Why Fatah-Hamas reconciliation might just work this time

Unlike previous efforts, the current Palestinian reconciliation agreement appears to have been cemented from within; and it might just offer a lifeline to Gaza.

By Samer Badawi

Just as word emerged early Wednesday of an imminent unity accord between rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seized upon the news to issue his Palestinian counterpart an ultimatum: Make peace with Hamas, and you can forget about peace with Israel. In lockstep, Netanyahu’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman immediately dubbed any intra-Palestinian reconciliation a veritable “termination of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.”

If that was a bluff, the Palestinians did not flinch. By the end of the day, the rival factions had announced a way forward on deals they had previously inked in Doha and Cairo. There would be elections within six months, and in the interim, a unity government—with Mahmoud Abbas the “prime minister” at its helm.

Welcome to the post-Oslo world.

It’s not as if Netanyahu and Co. didn’t see it coming. After all, it was the Israeli government, which controls Palestinians’ access to Gaza from the West Bank, that had waved Fatah delegates through the Erez crossing a day earlier. The rationale must have been simple. One week ahead of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s deadline for a so-called “framework agreement,” the Israeli premier is hell-bent to pin Kerry’s failure on Abbas — even if that means pushing the latter closer to Israel’s sworn enemy, Hamas.

President of the Palestinian National Authority Mahmoud Abbas at a joint press conference in Whitehall. (flickr / Cabinet Office CC)
File photo of President of the Palestinian National Authority Mahmoud Abbas. (flickr/Cabinet Office CC)

Abbas, for his part, seems oblivious to the charge. As if anticipating Liberman’s bluff, he again threatened on Tuesday to disband the Palestinian Authority should a framework agreement with the Israelis remain elusive. At issue this time, Abbas maintains, is Israel’s refusal to follow through on a planned Palestinian prisoner release. That missed milestone, of course, coincided with Israel’s announcement of 700 new settlement units — a move that Kerry has named “the moment” the on-again, off-again talks finally stalled.

We’ve been here before, no doubt. But this time, there are at least two reasons why the unity agreement seems more likely to stick.

For one thing, it appears to have been cemented from within. Although Egypt did play a part by allowing Hamas’s Moussa Abu Marzouk to cross into Gaza through Rafah, the regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has long since declared war on Hamas and its Muslim Brotherhood forebears. Of late, it has also been openly hostile to Abbas, giving air time to the Fatah leader’s chief internal rival, Mohammed Dahlan, who has levied corruption charges against the 79 year old in no less a venue than the International Criminal Court.

With seemingly no support from Egypt, which had brokered prior Fatah-Hamas talks, the Palestinians have had to generate their own incentives for reconciliation. In the Fatah camp, Abbas can now claim Wednesday’s deal as further proof of his nationalist bona fides, thus rebutting Dahlan’s indictments in the court of Palestinian public opinion. But what does Hamas stand to gain from a deal that will leave it geographically and economically sequestered from the West Bank by an ongoing Israeli siege?

More to the point, that question matters most to the people of Gaza. Effectively written out of U.S.-sponsored negotiations since 2007, they could be forgiven for yawning through this week’s brinksmanship. Consider, for example, that upon arrival of the Fatah delegation — which included mansion-dwelling billionaire Munib al-Masri — Gaza’s main crossing point for commercial goods, Kerem Shalom, was once again closed “indefinitely”; or that both the Erez and Rafah crossings, controlled by Israel and Egypt, respectively, remain sealed unless the luckiest of Gaza’s 1.7 million Palestinians are told otherwise.

Therein lies the second reason Wednesday’s unity agreement might actually gain traction. A Fatah-Hamas deal paves the way for reactivating the European Union Border Assistance Mission, which was formed, with Israel’s consent, to monitor the Rafah crossing. EUBAM, as it’s known, derives its mandate from the so-called Agreement on Movement and Access, which was signed on November 15, 2005 with the Palestinian Authority. Since that Authority was cleft by infighting in 2007, leaving Gaza outside the 2005 Agreement’s fold, EUBAM has, in its own words, “remained on standby, awaiting a political solution and ready to re-engage at very short notice.”

With eight staff in the region and funding only through June, it seems unlikely that EUBAM can ramp up its operations quickly enough to offset Israel’s ongoing — and tightening — collective punishment of Gaza. But with a once-daily average of 1,500 people crossing through Rafah under its supervision, the long dormant mission may well offer hope where more than two decades of the Oslo process has decidedly not.

Samer Badawi is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. He is the former DC correspondent for Middle East International and last visited Gaza in December 2012.

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