As the two main Palestinian factions discuss reconciliation, a major sticking point remains Hamas’ stated refusal to disarm
Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah on Monday made his first visit to the Gaza Strip since 2015, the latest in longstanding efforts to forge a rapprochement between the Fatah and Hamas factions which, in turn, would set the stage for national elections and the formation of a Palestinian unity government
Since PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah was ingloriously tossed out of Gaza by its Islamist rival in a bloody coup more than a decade ago, the two leading organizations have remained at bitter odds despite intermittent attempts to end their differences, most notably a 2014 reconciliation agreement—one of several—this one signed under the auspices of Qatar that never materialized.
This time, however, many analysts believe that both parties are serious about ending the divide with Abbas nearing the end of his career, motivated by a desire to consolidate his rule while carving out a legacy as the man who unified his people. For its part, Hamas has been beset by years of poor governance and may be prepared to relinquish its administrative responsibilities and revert back to what it does best—namely, building rockets, tunnels and an armed force to deploy against Israel.
However, Abbas has made clear that any future reconciliation agreement must be premised on the dismantlement of Hamas’ military wing, whereas Gazan officials have declared that they will never give up the “arms of the resistance.”
While the three most senior Hamas members—leader-in-exile Ismail Haniyyeh, Gaza political chief Yahya Sinwar and Mohammed Deif, the notorious commander of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades—all of whom reportedly favor reconciliation, Sinwar and Deif are both products of the armed struggle against the Jewish state and together hold the lion’s share of influence over the terrorist organization.
Therefore, according to many observers, Hamas’s disarmament is unrealistic—as it would effectively neutralize the two main players in the organization—irrespective of whether such condition is stipulated in any eventual unity deal with Abbas’ PA/Fatah.
Some posit that Hamas may be playing the long game, while Abbas is looking for immediate successes. For him, taking over administrative control of Gaza would solidify his status as the “sole legitimate representative” of the Palestinians.
“Abbas’ ultimate goal is to show to his public and the world that there is only one leader of the Palestinians and one voice—his voice—speaking on behalf of them,” former Israeli Mossad chief Danny Yatom told The Media Line.
“Even if controlling Gaza would be difficult, Abbas’ rule over the territory would empower him. He also likely thinks that governing [the Strip] would remove one of the main obstacles relating to his capability and authority to negotiate [a peace deal] with Israel.”
For Hamas, unencumbered by the humanitarian situation in Gaza, the opportunity to morph into a fiercer fighting force, modelled on the Lebanese terror group Hizbullah, becomes an enticingly realistic goal.
In this respect, the prospective “Hizbullization” of Hamas in Gaza is a major concern, as the Shiite Iranian proxy maintains a death grip on Lebanon, largely due to its military superiority, in contravention of UN Resolution 1701 which set the terms for the end of the 2006 war with Israel, including Hizbullah’s total disarmament.
Without the need to oversee the nitty-gritty elements of day-to-day governance, the terror group has focused exclusively on expanding its weapons arsenal—aided by Syria and its primary patron Iran—which, as a result, has enabled it to acquire veto power over the Lebanese parliament.
Any unity agreement that keeps Hamas’ military wing intact will thus pose a problem for Abbas, specifically in terms of the PA’s ability to maintain long-term control over Gaza, as an armed Hamas will retain the ability to undermine or threaten the government at will. The optics of the arrangement could also become an issue that inhibits the PA’s governance, should the populace come to understand that, in reality, it is Hamas pulling the strings from behind the scenes.
Accordingly, a senior PA official last week again discounted the emergence of such a scenario, telling the Haaretz daily that Abbas has vehemently rejected the so-called “Hizbullah model.”
By contrast, in a statement released Saturday by Haniyeh, the Hamas leader explained that the organization’s decision to pursue reconciliation was made with consideration to both its political and, notably, “military power.”
Mussa Abu Marzuq, a senior Hamas official previously affirmed that disarmament “will [never] be up for discussion.”
For Israel, the prospect of Hamas preserving any form of “security” control over Gaza, along with the Rafah border crossing into Egypt, could prevent Jerusalem from significantly easing the blockade on the Strip—which suffers from severe water and electricity shortages and unemployment of more than 40 percent. This condition is undoubtedly a prerequisite to the PA’s assuming control over the enclave’s impoverished masses.
Thus far, however, the government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has remained tight-lipped about the prospective reconciliation, in stark contrast from the past when Israeli officialdom near-uniformly condemned Abbas for any attempts to forge unity with Hamas.
According to Col. (Ret.) Miri Eisen, formerly an IDF intelligence officer and adviser to the Israeli prime minister, Jerusalem’s silence does not necessarily reflect its position. “Just give them time,” she told The Media Line, “Hamas will obviously be involved in [any unity government], which will pose problems for Israel, as it has always opposed this. Accordingly, even if some solution is found that works for the Palestinians, it is unlikely that it will work for Israel.”
In this respect, Eisen believes that there is “no chance whatsoever [that Hamas will agree to disarm]. They will not even allow this in perception, as it is part of their raison d’etre.”
Nevertheless, she does not envision a Hizbullah-like situation evolving in the Gaza Strip. “Hizbullah had a few cards that Hamas does not have right now,” Eisen explained. “The Shiite group has always had a powerful backer in Iran, and thus more maneuverability. Hamas is starting from a point of weakness, but there are potentially parallels. But it does not have the same dynamic.”
Stuck in the middle is the Trump administration, whose efforts to jump-start peace negotiations might very well be thwarted should Hamas members not only become incorporated into a national unity government, but also remain the primary military power on the ground in Gaza. Moreover, with The Taylor Force Act increasingly likely to be passed by Congress, Washington will be hamstrung in terms of funding any Palestinian entity that promotes terrorism against the Jewish state.
Likewise, the greater international community will be hard-pressed to engage with Hamas, as any distinction between its “political” and “military” wings would effectively be nullified, a technicality which Hizbullah uses to operate to some degree on European soil.
Lastly, should Israel disapprove of any eventual intra-Palestinian accord, which according to Eisen is probable, it would make it exceedingly difficult for any party to convince Jerusalem to make concessions to an entity that could be taken over—or, at the very least, significantly influenced—by Hamas, which remains ideologically committed to the Jewish state’s destruction.
By contrast, Yatom contended to The Media Line that a Palestinian unity government incorporating Hamas “should, by contrast, get a chance [from Israel] because it might—despite the chances being small—bring the situation in Gaza under the control of a more moderate entity. Already, for example, the Hamas shadow government has been disbanded.”
Overall, then, the prospect of Palestinian reconciliation is fraught with uncertainties, even as both sides express a genuine willingness to make comprises to end hostilities. The potential outcomes are numerous, including the very real possibility that the unity talks will once again fail.
On the other hand, if some form of agreement is indeed achieved, while it may bring the Palestinians a modicum of internal peace, it has the capacity to further obstruct a resolution to the conflict with Israel.