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Analysis

BICOM Analysis: The impact of the Gaza ceasefire on Palestinian affairs

Introduction

Implementation of the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire last Thursday morning is among the most significant developments for Palestinian politics since Hamas took over control of the Gaza Strip by force in June 2007.  Juxtaposed against the ceasefire with Israel (more accurately understood as a ‘tahdiya’, or temporary “period of calm”)[i] is the possibility of a new national dialogue between the two main Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, with a view to the potential restoration of a national unity government.  However, the considerable gulf between the two movements will not be easily bridged.  With the prospect of presidential and parliamentary elections early next year, Hamas’s overriding political objective is to extend its power base beyond the Gaza Strip to the West Bank.

Doubts about the durability of the ceasefire notwithstanding, this paper focuses on its possible implications for the balance of domestic power (between Fatah and Hamas) and examines whether it can help facilitate a broader peace deal (between Fatah/the Palestinian Authority and Israel).  Owing to the nature of Palestinian aspirations, these two issues are often contingent on each other and always interrelated.  Whilst there is some debate about how the ceasefire might impact upon Hamas’s ability to influence the Israel-PA talks, Hamas is widely perceived to be better placed politically for talks with Fatah as a result of the ceasefire.  Finally, the ceasefire has emerged amid evolving regional trends which underscore the broader context of Hamas’s recent calculations and the perennial nature of the Hamas threat.

President Abbas’s challenge of national reconciliation

On 4 June 2008, the anniversary of the 1967 Six Day War, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas made a surprise announcement of his intention to try to reconcile the rift between his Fatah movement and Hamas, which manifested one year ago following the latter’s violent takeover of the Gaza Strip.  In so doing, Abbas effectively discarded his preconditions for such talks, including a return to the situation as it existed prior to the coup and an apology for the bloodshed.

It is too early to tell whether the ceasefire and Abbas’s prior initiative will lead to the re-emergence of a national unity government.[ii]  The last such power-sharing arrangement, following a deal forged by Saudi Arabia in Mecca between Fatah and Hamas delegates in February 2007, lasted less than four months as internecine violence brought it down and Hamas consolidated its rule.  Characteristic sticking points, for instance about the restructuring of Palestinian security services and the integration of Hamas into the PA (as well as Hamas and Islamic Jihad into the PLO) are now compounded by Hamas’s refusal to relinquish Gaza.  Nonetheless, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Salih initiated a basis for reconciliation earlier this year, which has Saudi support and that of other Sunni Arab states with close ties to the West.  A renewed national dialogue and internal process seem increasingly likely to be steered by the Egyptians following their successful closure of the ceasefire deal.[iii]

A combination of domestic and external considerations are behind Abbas’s move in this direction, which in turn shed light on the sorts of domestic rifts and alliances to look out for in coming months.

Domestic factors

Abbas’s initiative may have been timed to quell the notion that it is a mere reaction to Hamas’s increased leverage following the truce.  He can expect Hamas to try to use the tahdiya to shore up an internal political front with other militant groups which are integral to the ceasefire’s workability.  But Abbas and the international community will be keen to press home the advantage of the ceasefire to try to dislodge Hamas’s grip – because some militant splinter factions will react with increasing disdain to Hamas and the constraints forced upon the ‘resistance’ movement through the deal it has made. The ceasefire contains many potential breaking points that could cause it to collapse at any time.  This raises another factor, which is that if the tahdiya fails and the conflict escalates sharply, Abbas will want to be seen as having reached out to Palestinians in Gaza rather than deserting them.[iv]

Abbas’s call for renewed dialogue might also help to contain a power struggle which is quietly re-emerging within Fatah.[v]  Fatah is characterised by deep-seated tensions between its ‘old guard’ (who returned from Tunis with Yasser Arafat in the 1990s) and ‘young guard’ (who obtained grassroots Palestinian support during the First and Second Intifadas).  But Abbas’s term of office is due to expire in January 2009, and although it may be extended until Palestinian Legislative Council (parliamentary) elections are held, a number of prominent figures are thought to be discreetly positioning to succeed him.  Potential candidates include independent Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad, former prime minister and current head of negotiations Ahmed Qurei, veteran negotiator Saeb Erekat, jailed Fatah operative Marwan Barghouti and former Fatah security commander Mohammed Dahlan.[vi]

