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Under the title of “The Hamas-Fatah Dialogue and the Prospects of National Reconciliation”, a panel discussion was organized by Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations in Beirut, at the Crown Plaza Hotel, on Wednesday July 2nd, 2008. It was attended by a number of academics and parties concerned with the Palestinian issue. In choosing the guests, Al-Zaytouna centre was careful that they represent major factions and intellectual streams on the Palestinian scene, the most prominent of them being Osama Hamdan, Hamas representative in Lebanon, and Dr. Kamal Naji, the vice representative of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in Lebanon.

The discussion panel consisted of two sessions. The first session was commenced by two lengthy articulations on the topic by Naji and Hamdan respectively. These opened the door for the following discussion and guest participations. Most of the discussion in this first session focused on reading the current situation on the Palestinian scene, and on identifying the causes of the internal crisis, and the possibilities of achieving any dialogue or true reconciliation in the current time.

The first session was moderated by Dr. Talal Atreesy, who saw that reconciliation has become a recurrent pattern of concern in more than one Arab country, where there are resistance movements and an authority with different political orientation. Atreesy questioned the different roles played by the peculiarities of each country, the extent of the effect of regional or international scene, versus the internal willpower, in causing reconciliation and conflict.

The second session was moderated by Dr. Hussein Abu Naml, and built on the first session’s discussions of reality checks and the possibility of dialogue. The target was to come up with recommendations on how to deal with the current strife, or likely scenarios for the near future concerning reconciliation and dialogue on the Palestinian scene. The finale of the session came with two long participations by Naji and Hamdan, followed by Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh, the General Director of Al-Zaytouna Centre, who concluded the discussion and thanked all attendees, emphasizing the importance and benefits of such meetings, and summing up the key points discussed by the panel.

First: On the Palestinian Reality and the Causes of Strife
In his first participation, Osama Hamdan divided the causes of strife into four main reasons. The first is the change currently taking place on the Palestinian arena between a rising power and a dominating power. The second is the lack of a common national Palestinian institutional frame. The third reason is the crisis of trust between the two main factions. The fourth reason is foreign interference in both forms: politically and security-wise. Hamdan noted that there is a trust crisis between Fatah and Hamas. This crisis is not the product of a momentarily event, but the result of continued dialogue and relations that brought about new problems every moment. The division, he said, did not take place a year ago but about a decade ago; last year, it only so decisively appeared.

Hamdan stopped at two main points. The first was the rearrangement of the internal Palestinian ‘home’ and its different components, like the PLO and the factions; and the process of institutionalization of national Palestinian decision making. The second is admitting that the Palestinian people must be the ones to decide who represents them. Hamdan stressed that the way out is in a serious unconditional dialogue that works according to specific mechanisms, involves all factions, and deals with the core reasons behind the problems. In addition, he accused the other side of presuming results and setting preconditions.

Responding to Hamdan’s words, Kamal Naji called not to be taken by exchanging accusations, and for “being courageous in facing our mistakes and others’ mistakes” in order to reach positive outcomes. Naji saw that there was no real difference on the Palestinian scene. There are problems, he admits, but they are not as acute as Hamdan describes them. There is a space of understanding too, he adds, since there are former agreements made on the internal Palestinian level like the Cairo Agreement, and Mecca Agreement. Naji also referred to the Hamas-Fatah dichotomy as a harmful one, stressing the need for a larger role by the Palestinian left, and the necessity for including all parties in any national dialogue or agreement. Naji rejected the suggestion that there are two agendas on the Palestinian scene, one of resistance and another of surrender and negotiations, emphasizing that Fatah adopts a dual strategy of resistance and negotiations. Negotiations are a required political work that even Hamas practices, according to Nagy, who set the latest ‘Tahdiya’, or truce, with Israel as an example.

