Hollow ‘reconciliation’ in Palestine

Hamas and Fatah’s agreement will only maintain the status quo of division, called ‘unity’ only for public consumption.

Palestinian President Abbas Holds Meetings In Berlin - Ali Abunimah article
Rather than supporting division with a reconciliation intended only for show, and putting false hope into a defunct ‘peace process’, Palestinians should throw their full weight behind the BDS movement [GALLO/GETTY]

By deciding to join the US-backed Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas risks turning its back on its role as a resistance movement, without gaining any additional leverage that could help Palestinians free themselves from Israeli occupation and colonial rule.

Indeed, knowingly or not, Hamas may be embarking down the same well-trodden path as Abbas’ Fatah faction: committing itself to joining a US-controlled “peace process”, over which Palestinians have no say – and have no prospect of emerging with their rights intact. In exchange, Hamas may hope to earn a role alongside Abbas in ruling over the fraction of the Palestinians living under permanent Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Whether Hamas realises it or not, it has effectively entered into a coalition with Israel and Abbas to manage the Occupied Territories, in which Hamas will have much responsibility, but little power.

Hamas bows to pressure

Many Palestinians celebrated the hugs and handshakes between Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and Mahmoud Abbas as they signed the reconciliation paper in Cairo on May 4. But few took the time to examine what was at stake. The deal reportedly included several key provisions: formation of a “national unity government” with a prime minister chosen by consensus; preparation for Palestinian Authority elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in a year; combining the security forces controlled by the separate factions; and reactivating the Palestinian Legislative Council – in which Hamas won an overwhelming majority in 2006. Notably, there was no commitment to real reform and democratisation of the defunct PLO to re-enfranchise the majority of Palestinians, who do not live in the Occupied Territories.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal on May 7, Meshaal said Hamas would now make all key decisions in consensus with other factions, particularly Abbas’ Fatah: “How to manage the resistance, what’s the best way to achieve our goals, when to escalate and when to cease fire, now we have to agree on all those decisions as Palestinians.” Other areas that Meshaal said would be decided by consensus include “negotiations with Israel, domestic governance, foreign affairs, domestic security and resistance and other field activities”.

The problem is that, on the most fundamental issues behind the intra-Palestinian split, there is no evidence of any “consensus”. Rather, Hamas has bowed to pressure. For many years, Hamas correctly objected to the Abbas-controlled PA’s open collaboration with Israeli occupation forces in the West Bank and, until June 2007, in Gaza. This collaboration has targeted not just Hamas members, but activists and organisations which resist Israeli occupation with nonviolent means.

The Palestine Papers, revealed by Al Jazeera in January, document how deeply this collaboration went, including PA officials urging Israel to tighten the siege of Gaza, efforts by the PA to block Israeli releases of Palestinian prisoners,  and secret committees to undermine the previous Palestinian national unity government established in 2007. Top PA official Saeb Erekat notoriously boasted to a US counterpart that “we even killed our own people” in the course of such “security” work for Israel.

Had Abbas apologised for, renounced and foresworn such activities as part of the reconciliation, then it might be understandable that Hamas would sign the deal. But nothing was mentioned about ending PA-Israeli collaboration – and there is every sign that the PA will continue with it. Indeed it has no option but to do so or risk losing the US and European financial support that props it up.

No change on the ground

Following the unity deal, senior Israeli commanders in the occupied West Bank saw no change in their close relationship with their PA counterparts, Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer reported. “None of the Palestinian local representatives or security officers I have spoken to over the past week have said that it changes anything for them,” one Israeli officer said.

“Naturally, we are keeping our eyes open for any change in security co-ordination,” an Israeli army regional brigade commander told Pfeffer. “But as far as I can tell, it is business as usual for the Palestinian Authority’s security forces. Their priority up to now has been to prevent Hamas from gaining a toe-hold in the West Bank, and they have made it clear to us that nothing for them has changed.”

This was confirmed by Abbas himself, who told pro-Israel lobbyists visiting from the US on May 8, according to The New York Times“I hear rumours that Hamas will be in the West Bank, or that it will share authority here. This will not happen.” Abbas was urging the Israel lobbyists to help convince the US Congress not to cut off the financial aid on which Abbas depends.

What this means, in effect, is that Hamas has agreed to join a Palestinian Authority which is actively engaged in a war against Hamas in conjunction with Israel – and that both Hamas and Fatah have decided to maintain division as a policy, but to rename it “unity”, merely for public consumption.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s calls for Abbas to annul the deal with Hamas should be understood as evidence of how much value Israel puts in its relationship with the PA  – and Israel does not want to see that relationship jeopardised. Yet while Israel may protest, it has no short-term alternative but to continue to rely on the PA to carry out the day-to-day work of enforcing the occupation.

