By Elisabeth Marteu, Research Associate, Consulting Senior Fellow for Middle East Affairs
The 12 October reconciliation deal between Hamas and Fatah follows a decade of violent tensions, political competition and abortive efforts to heal the rift dividing the two movements. Since Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip from Fatah in 2007, there have been separate governments in the two Palestinian territories, the West Bank and Gaza, although only the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) has international recognition. If this new agreement holds it will restore the unity of the Palestinian people. But the deal may yet fall apart, given the serious political, security and economic challenges blocking a successful compromise.
Hamas paved the way for this agreement by announcing in mid-September that it would disband its Gaza administrative committee, in order to eventually enable the establishment of a Palestinian unity government and the holding of elections. A Fatah delegation then visited the National Consensus Government in Gaza and, finally, the terms of a national reconciliation were endorsed by the Fatah Revolutionary Council and the Fatah Central Committee. The agreement approved by Hamas political chief Ismail Haniyeh and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas focuses on the return of the PA in Gaza and the sharing of tasks between both movements.
The Palestinian Authority is supposed to come back in the Gaza Strip by December, to set up a unity government with Hamas and to manage the Strip’s crossings. Both movements are also expected to rebuild the local police system. Hamas has already declared that it will not disarm until occupation ends. The deal is thus based on a political-military agreement. In the words of one commentator, ‘the PA and Fatah will rule above ground and Hamas will rule underground’.
A confluence of interests
The reconciliation deal is made possible by a convergence of interests between Fatah, Hamas and Egypt. Mahmoud Abbas knew that his power was deeply contested in the West Bank, a fact that would undercut his ability to advance the peace process in the near future. An intensive campaign to recover influence in Gaza by his main Fatah rival Mohammed Dahlan – who commands support from Abu Dhabi, Cairo and to a lesser extent Washington and Tel Aviv – forced Abbas to change his strategy towards Hamas.
For its part, Hamas has suffered from Egyptian military pressure at its border and recent PA sanctions imposed on the supply of electricity to Gaza. In February, Yahya Sinwar was elected as the new leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and in May the organisation adopted a new policy charter accepting for the first time the idea of a future Palestinian state within the 1967 borders and dropping the reference to Hamas’ roots in the Muslim Brotherhood. This new public position confirmed Hamas’s willingness to gain international legitimacy.
Cairo has perceived the Palestinian reconciliation as a matter of Egyptian internal security. Egyptian intelligence strongly supported the deal to secure its own border with Gaza, given the porosity between the Sinai Peninsula’s jihadi sphere and Gazan armed groups. Egypt also fears the humanitarian time bomb in the Strip – where unemployment is 44%, 40% of families live under the poverty line and 70% rely on some form of external aid – could lead to upheaval and possible migration. Cairo does not want to let Hamas continue managing the Rafah crossing, the heavy use of which perpetuates the division between the two Palestinian territories. Egypt’s only option is to facilitate the reassertion of the PA’s writ in the Gaza Strip.
All of the parties involved want international recognition of their commitment to peace. Egypt wants to regain its regional importance, while Hamas and Fatah wish to be treated as responsible forces amid the Middle Eastern chaos. In the meantime, Israel will discreetly observe this diplomatic ballet until it eventually raises the main issue of Hamas’s military capacities.
The long road to unity
The terms of negotiation need to be clarified, however. Another round of talks is expected to take place in Cairo on 21 November, addressing possible general elections, the integration of Hamas into the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, and the future of Hamas’s military wing.
Failed agreements have been previously negotiated in Mecca in 2007, Sana’a in 2008, Cairo in 2011, Doha in 2012, Cairo again in 2012, and at the Shati refugee camp in 2014. The agreement currently under discussion has two advantages: it is strongly backed by Cairo (as well as the United States and the wider international community, and therefore not categorically rejected by Israel); and it benefits from the unprecedented support of Hamas.
However, translating the deal into reality will require many challenging decisions and reforms. Immediate steps include the organisation of legislative elections, security sector reforms, the employment of civil servants hired by Hamas, the renewal of a reliable supply of electricity, the opening of crossing points, a prisoner swap deal and work to ensure the lifting of the Israeli blockade. Further ahead, the international community and regional powers must engage a pro-active international peace initiative or new Arab peace initiative. Another key but unresolved issue is the dismantling of the al-Qassam brigades. While Hamas is unlikely to take such a step, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu has made it clear that any future Palestinian government “must recognise the State of Israel, dismantle Hamas’s military wing, [and] sever the relationship with Iran”. The road to unity is still very long.