A March poll showed nearly identical levels of support for Abbas and Gaza’s Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh in a hypothetical presidential election, though notably, it came in the wake of a major Israeli military operation in Gaza which is likely to have inflated Hamas’s standing.  Abbas has fared better in a subsequent poll conducted since his call for renewed dialogue.[vii]  Still, Fatah is not faring as well as it would wish because Palestinians perceive that violence works and are sceptical about a negotiated peace deal being forged.  Whether Fatah manages to capitalise on the faint but perceptible internal fissure presented by the ceasefire, to put a bigger dent in support for its main rival, remains to be seen.

Secular Palestinians (as well as Israel, key Sunni Arab states and the West generally) are most sensitive to the real danger that Hamas will eventually extend its control over both parts of the Palestinian Territories.  This would create an unprecedented security situation for Israel – and Jordan (King Abdullah, like President Mubarak of Egypt, would have to find a way of containing his new neighbour) – and leave no partner for bilateral or international diplomatic progress.  Last week, Haniyeh commented of the tahdiya, “[i]t will begin in Gaza, and then spread to the West Bank.”  He might just as easily have been stating Hamas’s political intentions.

External factors

The key external players in Abbas’s thinking are Israel and the United States.  His primary objective remains Palestinian statehood, which requires advancing peace talks with Israel, though scepticism in the face of Olmert’s personal strife and consequential political crisis in Israel may have left Abbas feeling that he has little choice but to try and reconcile the Palestinian factions.  In any case, sooner or later, a domestic understanding would have to be reached, but due to the considerable gulf which exists between Fatah and Hamas, it is likely to entail a protracted process.  Reopening such contacts with Hamas could act as an indirect means of pressure on Israel, via Washington, for a much-needed diplomatic achievement that he can present to Palestinian society.[viii]

The Gaza ceasefire and post-Annapolis peace talks

A ceasefire in Gaza has been widely seen as a necessary precursor to diplomatic progress following the Annapolis summit last November, which set the stage for renewed bilateral peace talks between Israel and the PA.  It is hard to conceive of a greater challenge facing the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships than the violence emanating from Gaza.[ix]  Despite the negotiators’ attempts to distance the daily clashes and rocket attacks from ongoing talks, essentially to nullify Hamas’s veto over them, it was equally understood that a deal on final status issues – a ‘shelf agreement’ to be drawn up now but implemented when feasible – would be impossible amid daily reports of rocket fire and conflict.  In that vein, the ceasefire does potentially facilitate the advent of preferable, though far from optimal, political conditions in which consensus between the parties on an agreement – more likely a minimal ‘declaration of understandings’ – ought not to be completely ruled out before the end of the year.  Paradoxically, Hamas’s domestic gain provides an extra incentive for Abbas vis-à-vis the peace talks because they increasingly seem to be the only hook on which to improve his public standing.  Taking the ceasefire at face value, Ziad Asali, head of the American Task Force on Palestine, argues that because it demands that Hamas stop the ‘resistance’ and rein in other militant groups, it “will in fact strengthen the position of the PA and the PLO factions who will be negotiating on behalf of the Palestinians.”[x]

On balance, however, most analysts remain sceptical about the extent to which the ceasefire will facilitate the Annapolis process.  “Under normal circumstances”, Daniel Levy writes, “a cease-fire, far from undermining parallel peace talks, would actually enhance their prospects.  But these are not normal times, Olmert is unfortunately too politically handicapped and Abbas presides over too divided a Palestinian polity for either of them to cut a deal.”  Clearly, in such circumstances, no one ever imagined that even a stable ceasefire would be a panacea but, as indicated above, the tahdiya is characterised above all by fragility and uncertainty about how long it will last.  Such precariousness threatens prospects for diplomatic progress, least not because Hamas is in a position to dictate its fate.  Most readers will be aware that ever since its inception twenty years ago, Hamas has sought to undermine peace overtures through carefully timed terror attacks on Israeli civilians and targeting rival Palestinians.  If Hamas perceives either that Fatah stands to gain substantially from a peace deal or that the deal itself contains unacceptable compromises with Israel, it can act politically to present Abbas’s concessions as a bad package to the Palestinian public in the run up to elections and militarily, with urban rocket fire, in order to try to derail the initiative.

