Palestine’s unity government: Cause for celebration and scepticism

With so many hurdles to overcome, can the Palestine unity deal really be implemented?

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the new unity government Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah with Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki during the swearing-in ceremony of the government [EPA]

The June 2 announcement of a Palestinian consensus government is both cause for celebration and scepticism. The national unity deal was struck in late April between Hamas and Fatah. It is a significant achievement in its own right, but also because it sets this latest agreement apart from previous, stillborn attempts at reconciliation between the two dominant Palestinian factions.

However, the government’s formation was not a foregone conclusion, having been delayed for days due to several disagreements over its make-up. This should have been the relatively easy part, not least because it involved the picking of independent rather than partisan figures, and because Israel could not torpedo the process.

The first hurdle in the national unity deal has been overcome, but the fact that it was touch and go – even briefly – highlights the monumental challenges that lie ahead. Implementation will only get harder from here on, hence the cause for scepticism amid the celebration.

The years of mutual distrust mean that the deal could still easily collapse, as has happened before. Furthermore, there are major questions for which the formation of a unity government does not provide answers.

Geographic division

How will the Gaza Strip and the West Bank become a single territorial entity again, as they were supposed to be under the Oslo accords? Even with the best of Palestinian intentions, Israel holds the cards in this regard, and it has already shown its hand. It barred three of the new government’s Gaza-based ministers from travelling to the West Bank to attend the swearing-in ceremony.

This highlights the stark irony of a national unity government that is physically and geographically divided. This bodes ill for its effective functioning, since almost a third of its ministers are based in Gaza, and Israel retains full control over who can travel from one Palestinian territory to another.

Given these restrictions, it is difficult to see how Hamas will be able to incorporate Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) forces in Gaza, and how this will be reciprocated in the West Bank, as is stipulated by the unity deal.

In a similar move to perpetuate Palestinian geographic division, Israel has forced the stoppage of Gaza-based newspapers being printed or distributed in the West Bank. This has scuppered part of the reconciliation deal that allowed the distribution of Gaza-based papers in the West Bank and vice versa.

Security coordination

How will Hamas and the PA coordinate on security when they have continued to target each other’s members since the signing of the reconciliation deal? The Freedoms Committee, which was set up to help implement the agreement, says the ongoing arrests of Hamas members in the West Bank has “strained the reconciliation atmosphere”, and that summons of Fatah members in Gaza are also continuing.

How will Hamas and PA forces coordinate vis-a-vis Israel, particularly given the Authority’s cooperation with the latter? This is hugely unpopular among Palestinians, and includes arresting Hamas members. Just last week, PA President Mahmoud Abbas described the “security relationship” with the occupying power as “sacred”, adding that it would continue regardless of a Palestinian unity government or any disagreements with Israel.

This, and his insistence that the new government will adhere to non-violence, contrasts with statements by Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. The latter has said that the reconciliation deal “aims to unite the Palestinian people against the prime enemy, the Zionist enemy”, and that “it aims to pursue the choice of resistance and steadfastness” in “all forms”.

Similarly, while Abbas has said the government will abide by the “political agenda” of the Fatah-dominated Palestine Liberation Organisation, Haniyeh said the government “will be without a political programme.”

Under the unity deal, the PLO is to urge Egypt to end its blockade of Gaza, which had been governed by Hamas since 2007. Given the enmity of Egypt’s current authorities towards Hamas, what if the PLO cannot persuade Cairo to lift its blockade (as is likely)? What if Hamas feels not enough was done in this regard?

Israeli interference

Israel has made clear that it will do all it can to thwart Palestinian unity. It has imposed economic sanctions on the PA, refuses to negotiate with the new government, and has urged the international community not to recognise it.

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Arguably the most important part of the reconciliation deal is the holding of presidential and parliamentary elections within six months of forming the government.

Assuming that stage is reached (by no means a certainty), Israel has vowed to seek international help to bar Hamas from participating in the elections. If Israel hampers the vote, as has happened before, then it cannot be deemed free or fair. Will Fatah oppose such interference if it benefits electorally?

Will the international community respect the Palestinians’ democratic choices and rights? Israel and much of the West, including the US, sanctioned them for voting for Hamas in the last parliamentary elections in 2006. The democratic process was not only made a mockery of, but destroyed altogether. If Fatah does not win this time, the Palestinians will be penalised again. If it wins but Hamas cries foul, national unity will be swiftly reburied.

Another potential pitfall is that the unity deal remains in effect only until elections take place. There is no assurance that the victors will abide by the spirit of the agreement. Furthermore, if Hamas wins or makes a strong showing, will it be content to still have no direct say in negotiations, as is stipulated by the reconciliation deal? Would the PLO still be “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” if Hamas is not part of it?

The deal requires Hamas to take a back seat temporarily – doing so after the elections would risk jeopardizing its support base and its relevance. Haniyeh has said Palestinian unity does not mean that his movement will “abandon its fixed political positions”.

These are not in sync with those of Fatah, the PA or the PLO, whose policies include recognition of Israel, and adherence to non-violence and previous agreements. It is these policies, not those of Hamas, that are endorsed by the biggest donors to the Palestinians, such as the US and EU. It is on the basis of the unity government abiding by these principles that it has gained western – even US – acceptance, much to Israel’s anger.

This shows that such support for national unity comes within limited parameters that are dictated not by its inherent benefits to the Palestinian people, but by its advantages (or lack of threats) to their occupiers.

Palestinians across the spectrum welcome the prospect of national unity and a government that implements it, but they are not holding their breath. With so many internal and external hurdles to overcome – many of them seemingly insurmountable – who can blame them?

Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and analyst on Arab affairs. He is a regular contributor to Al Jazeera English, Al Arabiya News, The National, The Middle East magazine and the Middle East Eye.