By: Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh.
When talk about putting the Palestinian political system in order is serious, three issues must be addressed. The first is linked to the vision and main paths (the national program and priorities); the second to institutions (the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Palestinian Authority (PA)); and the third to mechanisms (government, elections representation, guarantees, etc.).
Despite the unanimous warm reception of the news that the Palestinian reconciliation agreement was coming into force after being signed on 23/4/2014 in Gaza Strip (GS), the problem lies in the fact that some, but not all mechanisms have been addressed. This prompts us to be cautious, like many others, when talking about the possibility of implementing the agreement on the ground. Perhaps previous bad experiences with past reconciliation agreements have had a role in causing such caution.
Away from everybody’s emotions and wishes to uphold unity, end the division, and unite ranks against the enemy, there are “critical questions” that need to be answered to test the ability of the reconciliation agreement to succeed and endure:
1. Have the two sides, Fatah and Hamas, converged on the basis of a joint strategic vision, to unify, build, and revive the institutions of the PA and the PLO? Or have they converged because of tactical reasons related to pressures facing both sides, the requirements of their present circumstances, and fear on both sides from the failure and retreat of the path each side chose, whether in the peace process or armed resistance. In other words, was the motive for the agreement self-motivated and profoundly related to ideological and methodological shifts among both sides, or will it collapse when the pressing circumstances that led to it cease to exist, with each side recalculating its positions in accordance with its respective interests?
2. Can the programs of the peace process and armed resistance coexist in the same institutional framework? If yes, then how? Can Hamas abandon its red lines? Can Fatah reverse its obligations?
3. Can there be agreement on mechanisms, without agreeing on priorities or major policy choices?
4. Is Fatah (and with it the leadership of the PLO and the PA) really willing to abandon negotiations as its only path to ending the occupation? Is Hamas willing to accept the outcomes of the negotiations in which Fatah is engaged, and abandon armed resistance?
5. What is the right approach to Palestinian reform and ending the division? Does the matter involve only arrangements under occupation (e.g. the government, elections, and government agencies in the West Bank (WB) and GS)? Or does it also involve the Palestinians at home and abroad (e.g. the PLO)?
6. How far can Fatah go in the process of putting the Palestinian house in order, meaning “overhauling” and reactivating the PLO, and rebranding the PA in a way that alters its prescribed function? How long can Fatah withstand Israeli-American pressure in order to make this happen?
7. How far can Fatah go in dealing positively with “political Islam” represented by Hamas, and in being allied with it in a regional climate that is sensitive if not hostile vis-à-vis Islamism, and in an Israeli and international climate that rejects, besieges, and persecutes it?
8. What degree of mutual trust can the two sides build to overcome the current stage without disruption, or fears regarding deception, backstabbing, obstructionism, and seeking help of enemies and opponents against one another? Do the two sides have the willingness to remove obstacles and elements of tension, and sideline all those in their ranks who do not want reconciliation between the two sides?
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A truthful answer to all these questions would show whether the reconciliation agreement is strategic or tactical – i.e., permanent or provisional. Unfortunately, the first impression is not encouraging.
By studying nearly 25 years of the relationship between Fatah and Hamas, we can notice that rapprochement between the two sides is for the Fatah leadership usually linked to:
1. Trying to contain Hamas and put it under control, like other Palestinian opposition groups that have been contained or sidelined. These attempts date back to 1988.
2. Dealing with Hamas as a leverage to bring legitimacy to the existing Palestinian political regime and as one of its components. This would give Fatah, PLO’s leading faction, further strength, momentum, and credibility both at home and in dealing with the regional and international climate as well as the negotiations. This was what happened in the Cairo Agreement in 2005, and subsequent municipal and legislative elections, albeit the results did not come as Fatah’s leadership had wanted.
3. Dealing with Hamas or using it as a pressure card whenever Fatah’s leadership found itself in a bind under Israeli-American pressure, with the goal of softening other positions, or even using Hamas as a “scarecrow” to frighten others, regarding the possibility that Hamas could be the alternative replacing Fatah.
4. Absorbing the mass popularity that Hamas would achieve when the resistance made an exceptional success, as happened during the Israeli assault on GS and subsequent events at the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009 – and during the Israeli assault in November 2012. These events prompted calls for reviving reconciliation efforts and ending the division, before things went back to “normal” when emotions subsided over victory and steadfastness.
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Continuing to answer the questions about reconciliation, we find that the leadership of the PLO and the PA, although frustrated by the negotiations, continues to believe in the peace process. It has often suspended the negotiations, threatened to dissolve the PA, and engaged Hamas and popular resistance, but the peace process and the Oslo Accords always remained the fixed trajectory for this leadership.