If the ceasefire collapses within the next few months, the parties will be unable to return to the status quo ante.  Hamas has made plain that its failure would be tantamount to war.[xi]  A fresh escalation of violence to a level beyond that which has been witnessed in the last year would not only kill the current round of peace talks but could also precipitate a Palestinian leadership crisis.

Hamas, the ceasefire and the broader regional picture

There is a danger that outside observers will perceive the ceasefire or the prospect of factional talks as evidence that Hamas has ‘moderated’ its positions.  How else, it might be asked, can a radical Islamist terror movement have come to an accommodation (indirectly, through Egypt) with its archenemy, Israel?  How else might it be willing to sit down with the pragmatic president of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas and other secular Fatah rivals?

The short answer is that Hamas’s manoeuvring is entirely tactical.  Hamas’s political leader, Khaled Meshaal, was explicit about this in an Al Jazeera interview in April, stating that it “is not unusual for the resistance…to escalate sometimes and to retreat a bit sometimes as the tide does….The tahdiya creates a formulation that will force Israel…to remove the siege…and if it happens it will be a remarkable achievement….We are speaking of a tactical tahdiya….As long as there is occupation, there is no other way but resistance.”[xii]  His deputy, Musa Abu Marzouq, made a similar statement.  Governing Gaza over the last two and a half years has not taken the sharp edge off the radical Islamist movement’s ideology, nor has it led to a reverse of its historic rejectionist stance as some hoped or anticipated.  Hamas remains intransigent in the face of clear international demands and its rhetoric is intended to undermine both secular Palestinian politics and the framework within which Israeli-Palestinian peace is considered possible.[xiii]

Of course, Hamas does not exist in a vacuum and is influenced not only by perceptions about its rivals in Fatah and Israel but also by broader regional dynamics, about which several views exist.  Haaretz journalist Yoav Stern argues that the timing of the ceasefire coincides with Hamas’s need to show greater “flexibility” in light of the new Turkish-brokered peace track between Syria and Israel.[xiv]  Although Khaled Meshaal has declared that Hamas is unaffected by these talks, he is based in Damascus and he is undoubtedly sensitive to the Allawite regime’s strategic approach (about which President Bashar Assad either remains undecided or prefers to maintain policy ambiguity).  In former U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross’s view, Syria “could hold the key to a broader strategic shift if it decides to reach a deal with Israel.”[xv]

A more circumspect view stresses the broad ascendency of radical elements in the Middle East, primarily of Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah, questions why Syria would break with this historic alliance of more than 25 years, and sees Hamas’s self-interest in agreeing to a ceasefire within this context.[xvi]  The truce bolsters Hamas’s status in the Arab world and provides a breathing space during which it will try to strengthen its position: (a) militarily, by continuing to build a Hezbollah-like model in Gaza (for instance, Iran recently increased financial sponsorship to $250 million a year and Jane’s Defence Weekly reports this week that Hamas operatives have acquired sophisticated communications technology for avoiding detection by the IDF);[xvii] (b) politically, both in advance of dialogue with Fatah and by increasing its popular appeal in the West Bank in the run up to elections; and (c) socially, by pushing its extreme religious agenda and chipping away at the secular nationalist cause.[xviii]  Both of these perspectives are insightful for reading the regional strategic map at present.

