Home Fatah-Hamas Unity Pact: Harbinger of Peace?

Fatah-Hamas Unity Pact: Harbinger of Peace?

In a surprising development, on 23 April 2014, the two rival Palestinian political factions, Fatah and Hamas announced a new reconciliation agreement which would see a Unity Government formed within five weeks, ahead of a Presidential and Parliamentary election to be held within six months.  Hamas and Fatah, which control the Gaza Strip and West bank respectively,  have long held fundamentally opposing viewpoints on several issues, most notably, the status of Israel. Hamas believes Israel does not have the right to exist, and Fatah believes it does, choosing to attempt political solutions instead. Fatah practices non-violent resistance, while Hamas consistently uses terrorist tactics against Israel. In fact, the US and Israel consider Hamas to be a terrorist organisation and do not negotiate with them. So what spurred this sudden bonhomie and will it last?

Turbulent Past

Hamas and Fatah have had a turbulent past and earlier attempts at reconciliation have failed. Tensions between them which began in 2005, escalated after the Hamas' victory in the 2006 elections, leading to factional fighting and resulting in Hamas taking control of the Gaza strip. In Aug 2007 the Palestinian Authority split into two polities, each seeing itself as the true representative of the Palestinian people – the Fatah-ruled Palestinian National Authority and the Hamas Government in  Gaza. Since then, relations between the factions have been marked by violence and mistrust. Two earlier reconciliation attempts in 2011 and 2012, as both sides failed to follow up on commitments. This long-standing rivalry has stood in the way of a united Palestinian government which is truly representative of complete Palestine.

Prospects of the Present Reconciliation

Is this new ‘hand-shake’ any different from previous attempts or will the deep rooted mistrust lead to a fall-out once again? Though, a section of the Western media is quite skeptical on the likelihood of this pact going any further than previous attempts, there is also a view that this pact may pave the way for a more enduring reconciliation with both factions partially compromising on their ‘ideologies’. The reasons for this optimism are-

  • Hamas is losing its mass support  as Palestinians are fed up with the violence and do not see any possibility of defeating Israel to win the peace, and therefore may compromise on their stand of ‘Israel not having the right to exist’.   This would be the first step to reconciliation.
  • The ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which supported Hamas, and the crackdown on the smuggling tunnels into Gaza by the current Egyptian military regime has further isolated Hamas. The unrest in Syria also threatens Hamas’ support base in Damascus.
  • Fatah has also been losing popular support due to failure of peace negotiations with Israel and continuing Israel settlements in West Bank.
  • Hamas and Fatah realize that a united front and conduct of fair and peaceful elections will pave the way for full recognition by the UN and also expose Israel’s hypocrisy.

However, the stumbling block in the reconciliation process could be the overall control of the security forces held by both factions, which finds no mention in the pact. In fact, Mahmoud Al-Zahar, a senior official and co-founder of Hamas stated that regardless of who wins the elections for the unity government, Hamas would keep control of its fighters, which reportedly number about 20,000. The holding of participative Presidential and Parliamentary elections in the next six months, and thereafter acceptance of the elected representatives by both factions, irrespective of who gets the majority will be the decisive test for the reconciliation to survive.

Reactions and Ripostes

Fatah leader and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has said that the reconciliation deal did not contradict their commitment to peace with Israel on the basis of a two-state solution. However, the Israeli response to the pact has been predictably severe. Israel has long refused to negotiate with Hamas, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that Fatah must call off the deal in order to move forward with an Israeli peace plan: "Abbas can have peace with Israel or a pact with Hamas — he can't have both."

The US reaction has been more guarded, vacillating between complete disapproval and hope for revival of the stalled peace process. The US department spokesperson reiterated that any Palestinian government must ‘unambiguously and explicitly’ commit to nonviolence, recognition of the state of Israel and acceptance of previous agreements. However, in a closed door departmental meeting with representatives of other countries the US has stated that Israel needs to be more accommodating in its stand or risk becoming an ‘apartheid state’. Israeli officials have earlier maintained that the split between Hamas and the Fatah led Palestinian National Authority (PA) makes a negotiated peace impossible. Now, the Israeli PM has commented ‘I will never negotiate with a Palestinian government that is backed by Hamas terrorists’ and has called off the peace talks. This seems to be a hypocritical approach. With Palestinian Authority (PA) leader Mahmud Abbas clearly stating that the unified factions are committed to a ‘two-state solution’ for peace, the ball is in Israel’s court.

Prospects for Peace

The present US brokered peace process commenced in Jul 2013 and is based on the Oslo Accords envisaging a ‘land for peace’ deal. Israel was to incrementally hand over territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip to the Palestinians, who would in return eschew all violence against Israel. Hamas, however, saw the deal as a sell-out by the PLO, and unleashed a wave of violent attacks against Israel almost as soon as the peace process began. Israel responded with disproportionate force and also violated the process by commencing settlement on land it was to relinquish. With the US deadline of 29 Apr 2014 for calling off the talks having expired, the peace process is presently suspended.

Though Hamas has signed the reconciliation pact it has not yet clarified its stand. To force Israel to commit to the peace process and put it under US pressure, Hamas will need to clearly demonstrate a change in its ideology and state that it will give up violence and is open to the idea of recognising Israel. In case that happens, peace in this turbulent area may be possible. Conduct of peaceful elections followed by the establishment of a stable parliamentary government will enable Palestine to negotiate peace from a position of strength and follow up on its commitments. This would give an impetus to the peace process.

Most peace initiatives in the region have failed due to the lack of Hamas’ endorsement/participation, which then leads to violence and derailing of the process.  A united Palestinian Authority will have more legitimacy. Though the 29 Apr 2014 deadline laid down by US for reaching a peace deal has expired, there still remains a possibility of it re-starting it with both sides laying down a few conditions. President Abbas has said that for extension of negotiations there has to be release of prisoners, freeze on Israeli settlements and a discussion on the borders. Israel is presently refusing to negotiate in protest to the reconciliation, but is under US pressure, which has called on it be more accommodating.

Window of Opportunity 

In the overall analysis it can be inferred that this reconciliation, if it holds, will be good for the almost defunct peace process.  There is a parallel from our own region. Any deal India has with Pakistan when the military is in governance, like the ceasefire agreement in 2004, tends to hold because the Pakistan Army is a crucial component in determining the course of relations with India. Similarly, the current reconciliation may open up a window of opportunity to deliver peace as any deal concluded with the approval of Hamas is also expected to hold, just as both sides adhered to earlier ceasefires between Hamas and Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu needs to take advantage of the situation and put the ball back in the Palestinian court by agreeing to negotiations on the condition that Hamas pledges to give up violence and recognises Israel. It could be a win-win situation for him and the conflict weary citizens of the region.

 

The author is a Delhi based defence analyst. Views expressed are personal.

 

References

Black Ian, Beaumant Peter and Roberts Dan, ‘Fatah and Hamas agree landmark pact after seven-year rift’, The Guardian , 24 April 2014

Ben-Meir Alon, ‘Fatah-Hams Reconciliation’ www.huffingtonpost.com alon-benmier / fatah-hamas reconciliation

Bahaduri Aditi, ‘Hamas-Fatah reconciliation: What it means for peace in region’, www.indiawrites.org

Reuters, ‘West Bank Hamas rally tests new Palestinian unity pact’, The Jerusalem Post, 2 May 2014

Yashar Ari, ‘Hamas leader says Abbas is ‘lying’ about Unity Government’ , www.Israelnationalnews.com

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