While Hamdan held on to his view that the PLO doesn’t effectively exist on the scene today, Naji considered the organization as “our only choice and historical achievement; the only recognized representative of the Palestinian people, and symbolic homeland in the absence of any achievement on the ground.” The lack of an institutional frame didn’t seem as cause of the crisis for Naji, but rather, the lack of the tradition of joint institutional work.

Some participants thought the discussion of reasons as useless as long as the real picture is problematic, especially in the absence of a unified reading of the situation on the ground. They preferred to leave the examination and judgment to history. Other participants, on the other hand, thought it was impossible to find a proper solution without going back to the reasons. Some discussed the terminology used, like describing the situation as ‘sliding into’ a certain condition, which implies that an erroneous situation needs to be changed; or the difference between decisiveness and division. They also discussed the effect of the current division on the national Palestinian project, seeing it as harmful to all parties including the people, Fatah, and Hamas. As the participants saw it, the resistance strategy has somehow lost its international recognition and political face, and the negotiations strategy has just equally lost its national recognition; and the result is a situation where the political negotiator is obliged to make more compromises and “run to the arms of Americans, Israelis and the International community.”

The attendees agreed on several points about the Palestinian status quo, among them the feebleness of the Palestinian left, the corruption within Fatah, and the failure of the settlement process. There was consensus on the prominent external factor in the Palestinian scene – being the funding side, the agent for negotiations, and for international recognition – and the reality of occupation and its immense influence. The disagreement was on the degree to which the foreign factor is influential, with participants divided between a pessimist who sees the internal Palestinian willpower as paralyzed because of the above mentioned influence; an optimist who considers that Palestinian willpower is the basic determinant for any solution; and a realist who believes that foreign factors, however strong, will not make the solution impossible.

What most of the attendees referred to, however, was the experiment of Hamas rule in Gaza which was somehow frustrating with regards to freedom, especially freedom of the media. This adds the Hamas experiment to the former Fatah experiment which was also marked by failure chiefly due to corruption. Authority, as writer Helmy Moussa thought, is the main dilemma in modern Palestinian history, which caused Palestinians to lose Fatah when it seized power – and Fatah to lose itself – with the same situation recurring with Hamas. Some saw the dilemma as a social one, in the absence of an effect of the law and constantly resorting to the logic of force and arms.

The current strife, being both geographical and structural, was classified as more critical than previous disagreements on the Palestinian scene; a fact that makes the coming stage a decisive one in determining the future course of events. The upcoming dues make that stage even more critical, whether locally with the presidential elections at hand, or regionally with the approaching Israeli elections, the hostages deal, the situation in Iraq and Iran, or even internationally with the American elections scheduled for November.

Second: Proposals for Ending the Crisis
The second session was dedicated to discussing proposals for ending the strife, with dialogue coming on top of suggestions especially from Hamdan and Naji. Hamdan said that reconciliation is a more advanced step than dialogue, and that a dialogue must come first to initiate reconciliation or intensify a crisis. Many related points were discussed that are likely to make the dialogue more positive and serious. At the same time, some had a very bleak vision that lacked any serious prospects currently for escaping this crisis (the points and participations related to dialogue are expanded in the next section of this article).

Besides dialogue, another need arises, namely the need to emphasize some concepts in actual practice like democracy and the reign of law. This led some participants to call for a new socio-political pact based on a number of available texts, on which the Palestinians agree. The participants emphasized the necessity of a consensual realistic reading by an objective, respected side that would preferably be the educated elite – and of them, the ones who weren’t corrupted by the political maze – which would eventually put pressure, whether through the factions or through a popular movement.

In this context, some mentioned the important role that could be played by the civil society and the moderate Palestinian left which is currently quite feeble, almost absent. These two are main factors in ending the Fatah-Hamas dichotomy, activating the democratic process, and putting an end to the monopoly by the parties’ dynamics over the political process on the Palestinian scene. Adding to the previous points, Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh pointed out the importance of developing the internal Palestinian capabilities in order to have the real free will that would liberate them from reliance on a foreign agent, and achieve a relative independence for the future Palestinian political will.

