of the reconciliation process, Hamas was also renewing its ties to Iran and Syria.
The loss of Damascus as a base has been keenly felt ever since. A Shia axis of Iran, Syria and the Lebanese faction Hezbollah had supplied Hamas with training, weapons and intelligence information.
In a sign of Hamas’s commitment to mending fences, a senior Hamas delegation visited Tehran in August.
Afterwards, Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s leader in Gaza, said the relationship was “returning to what it was in the old days”, adding that Iran was helping with “money and arms”.
Hamas wants Egypt and the Gulf's diplomatic support, but it knows that Iran will offer military backing in a way the Sunni states won't.
It is possible that Hamas’s overtures to Iran and Syria are in part designed to raise the stakes for Egypt, which along with a Saudi-led group of Gulf states, is bitterly opposed to increased Iranian and Shia influence in the region.
“Hamas does not want to have to choose,” Thrall told Al Jazeera. “It wants Egypt and the Gulf’s diplomatic support, but it knows that Iran will offer military backing in a way the Sunni states won’t.”
Another indication that Hamas is likely to emerge from the reconciliation process strengthened – whether moves towards unity succeed or fail – is the group’s increasingly close ties to exiled Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan.
Dahlan, who is living in the United Arab Emirates, has been seeking a way to get back into the occupied Palestinian territories to challenge Abbas’s leadership, said Diana Buttu, a former adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organization.
“If Dahlan wants to be a player, he can’t remain in exile. He has to come back and portray Abbas as the obstacle – to reconciliation, to solving Gaza’s problems and to developing a proper liberation strategy,” she told Al Jazeera.
Thrall observed that Egypt wanted a twin-track reconciliation – between Hamas and Fatah, and within Fatah, between Abbas and critics such as Dahlan.
But in practice, said Buttu, Egypt has prioritised unity between Hamas and Dahlan, as well as Fatah critics of Abbas. “They have been given a chance to form a common front against Abbas’s rule, to become allies,” she said.
Egypt, along with the Saudi-led Gulf states, she noted, has grown increasingly exasperated by Abbas’s failure to anoint a successor, hold elections and promote a new generation of reformers. Instead, they have helped Dahlan to create a power base in Gaza, allowing him to channel money into the enclave from the UAE.
Dahlan stepped up his efforts last month by launching his own Fatah-Hamas reconciliation programme, distributing $50,000 apiece to families whose loved ones were killed or injured in the clashes in 2007 that removed Fatah from Gaza. The compensation was designed to win him new allies in Hamas and Fatah’s most powerful families.
In late June, Zvi Barel, a leading analyst with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, reported that Egypt, the UAE and Israel were seeking to persuade Hamas to agree to install Dahlan as prime minister of what would effectively become a “state of Gaza”. Dahlan’s loyalists would be in charge of the Rafah crossing into Sinai, and the UAE would finance a power plant.
Dahlan is reported to have ties to both Israel and the United States, as well as Egypt and the UAE, which reportedly view him as the main candidate to succeed Abbas.
According to the Haaretz report, Egypt, the UAE and Israel see Dahlan’s influence in Gaza as a way to weaken Abbas and “neutralise” the roles of Turkey and Qatar. Doha has been helping to finance the enclave’s reconstruction after a devastating military attack by Israel in 2014.
Last week, Haaretz military analyst Amos Harel observed that “the UAE is trying to push [Qatar] out of Gaza by spending its own money there”, channelled through Dahlan.
Meanwhile, said Klein, the accommodation between Hamas and Dahlan had freed “Hamas to enlarge its relations with the region. It can build ties to Egypt, UAE and maybe the Saudis – so far they have kept silent. If Hamas can move closer to Egypt, that will calm Saudi concerns.”
As a result, he added, “Abbas has been pushed into the corner.”
Klein said Hamas wanted to extend its rule from Gaza to the West Bank. “Then it can negotiate a long-term interim agreement with Israel – a truce – based on the 1967 borders. It needs Egypt’s help because Egypt can advocate to Europe and the US on its behalf.”
According to Klein, Abbas is now exposed. “He has no Plan B if his diplomatic process for statehood fails. He depends exclusively on US support, and Donald Trump is now in charge. The US president isn’t even ready to cooperate with Europe on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.”
During his trip to New York for the UN General Assembly last month, Sisi met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reiterate the pressing need for a peace accord.
But Egypt knows no serious pressure can be exerted on Israel for talks unless Hamas and Fatah reconcile. Netanyahu would prefer to keep the focus on Iran rather than the Palestinians, using Abbas’s domestic weakness as a pretext for inaction.
Buttu observed that Israel’s overriding priority was to foil reconciliation and maintain the territorial split between Gaza and the occupied West Bank.
The only capital Israel could extract from unity, she said, would be to discredit Abbas for colluding with “terrorists” and thereby bolster the case that the international community should block funding to the PA – as happened after the last Palestinian elections in 2006, which Hamas won.
“In that situation, the PA will have to focus all its energies on survival and raising money rather than developing a strategy of resistance,” she said.
Buttu added that reconciliation was unlikely to succeed as long there was little collective pressure for it from the Arab world.
“The Arab states are focused on their own narrow interests rather than acting as the champions of the Palestinian cause, as they once did. Their approach now is that the Palestinians should be left to resolve their differences with Israel alone. That deep isolation has left the Palestinian national movement in disarray.”