Arab Spring Brings Palestinian Unity

Long-delayed deal spurred by tumultuous political changes elsewhere in the region.

Arab Spring Brings Palestinian Unity

Long-delayed deal spurred by tumultuous political changes elsewhere in the region.

Thursday, 5 May, 2011

Daniella Peled

Daniella Peled
IWPR editor

It seems that the Arab Spring has finally arrived in the Palestinian territories.

The agreement signed this week between Hamas and Fatah, ending – at least superficially – years of bitter division has its roots in the upheaval sweeping the Arab world. But although in theory the unity pact should lead to democratic elections in the West Bank and Gaza within a year, it remains as unstable as the turmoil in the rest of the Middle-East.

There have long been deep ideological and practical divisions between the Islamist Hamas and secularist Fatah, differences sharpened by the Hamas victory in 2006 elections and the internecine conflict which led to their takeover of Gaza the following year.

An agreement signed in Mecca in 2007 was short-lived, and there remains enormous hatred and mistrust between the two sides. But they seem to have now been pushed into each other’s arms by changing fortunes elsewhere.

The fall of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, once a staunch ally of Fatah, has changed the game for the West Bank leadership.

And Hamas’s support base in Syria seems uncertain, with Syrian president Bashar al- Assad preoccupied with his own uprising. Hamas leader Khaled Meshal may even have to find another headquarters in the not-too-distant future.

Gaza and the West Bank have escaped mass Arab Spring-style demonstrations, but what protests there have been have focused on demands for political reconciliation between the two sides.

Without action, Fatah and particularly Hamas – which has harshly broken up demonstrations in Gaza – may have feared losing control and the prospect of protests focused on their own misrule rather than Israeli occupation.

The leaders of Fatah and Hamas don’t want to find themselves on the wrong side of history, perceived as autocrats in the mould of Mubarak or former Tunisian leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

And on the political horizon looms a crucial September deadline, when President Mahmoud Abbas plans to unilaterally declare Palestinian statehood and call for a United Nations resolution recognising a state based on the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital.

Such a step will be pointless without a unified Palestinian leadership to back it up.

But September is a long time away and it’s by no means clear that the pact will hold that long.

Although the full text of the agreement is yet to be published, it’s thought that in the two sides’ rush to reach a consensus, many of the most important issues and controversial points have been left unresolved.

There are huge unanswered questions – how internal or external security can be maintained, who can prove to be a mutually acceptable prime minister and how to handle the release of prisoners from either side. There is also the question of outside pressure.

For its part, Jerusalem thinks the deal is unlikely to last – and it doesn’t want it to.

Refusing to deal with Hamas, Israel has already blocked the transfer of some 89 million US dollars tax refunds to the Palestinian Authority.

Even though public opinion in Israel does not rule out negotiations with Hamas over certain issues, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is facing huge pressure from his own Likud party and other hard-line coalition partners to reject any possible concessions towards a new Palestinian government.

Netanyahu was in Europe this week lobbying allies not to recognise a unity government, but he is unlikely to have had much success – even though Hamas remains committed to the destruction of Israel.

Four years ago, Israel made a convincing argument against dealing with Hamas. This led to widespread international rejection of the Islamists for their refusal to agree to demands for the recognition of Israel’s right to exist, the rejection of violence and the upholding of previous agreements.

This time round, after the long blockade of Hamas-ruled territory, the bloody Gaza war and last year’s disastrous flotilla debacle, Jerusalem cannot rely on similar support.

Although Netanyahu is mooted to be planning to present some form of new peace plan when he visits Washington later this month, it is unlikely to be enough to capture the imagination of either the Palestinians or the international community.

The European Union is certainly bending towards not only recognising Palestinian statehood this autumn but finding a way to work with any unity government that emerges in the short term.

The EU would have to take Hamas off the terror list or face all kinds of legal challenges, but creative ways can be found round this. British diplomats, for instance, used to hold low-level municipal contacts with Hamas, and international organisations could be be used as conduits for aid.

What might restrict the EU would be if the United States decides to cut off aid to the PA. It’s unlikely the EU would break ranks and take on the full burden.

And in this sense Hamas’s response to Osama Bin Laden’s death - decrying it as the murder of a holy leader - was a huge gift to Netanyahu.

Focusing on his own re-election, President Barack Obama can’t now risk being seen to support a Palestinian government with Hamas as members. A scandal would erupt if any US aid was interpreted as going to Hamas.

The international community has had a hard time adjusting to the realities of the Arab Spring, with once-trusted though despotic allies facing genuine and powerful grassroots dissent.

But both democracy and pragmatism are in fashion right now. Palestinian leaders know that this is not a good time to be seen as going against the will of the people, and the West will find it hard to obstruct an agreement which – crucially – paves the way for democratic elections.

Daniella Peled is an IWPR editor.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of IWPR.

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