Ending a Civil War

Fatah and Hamas are talking unity again — will this time be different?

Prime Minister Ismail Haniya, of Hamas, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, of Fatah, chair the first meeting of the previously attempted Palestinian unity government, on March 18, 2007 in Gaza City, Gaza Strip. Abid Katib / Getty

After a decade of disunity between the two feuding Palestinian political parties, Hamas and Fatah have launched a reconciliation process. The deal would involve an end to Hamas’s de facto control of the Gaza Strip and a promise by both parties to hold general elections, among other points.

The last general elections were held in 2006. When Hamas won, the United States and Israel refused to recognize the results. Israel arrested Hamas parliamentarians, boycotted their government, and imposed sanctions, and the US and Israel both supported Fatah’s attempts to secure power despite the loss. Tensions rose and fighting broke out, ultimately leading to Hamas kicking Fatah out of the Gaza Strip. Fatah wound up governing the West Bank, while Hamas solidified power in Gaza.

Speaking about the Hamas electoral victory, then-Senator Hillary Clinton said in a leaked recording, “I do not think we should have pushed for an election in the Palestinian territories. I think that was a big mistake. And if we were going to push for an election, then we should have made sure that we did something to determine who was going to win.”

Since then the United States, Israel, and Palestinian Authority (PA) president (and Fatah member) Mahmoud Abbas have pressured the people of Gaza to accept Fatah-led PA control over the besieged enclave, often using measures that have deepened the humanitarian crisis.

Last summer, Abbas announced a strengthening of sanctions — cutting salaries of PA employees in Gaza by 30 percent, reducing electricity supplies to an average of two to three hours a day, and slashing medical funding. Due to the Israeli blockade, unemployment in Gaza hovers around 40 percent and living conditions present a constant humanitarian crisis.

The sanctions appear to have worked, pressuring Hamas to negotiate. Hamas sent a message of good faith by releasing prisoners it alleged to be associated with Fatah, and dismantled their Gaza administrative committee, one of Fatah’s central demands.

Ahead of further reconciliation talks set to take place in Cairo next week, the Hamas movement announced this week that the PA has officially taken over administrative responsibilities in Gaza, without specifying exactly what would become of Hamas’s role there.

Reconciliation would mean the PA would take full responsibility over both Gaza and the West Bank. Though currently dominated by Fatah after they expelled Hamas, a unified government would require holding elections across the West Bank and Gaza, giving Hamas a chance to win seats in the PA’s parliament — a major problem for Fatah, the US, and Israel.

But the negotiations face an uphill battle, as the demands of both sides involve fundamentally changing the nature of their relationship. Not to mention that any deal would be subject to the reactions of Israel, the US, Egypt, the Gulf States, and others who play a powerful role in the governing of Palestine.

One sticking point is that Abbas has demanded that Hamas’s armed wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, forfeit their weapons to the PA. Abbas said he doesn’t want a situation like that in Lebanon, where Hezbollah maintains their weapons and a large degree of independence from the rest of the state. Hamas leader Ismail Haniya has said his organization will always retain its right to armed resistance, signaling difficult negotiations ahead.

Still, the talks in Cairo have raised many Gazans’ hopes. They signal a potentially improved relationship with Egypt, meaning the Rafah border crossing — Gaza’s only lifeline to the outside world — could be opened. Many Gazans are prevented from leaving or entering the besieged coastal enclave, sometimes for months at a time: Egyptian authorities only periodically open the Rafah crossing, stranding Palestinians on both sides of the crossing during closures. The deal could also mean an increase in desperately needed electricity and employment opportunities.

Political prisoners will also be an issue. Hamas and Fatah have long imprisoned dissidents and rivals, many of them members or supporters of each other’s respective movements, and this is unlikely to stop. Any lasting political deal would have to address this issue. In addition, Abbas recently launched a crackdown on critical media, arresting independent journalists and blocking access to Hamas affiliated news sources.

Such practices have caused previous attempts to reconcile the movements to fail. A poll taken September 14-16 found that 61 percent of respondents in the West Bank and Gaza expressed pessimism about the viability of national reconciliation.

Not Everyone Wants Unity

Even if the reconciliation is completed and elections eventually held, outside powers will likely have something to say about a government with Hamas participation.

So far, Israel and the US have been relatively quiet about the prospects for reconciliation.

During previous efforts, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his views clear. “If Hamas joins the Palestinian government we will not hold negotiations with the Palestinian Authority,” he said in 2011. This time around he has softened his tone, instead demanding that any reconciliation deal involve the disarmament of Hamas, among other things.

In 2008, Vanity Fair reported that the Bush administration went so far as to make plans to fund a “covert initiative . . . to provoke a Palestinian civil war.” Fatah forces would be “armed with new weapons supplied at America’s behest, to give Fatah the muscle it needed to remove the democratically elected Hamas-led government from power.”

A unity government with parliamentary elections would likely renew interest in negotiations between Palestine and Israel, something Netanyahu would want to avoid. His government has been having a relatively easy time quietly expanding settlements, something a reinvigorated “peace process” would throw into jeopardy.

Outside Interference

Meanwhile, London-based newspaper Al-Hayat reports that among Abbas’s stipulations for reconciliation was that there be no foreign involvement in the administration of the Gaza Strip, and that any money for restoration and development be channeled solely through the Palestinian government.

Israeli news daily Haaretz cited “Palestinian officials” as saying these conditions were intended to block any involvement by former Fatah leader and Abbas’s political rival Mohammed Dahlan or countries like Qatar, which has maintained close diplomatic relations with Hamas’s administration in Gaza since Israel’s devastating offensive in 2014.

Some have speculated that Egypt, the UAE, and Israel would support Dahlan either as Abbas’s successor or as prime minister of what could become the “State of Gaza” in the event that the powers in the West Bank and Gaza never reconcile and form their own separate statelets.

Either way, Dahlan’s influence in Gaza is seen as a way to weaken Abbas and “neutralize” the roles of Turkey, Qatar, and Iran (current allies of the Hamas government in Gaza) while strengthening the roles of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf countries excluding Qatar, all of which are current allies of Israel and the United States.

A Long Way to Go

The infighting between Hamas and Fatah is generally regarded as counterproductive to the Palestinian cause. Political arrests, sanctioning, and sabotage have hurt the struggle for independence. Reconciliation represents the first steps toward a united front, and as such, should be taken seriously despite the serious challenges.

But the domestic challenges are only a part of the obstacles currently in place. Palestine is surrounded by governments hostile to its independence. Sisi’s Egypt has proven a willing collaborator to US-Israeli designs for the region, and Saudi Arabia and Turkey are much more willing to work with Israel than against it. A unified West Bank and Gazan leadership would make it harder for imperial actors like the US and Israel to wield influence over the governing of the territories.