Feuding Palestinian factions hold rare meeting sparking hope for unity after a decade of division
Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah held a rare meeting in Ramallah with a delegation of Hamas-affiliated lawmakers, the latest effort in an apparent bid to end a decade-long feud between the ruling movements of the West Bank and Gaza. It comes one week after PA President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly sent a team to the Hamas-ruled Strip to discuss a new framework for reconciliation that he devised.
The renewed push to end the division comes against the backdrop of Abbas’ recent decision to ask Israel to reduce the supply of electricity provided to Gaza, as well as his move to cut the salaries of Hamas employees, a significant portion of which comes out of the PA’s coffers.
Hamas and Abbas’ Fatah party—which dominates the PLO, which, in turn, dominates the PA—have been at odds since a pseudo-civil war in 2007 resulted in the expulsion of Abbas and his associates from the Strip. Since then, there have been repeated failed attempts to unite the two main Palestinian factions, with previous accords remaining unimplemented.
The last such deal was cut in 2014, at the height of then-U.S. president Barack Obama’s initiative to forge Israeli-Palestinian peace. At the time, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu suspended his government’s participation in the American-led negotiations and slammed Abbas for “form[ing] an alliance with an organization whose covenant calls for Muslims to fight and kill Jews.”
Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a specialist on the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, offered a more nuanced analysis. “On the one hand,” he told The Media Line, “reconciliation would be worrisome for Israel, which would immediately accuse Abbas of bringing an enemy ‘inside the house.’ On the flip side, a unified leadership would mean Abbas would have more control and even though Hamas would remain in Gaza the population there might be more receptive to his more moderate policies towards Israel.”
According to Dr. Neriah, who previously served as a foreign policy advisor to former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, the chances of success are anyways minimal. “There is a huge ideological rift between Fatah and Hamas, the latter of which has vowed to fight Israel until it is erased from the world. How can you marry an entity that wants to destroy Israel into an entity which has recognized it?”
Dr. Neriah also believes that Hamas is playing a double game and is presently wooing Abbas with the sole aim of alleviating the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza. “It is purely tactical,” he asserted, “due to the fact that Hamas is feeling pressure from the people. Furthermore, Hamas claims that it would win open elections if they were held today, so why compromise?”
In the result, both factions continue to jockey for position, with Hamdallah calling on Hamas following Monday’s meeting to dissolve an administrative committee set up in Gaza in March and instead allow the PA to start governing the territory. Hamas, meanwhile, insists the body was established to overcome the PA’s neglect of the Strip. At stake is Abbas’ new proposal, which would reportedly restore electricity and supplies to Gaza on condition Hamas dismantles its political structures and publicly distances itself from Mohammad Dahlan, a former Fatah strongman who was banished by Abbas from the party.
Hazem Qasim, a spokesperson for Hamas in Gaza told The Media Line that the ball is in the PA’s court. “It is in Mahmoud Abbas’ hands. First, he needs to stop all the punitive measures against the Gaza Strip. Then he needs to implement what was agreed to in the past; meaning, Abbas needs to call a meeting of all Palestinian parties to discuss how everyone will be represented in the PA.”
While acknowledging that obstacles still need to be overcome, Qasim nevertheless painted an optimistic picture. “If there is a real will on both sides, there is a way,” he concluded.
For the Palestinians, national unity is viewed as a prerequisite for national independence, and, crucially, a pathway towards holding presidential and parliamentary elections for the first time in years.
Speaking to The Media Line, Political Analyst Addie Awad stressed that the “Palestinians long for reconciliation because they want to reverse the current trend, which is going in the wrong direction, since it weakens the Palestinian cause and the inspiration for national liberation.”
As to the inability to date to achieve the goal, Awad explained that “Hamas views itself as a replacement for the PA, whereas the PA sees itself as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. It is a power struggle and there is little common ground because they both have different agendas and are being influenced by different entities, both foreign and domestic.”
For example, Awad invoked Israel’s repeated threats to stop transferring to the PA tens of millions of dollars in taxes it collects on its behalf if Hamas is incorporated into a unity government, a move that would cripple Abbas’ leadership. He also highlighted the fact that the U.S. could end its support for the Palestinian president if he gets too close to Hamas, which Washington has designated a terrorist group.
Conversely, Awad noted that Hamas is beholden to Qatar, Turkey and to a lesser degree Iran, which all provide funds to Gaza, with strings attached. Additionally, Hamas is meant to be at the forefront of the “resistance” against Israel and must therefore maintain a hard line to shore up support from its base.
Overall, then, large gaps continue to exist between the two Palestinian sides, which, when coupled with historical precedent, suggests neither party is likely to blink first.
(Dima Abumaria contributed to this report)