Monday Oct. 30, 2017 4:38 AM (EST+7)
ANALYSIS: Reconciliation could bring light to Gaza – or be a trap
By GHASSAN KHATIB
Read more: Hamas, Fateh, reconciliation, PLO, Egypt, Palestinian Authority, Gaza Strip, government, government, blockade, electricity, security, Qassam Brigades
The agreement signed a few weeks ago in Cairo between rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas, although far from real political reconciliation, poses an opportunity to alleviate Gaza’s growing humanitarian and economic crisis. As the Palestinian prime minister visited Gaza for the first time in years, the sense of joy and hope at the possibility of change was palpable.
The agreement, however, is not a comprehensive compromise that ends the eleven-year-old split in the Palestinian political system. Rather, it is a partial détente formulated around the lowest common denominators of both parties. The breakthrough became possible when Hamas suddenly accepted Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s demand that it dissolve its government in the Gaza Strip and invited the Palestinian Authority to assume its responsibilities in Gaza. The subsequent agreement stipulated only that the Palestinian government would be enabled in assuming its responsibilities and duties in Gaza, leaving other important issues outstanding.
A comprehensive, lasting reconciliation should lead to a functioning unified authority. This requires the merging of all government ministries and departments, the judiciary, security apparatuses, the legislative council or parliament, and the political leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization or PLO (this last which joins the millions of Palestinians in exile with those in the occupied territories).
One can see why such a broad pact is hardly realistic at this time. Neither of the two parties, Fatah nor Hamas, has changed its positions on regional politics and security. Saleh Aruri, who headed the Hamas delegation who signed the agreement in Cairo, said the very next day that Hamas plans to consult with Fatah on security decisions, just as Fatah will consult with Hamas in its political moves. He was indicating that Hamas will not give up its authority and security role in Gaza and reconcile completely without first being allowed to join the political leadership of the PLO. Likewise, Fatah will not allow Hamas into the PLO unless it accepts the PLO’s political program and its political and security commitments, i.e. those included in the Oslo accords with Israel.
Another reason why comprehensive reconciliation is not likely is that Hamas has little incentive, if any, to commit to full-fledged reconciliation. It understands well that Israel, which is the ultimate authority in the West Bank, will not allow Hamas to truly participate in a shared government with Fatah.
Instead, Hamas appears to have made a gamble to release itself from the burden of governing Gaza, a no-win situation that has undermined its popularity, without abandoning its aim of fighting Israel and its occupation. Hamas seems to be trying to throw a hot potato – the impossible task of governing under occupation and blockade – into the lap of its rival.
But even though the three components of a real peace between Fateh and Hamas (power-sharing in the PLO, a unified security framework, and reactivating the Palestinian parliament or the holding of new elections) have been delayed, this limited agreement is a win-win outcome.
Hamas will shed the government role that has cost it politically and undermined its popularity without paying any security or political price. Fatah will be able to claim that it regained, at least partially, control over the Gaza Strip after its vanquishing eleven years ago. This in turn will improve its negotiating position with Israel. Israel has no political or security problem with this kind of king-making. Indeed, increasingly Israel views the economic and humanitarian crises in Gaza that has been spurred by its draconian blockade as a potential security problem. Occasionally it takes steps to diffuse tensions in Gaza in order to avoid an explosion.
The international community, which is worried about the deteriorating economic and humanitarian situation in Gaza, which the UN has said will be uninhabitable by 2020, will find it more convenient to distribute aid in Gaza through the Palestinian Authority.
Egypt also is contributing to this agreement by opening Rafah crossing in return for more cooperation from Hamas in combating terrorism in Sinai, and the restoration of its lost regional role.
Two main challenges remain in this relatively optimistic scenario, however. The first is that the Palestinian Authority continues to face an existential funding crisis to which it will now add all the unmet needs of the Gaza Strip and its nearly two million Palestinians. Failing to quickly produce change by providing basic services – electricity, water, sewage treatment, livelihoods, healthcare and all-important security – will make Abbas and Fatah the target of public ire.
Second, and just as concerning, is the problem of dual authorities that will prevail in Gaza, as the Qassam Brigades continue their activities while the Palestinian government starts its work nearby.
It is difficult to be certain, but one has this nagging feeling that with such limited points of agreement, so many immense challenges and so few guarantees from international donors, this reconciliation formula could be a trap for the Palestinian government. Failure will have a high price. It would behoove our leaders to tread lightly, even as they pursue this goal that most Palestinians feel must be achieved on behalf of their cause.