More than one participant referred to the lack of a clear national Palestinian project or a specific and unified vision of the future.

Naji called for determining the transitional goals, unifying the political tools and reshaping them, starting from a national unity government, to security bodies and the institutionalization of Palestinian decision making. Among his calls, was the unification of resistance under one joint national umbrella that makes the coordination between the field work of the resistance and the strategies of the political dynamics a shared national arrangement instead of being dependent on the separate factional calculations.

Hamdan stressed the importance of rebuilding the PLO and giving Palestinians their right to decide. The suggestion to unify resistance, in his view, requires more detailed analysis about whether it would be an operative unity or a formal unity, or a field unity. Hamdan also pointed out the essential Arab umbrella, a point that Naji and other participants also referred to.

On a practical level, several suggestions were made like toning down the media language exchanged, giving full freedom to the media, and releasing detainees on both sides. All of these initiatives would indicate how serious and positive both sides are in seeking dialogue and real conciliation. The final arrangement on the political scene, however, is what should be awaited in order for these ideas to gain shape.

In this regard, an noteworthy experience was presented by Kamal Naji in his first participation; namely the joint emergency leadership on the Palestinian scene, a mechanism for common work that was approved and practiced in Lebanon by the Palestinian factions. According to Naji, the mechanism had positive effects on other levels as well including the internal Palestinian level. The experiment was cited as an example of the effective role that Palestinians in the Diaspora can play in finding common spaces for agreement and mechanisms for dialogue. These initiatives can also play a part in formulating a unified Palestinian national vision for the future, a suggestion which was widely and positively welcomed by all attendees present.

Considerations in Dialogue and Reconciliation
Dialogue was a basic option that all attendees pointed out as important, despite disagreement over its effectiveness under the present circumstances and facts. Albeit that Naji and Hamdan saw dialogue as the only option and solution, the former accused Hamas of lacking a positive attitude in initiatives, and the latter accused Abu Mazen of lacking seriousness, having an erroneous reading of invitations for dialogue, or even worse, summoning dialogue for temporary personal goals and not out of a true desire to ends the crisis and solve the causes of conflict.

Most attendees referred to the necessity of building on existing agreements, like the Cairo Agreement and Mecca Agreement, and reaching specific and clear mechanisms for dialogue. They also emphasized the value of involving all sides in the dialogue instead of limiting it to the Fatah-Hamas duo, involving even some of the active civil society organizations. The principles of dialogue are among the most important things to agree on, as the participants affirmed; especially concerning resistance and settlement. A number of participants wondered if the dialogue would be based on a proposition that ‘settlement is over’ for example, and stressed that agreeing on a unified national vision must be a priority for all sides of the dialogue. Should the dialogue take place, it shouldn’t end up as “superficial decoration agreements” for facets of the crisis, like crossings or the management of some government bodies, but rather should deal with the deep roots of the crisis.

For the details of dialogue, it was recommended to rule out all prior conditions and assumptions, limit external interference as much as possible, have an actual reflection of the points agreed on the ground, and turn dialogue into a national institution. For the last recommendation, Mahmoud Haidar, editor-in-chief of the Madarat Magazine, referred to the Lebanese instance where there is an institution for national dialogue that probably doesn’t succeed in ending the friction or crises, but defines red lines that inhibit civil war.

In his final speech, Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh pointed out that dialogue should not be a strategic tactic, or a need on the ground to disengage a specific crisis, but a continuous normal process, a daily civilized behavior, and an integral part of the Palestinian political system. He highlighted the fact that dialogue remains the choice of the majority that shouldn’t be deferred whatever the internal or external factors and hurdles may be.

Saleh finally stressed the importance of calm meetings like academic meetings or individual unannounced meetings between different leaders, and the necessity of defining the priorities and options of this stage. He also added that the reformation of the Palestinian political system is the largest problem, since there are deeper and broader problems concerning Palestinians inside and outside, all of which can not be solved unless the issue of the PLO and representation was given a true estimation of its seriousness.