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The long road towards Palestinian reconciliation

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Beyond the headlines lauding Palestinian reconciliation, many practical and ideological issues remain to be resolved between Fatah and Hamas, and it is far from certain that real progress towards reconciliation will ultimately be made.

On Sunday morning, Hamas announced it was willing to dissolve its “administrative committee,” which the Palestinian Authority (PA) considered to constitute a “shadow government” ruling Gaza rather than PA President Mahmoud Abbas. The committee was formed in March to manage the affairs in the Strip and led to a series of sanctions by Abbas against Hamas that caused a severe energy crisis in Gaza. Hamas’s announcement – that came in the framework of meetings with Egyptian officials – was cautiously welcomed by Fatah. But there is a long way to go.

Why now?

Hamas is far from moderating its political goals, which remain an (Islamic) Palestinian state between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea. Rather, the announcement reflects the heavy pressure the organisation has been under from the Gazan population that has suffered heavily from Abbas’s sanctions. Hamas’s announcement may also be an attempt to gain favour with the Egyptians, with whom they are currently discussing the permanent opening of the Rafah border crossing.

What next?

With Mahmoud Abbas due to meet US President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, the PA is unlikely to respond to Hamas’s announcement in any considerable way in the next few days. News of a reconciliation agreement with Hamas – considered a terrorist organisation in the West – would be deeply embarrassing to Abbas, especially as Hamas continues to reject the Quartet demands – to accept previously signed agreements, to reject violence and to recognise Israel – that would enable them to be considered a legitimate interlocutor in the eyes of the international community.

In the short term, Abbas will be expected to cancel the list of sanctions that were taken after the formation of the administrative committee. He is therefore likely to resume power supply to Gaza, transfer the entirety of the money owned to Gazan government officials, to abort the early retirement scheme for over 6,000 PA workers in Gaza and to vow to allow patients transfer to Israeli or West Bank hospitals. Such steps would alleviate the serious energy crisis in Gaza that has plagued the territory for the last few months.

However, there is still a long way to go before reconciliation between the sides takes place. Several reconciliation agreements between Fatah and Hamas have been announced and signed in the past without being implemented or standing the test of time. Questions will be raised regarding whether anything structural has significantly changed since the Mecca Agreement (February 2007), Sanaa Declaration (August 2008), the Cairo agreement (May 2011), the Doha agreement (February 2012), another Cairo Agreement (May 2012) and the Beach Refugee Camp agreement (2014). Most recently, the sides held reconciliation talks in Doha (December 2015 and January 2016), also without success.

The key structural disagreements between the sides remain the same: will Hamas allow the PA to return to Gaza and control some aspects of governance there? Will Fatah allow Hamas into the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which is considered the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people? Will both sides facilitate elections in the West Bank, Gaza and potentially East Jerusalem (which Israel is likely to oppose)? What will the composition of the security forces manning the border crossings in Gaza be? Who will pay the salaries of thousands of civil servants in Gaza? All of these issues have been extremely difficult to resolve in the past.

There are also deep ideological differences between the secular, nationalist Fatah party, which accepts the principle of partition and peace talks with Israel, and the Islamist group Hamas, which in its recent document of general principles and policies continues to explicitly define Palestine’s territory to be all the land that lies between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, claiming that “there is no alternative to a fully sovereign Palestinian State on the entire national Palestinian soil”.

Hamas’s announcement comes while an administrative council is discussing the ongoing energy crisis in Gaza and the permanent opening of the Egypt-Gaza border crossing, through the mediation of former Fatah security chief Mohammed Dahlan. It remains unclear how Hamas’s seeming willingness to enter reconciliation talks will affect this. One possibility that has been raised is that these talks could continue in parallel to Hamas resuming talks with the PA on how to divide up government posts and prepare for new Palestinian presidential and legislative elections.

Yet beyond the headlines lauding reconciliation, one (more cynical) scenario that should not be ruled out is that while both sides publicly welcome reconciliation – which is deeply popular within the Palestinian public – neither will do anything to practically advance it. In this scenario we could be about to entering a new blame game between the sides as to who is obstructing the much sought after – but so far never achieved – reconciliation among the Palestinian people.

Calev Ben-Dor is BICOM’s Director of Research.