Can Hamas and PA Bury The Hatchet?


Tel Aviv — For a moment last week in the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians became heady with visions of unity.

After thousands of youths turned out in the squares of the Palestinian territories draped in flags and raising posters calling for an end to the feud between the two main political factions, President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas seemed headed for a détente consecrated at a Gaza Strip summit.

“God has answered my prayers,” said Palestinian oil and gas tycoon Munib Masri, a member of the Palestine Legislative Council.

But the plans for a breakthrough meeting and hopes for reconciliation may have been premature.

Despite initial talk of a Gaza summit within days between Abbas and Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, there is no date set. The escalation in southern Israel this week between the Israel Defense Forces and Hamas — one of the most serious since the war in Gaza two years ago — would make an Abbas visit to Gaza highly unlikely.

Even though the March 15 protests created public pressure among Palestinians for unity, analysts say there are no signs of any fundamental shift on the part of either side to suggest they are willing to make necessary compromises for reconciliation. Twin protests in Gaza City and Ramallah were inspired by protests around the region, but so far haven’t sustained enough pressure on the Palestinian parties.

“The personal animosity between Hamas and Abu Mazen is huge. And the persons surrounding Abu Mazen are not calming things down. It’s only worse,” said Dror Bar Yosef, a researcher on Palestinian issues and a former field coordinator for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Abu Mazen is the name by which Abbas is popularly known among Palestinians.

“On the other hand, Hamas is the same,” Bar Yosef continued. “Khaled Meshaal has something against Abu Mazen. And the moderate voices are not heard in Hamas. The military wing in Gaza doesn’t want to have anything to do with Fatah. On the two sides there are very strong elements that disturb the unity efforts.”

Hamas and Abbas still disagree on peace negotiations with Israel and the use of violence. Beyond that, the sides are reluctant to share power in a new unity government — particularly conceding control over their respective security forces. And there’s no agreement on new Palestinian elections.

That said, four years of divided rule — with Hamas controlling Gaza and Abbas’ PA in the West Bank — has stymied Palestinian politics and complicated a peace deal with Israel. Both Palestinians and Israelis recognize that implementing peace first requires reconciliation between the estranged factions. The Palestinian grassroots is particularly frustrated with divided rule, blaming both sides.

“There is no way anything will happen in Palestinian society without unity effort,” said Bar Yosef. “There is no chance for a peace process without organizing the Palestinian political home. … You can’t work on anything long term, and the Palestinians see it as the main problem. They speak about it more than the occupation, and the fact that the leaders of the two parties ignore it is not good for them. There is no way this situation is going to continue.”

Youth protestors last week sought to tap into that frustration at Hamas and Fatah.

Chanting “our unity is the unity of youth” and “no to factions,” demonstrators last week focused primarily on internal politics rather than the conflict with Israel, a mirror of protests elsewhere in the Arab world.

But the protests were only a limited success, drawing only a few thousand into the streets for a couple of hours. In Ramallah’s Manara square a handful of demonstrators have established an around the clock presence. While in Gaza Hamas has clamped down on unity demonstrators, prompting protests from Palestinian human rights groups.

“I don’t know if I’m fully satisfied, but its something that evolves with time. We’re not like Tunisia or Egypt,” said Najwan Berakdar, a youth organizer and the director of a Palestinian nonprofit.

Unlike the demonstrations elsewhere in the Arab world, the Palestinian protests were more political than about economic frustration, she said. “We believe that we can’t end the occupation before we end the division,” she added. “This division is becoming part of our culture and part of our way of think.”

According to a public opinion survey taken last week by pollster Khalil Shikaki, some 71 percent of Palestinians don’t think that the split will end any time soon — though the numbers of those who believe the split is permanent has dropped.

A majority of Palestinians support a unity proposal by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad whereby the sides would create a unity government headed by a consensus candidate while maintaining divided security control.

Israel’s right-wing government would likely disapprove of a Hamas-Fatah détente if it doesn’t force the Islamists to foreswear violence, recognize Israel and honor peace agreements, requirements of Hamas adopted by the “Quartet” of international peace process sponsors — the United States, United Nations, Russia and the European Union.

In an interview with CNN last week, Prime Minister Netanyahu likened the idea of a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation to a peace deal with al Qaeda.

Another Israeli official who asked to remain anonymous said that while Palestinian reconciliation is important for the peace process, it is unlikely Hamas will give the PA a foothold in Gaza. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” he said.

Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University, said that the prospect of a reconciliation is an unlikely scenario.

“There has been a lot of talk of reconciliation during years of talks in Cairo,’’ he said. “There is nothing new that would suggest there will be any kind of a change.”

That said, the immediate response of Palestinian leaders to the protests with overtures for an Abbas visit reflects rival leaderships who see themselves as vulnerable.

“They are so sensitive of the feelings of the people that it didn’t take much,” said Bar Yosef. “They immediately surrendered.”

But both Israeli and Palestinian analysts suggested that the recent escalation in Gaza was instigated by Hamas to divert attention from the unity drive, and will make an Abbas visit less likely.

“It is clear that this kind of escalation and this kind of violence will deter Abu Mazen from the visit, and distracting the people’s attention from the demonstration,” said Iyad Saraj, a Gaza human rights activist and political analyst.

“Hamas is under pressure from the young people and from the masses, and the call for unity, which is championed by Abbas,” Saraj said. “And there’s regional pressure on Hamas to respond positively. This escalation provides the extremists within Hamas an excuse not to go for unity.”