Israel could not easily bear the financial, political and social costs of returning to a military occupation unmediated by a collaborating Palestinian proxy force. So for now, it looks like Abbas, Netanyahu and Hamas will enter into an uneasy de facto coalition which will last as long as Hamas sticks to a ceasefire and Israel chooses not to break it. In all likelihood, Israel will try to break up the coalition by launching military attacks and provocations in Gaza in an attempt to get the military wing of Hamas and other Palestinian factions to retaliate.

No programme

Hamas has long signalled its desire to move away from armed struggle toward purely political means  this is the essence of its proposed hudna, or long-term truce, with Israel. It is of course possible to defend the legitimate and universal right to armed resistance against occupation, while choosing not to exercise it. “Where there is occupation and settlement, there is a right to resistance. Israel is the aggressor,” Meshaal told The New York Times on May 5, “But resistance is a means, not an end.”

Yet to choose different means, a movement has to have a viable political strategy and a clear definition of its ends. Hamas has failed to articulate, or to rally the Palestinian people around either. Instead its strategy appears to be simply to sign on to the inherently unjust, and infeasible “two-state solution” – and hope for admission to “the peace process”.

Meshaal told The New York Times of working toward a “common national agenda” for Palestinians which the Hamas leader defined as “a Palestinian state in the 1967 lines with Jerusalem as its capital, without any settlements or settlers, not an inch of land swaps and respecting the right of return” of Palestinian refugees to their homes in what is now Israel.

Anyone who has not been asleep for the past few years would have to recognise that this is not a “common national agenda”. Meshaal’s new partner, Abbas, for one, does not agree to it. Again, The Palestine Papers show conclusively that Abbas and his men offered Israel much less than this minimal programme, conceding almost all of Israel’s settlements in and around Jerusalem, and the right of return.

It is difficult to work out what Hamas leaders’ calculations are: do they really have no better ideas? Are they afraid that Abbas’ push to have a Palestinian state recognised at the UN in September will gain steam and they will miss out? Do they recognise that the “peace process” will deliver nothing, but hope to avoid blame and inherit the leadership of the Palestinian national movement from Fatah?

There is also much speculation that the regional context especially the uprising in Syria and ongoing instability in Iran  –  has Hamas leaders worried enough about their position that they rushed to embrace and re-legitimise Abbas. It is important to recall that while Hamas has taken support from Iran, it always did so reluctantly, and as a last resort after its earlier openings to Europe and the United States were spurned – and after Saudi Arabia cut off its traditional support to the movement under Bush administration pressure.

Saudi Arabia had tried previously to defy this US diktat by brokering the 2007 Mecca Agreement which ushered in the short-lived “national unity government” which, as is now well-known, the Bush administration actively schemed to overthrow along with elements of Fatah. Could we now be seeing Hamas trying to move out of Iran’s orbit and back toward the Saudi axis?

Undoubtedly Hamas, like other regional actors, is in a bind, and may think it is smart enough to avoid the pitfalls of accepting the ever-shrinking two-state paradigm and entering into the “peace process”. But it could get trapped just like Fatah, especially since it seems to have few other cards.

What the Hamas-Fatah “reconciliation” deal painfully demonstrates, contrary to the hopes of most Palestinians, is that neither Fatah nor Hamas has any idea how to get Palestinians out of their impasse. Both seem concerned merely with sharing the spoils of the Palestinian Authority and managing between them the wreckage of the failed Oslo accords.

Whatever Hamas and Fatah leaders do, the worst mistake the rest of the Palestinians could make is to leave the fate of their national movement in such hands.

A real Palestinian unity platform

If Hamas and Fatah have lost sight of what a real, effective and viable platform for national unity and struggle might look like, that does not mean such a platform does not exist. It does in the form of the 2005 Palestinian civil society call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS).

Endorsed by hundreds of Palestinian organisations, the BDS call does not concern itself with “solutions”, but with rights for all Palestinians everywhere.

Its three demands are an end to Israel’s occupation and colonisation of all Arab lands controlled by Israel since 1967; full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel; and full respect for the rights of refugees – including the right of return.

Moreover, this inclusive programme provides a means of struggle: building international solidarity campaigns to support Palestinians on the ground, by isolating Israel the way apartheid South Africa was isolated in the 1980s, until Israel respects Palestinian rights. Those who dismiss this campaign should note that Israeli leaders call BDS an “existential threat” because they understand its growing power.

The BDS call truly unites all Palestinians by addressing all of their rights. Instead of waiting for factional leaders to hatch their own programmes behind close doors and force them on the rest of us, we should invite them to endorse the BDS call and work toward implementing it. And if they don’t, we should carry on without them.

Ali Abunimah is author of One Country, A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse and is a contributor to The Goldstone Report: The Legacy of the Landmark Investigation of the Gaza Conflict. He is a co-founder of the online publication Electronic Intifada and a policy adviser with Al-Shabaka, The Palestinian Policy Network.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.