Uneasy Bedfellows: Hamas and Fatah’s Reconciliation

Jason Poirier Lavoie Analysis Leave a Comment

SAME OLD, SAME OLD

With further talks scheduled to take place between Hamas and Fatah in Egypt this week, it would seem that their administrations are but a few steps closer to ending the paralysis that has gripped Palestinian politics for more than a decade. Despite the rallies and speeches, it is not a far cry from the previous inauguration of a new unity government in 2014; one that fell apart within weeks following unilateral cabinet reshuffles by Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority leader. Will this time around be different?

The climax of this round of reconciliation took place on October 12th, in a meeting mediated by Egypt. An agreement was concluded between Fatah, which manages the Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank, and the Islamist group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. Planned milestones, alongside a six-point agenda with deadlines included holding a meeting of all Palestinian factions on November 14th, 2017; the formation of a unity government by December 1st, 2017; the completion of a handover of border crossing security to the Palestinian Authority (PA) by January 11th, 2018; and “find a solution” to merging duplicate governance structures by February 1st.

UNLIKELY ALLIES

Egypt’s role as an intermediary has been assisted by the United Arab Emirates and the United States, signalling a  shifting strategic landscape. Less than three years ago, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi commenced a crackdown on Islamists at home, whose scope naturally expanded to include Hamas, an offshoot of the Gaza branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Accusing Hamas of working with jihadist insurgents in the Sinai, the Egyptian government restricted the flow of goods and people through the Rafah crossing – the the main gateway through which residents could get in and out of the Gaza Strip. Despite some overtures of a detente between Hamas and Egypt, the relationship remains tense.

Now, the Palestinian Authority has begun taking punitive measures against Gaza with the intention of weakening Hamas. The PA has cut off electricity in close cooperation with Israel, and has refused to pay the salaries of public servants that work in the strip, which accounts for the livelihood of a large segment of the population. Egypt, UAE and the United States are aware of this reality, and as a result, positioning themselves to take advantage of it. Hamas finds itself with dwindling public support, its people are exhausted from the siege and the organization has few allies left. Its former partners are no longer in a position to support it either. Qatar, Hamas’s main sponsor,  is under embargo by Egypt and its Gulf neighbours, in an attempt to force it to cut ties with Islamists.

SAME PRESCRIPTION, DIFFERENT OUTCOME?

Since the schism of the 2006 Fatah-Hamas conflict and Hamas’ subsequent takeover of the Gaza Strip, this reconciliation agreement is not the first of it’s kind. With half a dozen talks and accords, both administrations are caught in a deadlock. Both desire to be the sole voice of the Palestinian people and both are loth to give up their enclaves. Each run their own civilian ministries, infrastructure, and public services, but life in Gaza has reached untenable levels with just four hours of electricity a day, little water, and no medicine.

From a humanitarian point of view, the reasons behind this renewed drive for reconciliation is a dire need for resources, now more urgent than ever. Strategically, Hamas’s acquiescence may be designed to shore up support from the public through its willingness to compromise and improve living conditions. From this position, if the talks were to fail, Hamas’ stance would shift the blame to the other stakeholders of the negotiations. Although Hamas amended its charter in May to accept a two-state solution, it still identifies itself as a resistance movement, not having fully disavowed armed insurgency.

Unfortunately, the agreement suffers from the same fundamental issues as those that preceded it. If Hamas, which the United States and others claim to be a terrorist organization, joins Fatah in any power sharing agreement, definite legal challenges to the flow of foreign aid into the region will follow, cutting off a significant lifeline. This could effectively bankrupt Abbas’ government. Additionally, Israel, a staunch opponent of reconciliation, would most likely “withhold tax revenue on which the PA depends.

The president has spent too much of his time in office consolidating his power to let it go so easily. An armed Hamas under his unity government would be a threat to his unpopular and tenuous rule. Hamas will most certainly refuse to disarm. In this light, reconciliation talks do not bode well for either party. Even if they were to succeed, the local economy and living conditions are not likely to improve, if only marginally. The Israeli occupation, the underlying source of the scarcity, is not likely to end anytime in the near future. Internal politics in Israel have radicalized the establishment and will prove to be the most difficult actor to negotiate with.

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