Second, there is no serious interest in the ranks of the PLO and the PA to deviate from their obligations towards the Israelis and Oslo Accords. If the PA in Ramallah is going to run GS with the mentality of its security commitments to Israel, this will be nothing short of disastrous internal implications, and will lead to direct conflict with Hamas and “resistance forces.” If it should continue its commitments and security cooperation in the WB, then the resistance forces will not have the freedom to operate at all levels; administrative, organizational, partisan and political. They will not have equal opportunities to put forward candidates, or promote their symbols and leaders. Hence, if Hamas and the resistance forces find themselves in an unjust environment, then they will boycott the elections and subsequent constitutional arrangements.
It appears that the technocratic government agreed by the two sides to overcome Israeli-American rejection of Hamas’s representation in the government, will not be spared from disruption either, as this government will have to deal with the conditions set by the Quartet. When ‘Abbas himself on 9/5/2014 wanted to reassure others about the government, he said that it renounces violence, recognizes Israel, and recognizes international legitimacy. He added that Hamas for him is an “opposition” faction. ‘Abbas’s statements lay the foundations for a crisis with Hamas, even before the government is formed and before it began its work.
Thirdly, the leadership of the PA did not carry out a real reassessment of the future of the Authority. It is not clear to what extent it will continue to exercise its functional role that serves the Israeli side more than it serves the Palestinian side. Is the leadership of the PA willing to offer the necessary sacrifices to realign the PA, accommodate resistance forces, and deny the Israeli side its services? How much is the PA prepared to confront the possibility of Western financing being cut off, not receiving tax transfers, and the blockade expanding, as well as the possibility of more than 150 thousand employees to lose their jobs and incomes? Or does the participation of Hamas and resistance forces have to be under Israeli conditions and within Oslo’s determinants?
Fourthly, it is not clear to what extent Fatah’s leadership will let Hamas and other resistance forces to participate in leading the PLO, and rebuilding its institutions and its role. If so, then on what basis will this partnership be? Will it be within the limits and commitments of the PLO, including the Oslo Accords, and the continuation of the abolition of most of the clauses of the Palestinian National Charter? Is it possible, therefore, for Hamas to join the PLO only to give further impetus and momentum to the peace process?
If there were room for activating the PLO through free popular will in Palestine, or through consensus among the main Palestinian factions, where the outcome would be rejecting Oslo Accords and the peace process, what would the position of Western forces or the international community be then? Will they withdraw their recognition of the PLO, put it under siege, and accuse it of terrorism once again, and put an end to its international political and representative gains? In this case, the participation of Hamas and the resistance forces in the PLO will be transformed into an additional burden for the organization’s leadership and Fatah, which the latter will want to avoid as much as possible.
In short, this is not just about partnership, because partnership here is neither a pastime nor a business, but has political, legal, military, security, and economic consequences. It has a huge price out of the blood, sweat, and sacrifices of the Palestinian people arising from the resistance choice, or would compromise historical rights and entrench the occupation if the peace process is adopted.
Fifthly, it is not clear how serious Fatah’s leadership is in allying with the “political Islam” trend, represented by Hamas, in the midst of an Arab environment hostile to Islamism, not to mention the hostility of the Israeli and international environments. That is, unless this engagement is wagering on Islamists lack of any chance to win or change, and it is a part of the program of containing, sidelining, and redirecting the Islamists.
Sixthly, Hamas’s current calculations are also complex. If Hamas wins the elections, it will face the “predicament” of having to run the PA and its burdens in a hostile Israeli environment, in a one of blockade and obstructionism by its enemies, and in a much more difficult Arab-international environment than the one it had to deal with in 2006.
If Hamas loses the elections, it will face the problem of losing its popular legitimacy, and will have to hand over control of the GS and accept to be in the minority opposition camp. It will have to respect the will of the Palestinian people who handed over their reins to Fatah, to continue the peace process and its obligations.
If Hamas disrupts the elections, then it may suffer indefinitely from a crippling blockade on GS, and the possibility of further deterioration in its conditions and popularity. Hamas would also be the side that will be accused of obstructing reconciliation and the efforts to end the division.
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Finally, we may have three observations:
First: we are not attempting to complicate things for the path of reconciliation, but we want to build it on solid foundations to ensure its success and sustainability.
Second: the Palestinian situation needs a genuine and comprehensive reassessment in which all sides shoulder their responsibilities and produce real and bold solutions for the national crisis, so that everyone can share the price no matter how lofty, in order not to forfeit core principles and rights.
Third: we hope this agreement to be a success, and the entry point for the search for more common ground, and for broader and more successful agreements, with the promotion of confidence-building programs and activating the popular role on the ground.