Not So Fast On Fatah-Hamas Unity



That’s how many in the Israeli media described the Sept. 17 announcement from Hamas that it had bowed to pressure from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and dismantled the quasi-governmental committee it established in March to boost its control in the Gaza Strip.

At first glance, the statement marked an unexpected gesture of flexibility by the Islamic militant group to reconcile the decade-long rift in Palestinian politics between Hamas and Abbas’ Fatah Party, which rules Palestinian areas of the West Bank. 

The announcement included an invitation for Abbas’ West Bank-based government to assume responsibility for the Gaza Strip and begin preparations to hold long-overdue elections for a Palestinian president and a parliament.

But after numerous failed attempts at unity, is it time for Palestinians to crack open the champagne that the feud, which has paralyzed their politics for a decade, is finally over? And should Israel be worried that Abbas, who has allowed his security forces to work with the Israeli military on counterterrorism in the West Bank, is about to join forces with a group considered a terror outfit by Jerusalem and Washington?

The consensus among Israeli, foreign and Palestinian analysts is a resounding “no.” Hamas and Fatah are still far from resolving their most fundamental disagreements blocking a unity deal.

“It’s very dangerous for either side to be relenting to the other.”

In some respects, the Hamas-Fatah rift resembles the hostile dynamics of the Israel-Palestinian conflict: both sides view the dispute as a zero-sum game and are loath to give any ground.   

“It’s very dangerous for either side to be relenting to the other,” said Hillel Frisch, a political science professor and an expert on Palestinian politics at Bar-Ilan University.

In 2011, the two organizations signed a blueprint for reconciliation in Cairo, but the plan was never implemented because of disagreements between the two groups. Since then the two sides have made several announcements of plans to restart the process. All of them proved to be stillborn.

“We’ve seen dramatic and impressive displays of unity several times in the last decade,” wrote Avi Issacharoff, an expert on Palestinian politics on the Walla! News website. “Those unity agreements have all collapsed … ultimately, when it comes to unity agreements between Hamas and Fatah, the devil is in the details.”

Frisch said the concession by Hamas reflects its weakened position in recent years. 

Since the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011, the organization has lost Syria and Iran as chief patrons. The demise of Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt brought to power President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a secular ruler with a deep distrust of Hamas. And as the Gaza Strip struggles to rebuild from the Hamas-Israel war in 2014, the territory of 2 million Palestinians has been grappling with daily power blackouts because of sanctions by Abbas.

“The economic crunch is amazing,” said Frisch. “Hamas is down to its core supporters. Hamas can’t get more than 2,000 to 3,000 people in Gaza to come to its rallies.” In the past, the group has drawn tens of thousands of people to their rallies.

Hamas’ decision to dismantle its controversial “administrative committee” — which served as a de facto government in Gaza since March — is seen as a tactical maneuver. For one, it puts pressure on Abbas to make quid pro quo concessions to promote reconciliation at a time when his popularity continues to decline. (A September poll indicated that two-thirds of the Palestinians want him to resign.)

Just as importantly, the ostensible olive branch to Abbas is designed to help Hamas improve its ties with Egypt. Cairo and Gaza have had rocky relations over the past few years. Egypt — which sees Hamas as part of the Muslim Brotherhood and aiding Islamist insurgents in Sinai — has kept the Rafah border crossing between Sinai and Gaza mostly shuttered.

In recent months, with Hamas’ financial patrons in Qatar under the squeeze of a boycott from Saudi Arabia, the Islamic rulers of Gaza have been in talks with Egypt to boost border security and crack down on ISIS-linked operatives that have moved back and forth between Gaza and Sinai.

“The statement is not solely a domestic announcement of the Palestinian politics,” said Kobi Michael, a fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, in a conference call with reporters. “There is a regional dimension” to Hamas’ move.

The gesture toward Cairo reflects a struggle for influence over Gaza between two groups of Sunni regimes. One of the groups, which includes Qatar and Turkey, has been friendlier to Islamist groups like Hamas. The second group includes the so-called “moderate” Sunni countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have been deeply hostile toward political Islam.

“It’s a dream situation for Israel if Egypt assumes this responsibility and assumes control.”

Michael said that Hamas is desperate for Egypt to open up the Rafah crossing. The announcement is a signal to Egypt and to Israel from the Hamas leadership that they are focusing on consolidating their power and rebuilding Gaza rather than starting another round of fighting with Israel.

If Egypt displaces Qatar as the major power broker in Gaza, Israel would benefit because the two neighbors have deepened their military and intelligence cooperation in recent years, said Bjorn Brenner, the author of a recent book on Hamas and a fellow at Sweden’s national defense college.

“Israel wants stronger border security; Israel doesn’t want to have all the problems in Gaza on its shoulders,” he said. “It’s a dream situation for Israel if Egypt assumes this responsibility and assumes control.”

Cairo is also helping Mohammed Dahlan, a former Fatah leader who was kicked out of the movement by Abbas, to cooperate with Hamas in running the Gaza Strip. Dahlan, a former security chief who now is a rival to Abbas, has secured money to compensate hundreds of Gazans with family members killed in the 2007 Hamas takeover of the territory.

“It’s a dream situation for Israel if Egypt assumes this responsibility and assumes control.”

The issue of compensation has been a major sore spot between Fatah and Hamas, and resolving it would mark the removal of a significant stumbling block, said Brenner.

However, the two rival Palestinian factions are still far from agreement on a range of issues, such as: how to merge their respective security forces; how to integrate Hamas into the Palestine Liberation Organization; how to organize elections; who will control Gaza’s borders; and who will take responsibility for Gaza’s reconstruction.

Hamas’ statement was an invitation for the PA to spearhead the rebuilding effort. But few analysts believe that Abbas and Fatah really want to come into Gaza and bear the burden for the humanitarian, economic and infrastructure disarray from years of Israeli blockade and war. At the same time, the PA wouldn’t be truly in charge anyway. Hamas isn’t expected to relinquish its control over Gaza to their rivals so quickly.   

“There needs to be a real handover of power, and from my perspective it won’t happen,” said Brenner. “If Hamas hands over power over Gaza to Fatah, they would be giving up their own raison d’etre. What would Hamas be? What would Hamas do without Gaza?”