Conclusion

Hamas’s victory at the ballot box in the January 2006 national parliamentary elections, its military victory
n Gaza last June, and its subsequent consolidation of control of the Gaza Strip have transformed the face of contemporary Palestinian politics, but from Hamas’s perspective, each step represents only the start of a long journey towards achieving total power.  From Israel’s point of view, the ceasefire strengthens Hamas more than ought to be the case given its purpose, which by definition negates its use of terror.  But as with so many scenarios in the Middle East, threat and opportunity go hand in hand, and the many competing forces in the domestic Palestinian sphere will not have escaped President Mahmoud Abbas’s thinking about how best he can handle Hamas and safeguard the Palestinian national interest.  Only in the course of time, and as the tahdiya either becomes more firmly locked down for the short term (six months) or unravels even more imminently, will its consequences for the political constellation, and ordinary Palestinians, be clear.

 


[i] For a detailed linguistic analysis, see: ‘The Hamas Interest in the Tahdiya (Temporary Truce) with Israel’, Jonathan D. Halevi, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 19 June 2008, www.jcpa.org

[ii] ‘Ten Comments on the Gaza Cease-Fire and What Next’, Daniel Levy, Prospects for Peace, 17 June 2008, www.prospectsforpeace.com 

[iii] For more details, see, for instance: ‘The Palestinian Unity Government: What Next?’ Shlomo Brom, The Institute for National Security Studies, June 2007, www.inss.org.il; ‘Reconciling with Hamas? Abbas’s Hedge Against a Failed Peace Process’, Mohammed Yaghi, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 18 June 2008, www.washingtoninstitute.org; ‘Ramifications of Palestinian reconciliation efforts’, Bitterlemons, 16 June 2008, www.bitterlemons.org 

[iv] ‘Ten Comments on the Gaza Cease-Fire and What Next’, Daniel Levy, Prospects for Peace, 17 June 2008, www.prospectsforpeace.com 

[v] ‘Reconciling with Hamas? Abbas’s Hedge Against a Failed Peace Process’, op. cit.

[vi] ‘Palestinian Affairs: Abbas’s perceived failures and potential successors’, Khaled Abu Toameh, The Jerusalem Post, 14 June 2008, www.jpost.com 

[vii] The March poll showed that 47 percent favoured Haniyeh and 46 percent preferred Abbas.  Following Abbas’s call for dialogue, his poll numbers rose to 52 percent while Haniyeh’s fell to 40 percent. See Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, Public Opinion Poll # 28, 5-7 June 2008, www.pcpsr.org 

[viii] ‘Reconciling with Hamas? Abbas’s Hedge Against a Failed Peace Process’, op. cit.

[ix] See, for instance, ‘Rice, Gaza and Annapolis: what next?’, Daniel Levy,  Prospects for Peace, 5 March 2008, www.prospectsforpeace.com 

[x] ‘Analysis: Small steps a way to broader Mideast peace?’, CNN, 18 June 2008, www.cnn.com/world 

[xi] ‘Hamas warns of harsh response if truce is violated’, Ali Waked, Ynetnews, 19 June 2008, www.ynetnews.com 

[xii] www.aljazeera.net 

[xiii] ‘Hamas and the world, one year later’, Bitterlemons, 5 February 2007, www.bitterlemons.org; ‘Professor Asher Susser talks to BICOM about recent Israeli-Palestinian developments’, BICOM Podcast, 22 February 2008, www.bicom.org.uk 

[xiv] ‘Gaza ceasefire: virtual symposium with Yoav Stern and Dr. Jonathan Rynhold’, BICOM Podcast, 18 June 2008, www.bicom.org.uk 

[xv] Paraphrased in ‘Analysis: Small steps a way to broader Mideast peace?’, CNN, 18 June 2008, www.cnn.com/world 

[xvi] Ibid.; see also: ‘An empty package’, Jonathan Spyer, Haaretz, 30 May 2008, www.haaretz.com 

[xvii] IBA Radio News, 22 June 2008, www.iba.org.il; ‘Who wants a ceasefire in Gaza?’, Bitterlemons, 9 June 2008, www.bitterlemons.org 

[xviii] Ibid.; see also: ‘Why Hamas Needs Its Cease-Fire with Israel’, Pierre Heumann, Spiegel Online International, 18 June 2008, www.spiegel.de/international


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