Back to the war of words
A public clash between Fatah and Hamas heavyweights has brought Palestinian reconciliation back to square one, which is where the US is pressuring it to remain, writes Saleh Al-Naami
Ghazi Hamad, undersecretary of the Foreign Ministry of the Gaza government, lately has plenty of time to participate in political and cultural events sponsored by his ministry. Hamad now can afford to attend meetings with foreign delegations visiting Gaza. His original job is to coordinate reconciliation efforts with Fatah and the Egyptian government, but lately he has little to do as the issue has come to a dead halt. Hamas and Fatah not only disagree on every issue under discussion, but last week an unprecedented war of words erupted between the sides.
A Palestinian source close to reconciliation talks told Al-Ahram Weekly: “It is unlikely the joint committees recently formed in Cairo to implement previous agreements, especially on the formation of a national consensus government, would meet.” The source continued that Fatah and Hamas leaders realise that even if they send negotiators to discuss the possibility of forming a government, there is a core dispute on linking the formation of a government and other reconciliation matters.
Hamas believes a national consensus government should continue working until disputes are resolved, including security issues, restructuring the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), and social reconciliation. Fatah, on the other hand, believes the next government should last no longer than three months after which new legislative and presidential elections would be held in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, irrespective of how much progress is made on other issues.
Hamas is convinced Fatah wants to hold elections because the latter is certain the results would not favour Hamas, which implies all Fatah wants to do is get rid of its rival. It adds that Fatah knows, because it controls the West Bank, it can influence the elections and their outcome. Hamas also accuses Fatah of dividing labour with the occupation, whereby Israeli forces arrested most of Hamas’s political leadership in the West Bank, which weakens Hamas’s chances of contesting the elections.
Since relations are so strained between the two sides, both have stopped efforts towards forming a consensus government, such as picking candidates for the next cabinet. Instead, both groups are focused on winning public support by presenting evidence of what they believe proves that the other side is not serious about reaching reconciliation. Making matters worse, Egypt’s role retreated lately and fewer envoys are going to Ramallah and Gaza to bridge the gap between both sides.
Nonetheless, the worst development over the past week was an escalating war of words between the two sides, and which took a serious turn. No one could predict that a seminar on the future of Palestinian reconciliation on 21 February, attended by dozens of people, would end as badly as it did. Before the seminar began at the PLO headquarters in Ramallah, keynote speakers Parliament Speaker Aziz Al-Dweik and Azzam Al-Ahmed, member of Fatah’s Central Committee and a lead negotiator on reconciliation, made sure to warmly embrace each other. But the seminar ended in a fierce verbal altercation between them, forcing Al-Dweik and other Hamas leaders to leave.
The incident at the seminar reflects the complete lack of trust between the leaders of the groups; the slightest misunderstanding reveals how fragile is the commitment to reconciliation on both sides. At the beginning of his speech, Al-Dweik talked about the role of Hamas in Palestinian resistance and its contribution to inflicting losses on the Israeli occupation. He added that his group’s contribution to the resistance could not be compared to Fatah’s. Al-Ahmed interrupted him mockingly and accused him of opposing reconciliation.
Al-Ahmed continued his attack, saying the occupation is the only thing that benefits from Al-Dweik’s actions, accused him of being “an Israeli agent”. At that point, the meeting hall erupted and Al-Dweik left along with Hamas MPs who were attending. Efforts by Hanan Ashrawi, member of the PLO Executive Committee and mediator, to calm them down failed.
Although tension already existed between the two sides before the seminar, Al-Ahmed’s accusation that Al-Dweik was Israel’s “agent” ignited the situation. Hamas leaders then urged for an end to all forms of dialogue with Fatah unless Al-Ahmed apologises to Al-Dweik.
Meanwhile, Hamas’s parliamentary bloc demanded that Fatah’s top negotiator immediately apologise to Al-Dweik and the Palestinian people.
The bloc accused Al-Ahmed of “insulting the symbol of Palestinian legitimacy”, and urged Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to dismiss Al-Ahmed if he does not apologise. In a message to Hamas leaders abroad, the bloc asked them to “stop dealing with Al-Ahmed”.
The incident revealed differences in the positions of Hamas leaders abroad and at home regarding reconciliation. Those at home reacted strongly to what happened since they viewed Al-Ahmed’s behaviour as evidence that reconciliation is not possible, and noted that arrests continue for political and affiliation reasons. Ahmed Al-Bahr, deputy parliament speaker and a leading Hamas member, demanded a “public trial” of Al-Ahmed, calling on Abbas and Fatah leaders “to clear the air and national atmosphere of hysterics, irrational actions and reckless behaviour that undermine our national cause and reconciliation efforts”.
For his part, Al-Ahmed defended his position and accused Hamas leaders at home, especially Al-Dweik, of disinterest in ending divisions because they benefit from continuing the status quo. He added there is no reason for Fatah to replace him as head of the group’s negotiating team in reconciliation talks and that the altercation does not warrant postponing a meeting slated for yesterday, Wednesday.
But Al-Ahmed was mistaken because pressure by Hamas leaders at home caused leaders abroad to postpone the meeting after all. Moussa Abu Marzouq, deputy head of Hamas’s politburo and lead negotiator in reconciliation talks, said his group postponed the meeting in protest at Al-Ahmed’s attack on Al-Dweik. Abu Marzouq explained that delaying the meeting would allow time to improve the atmosphere to make reconciliation talks successful in the future.
Fatah spokesman Fayez Abu Itta said Hamas’s request to postpone the Cairo meeting was “not helpful at all to Palestinian reconciliation because there is a deadline for completing reconciliation as was decided during recent meetings in Cairo.”
Meanwhile, foreign players are interfering to strain relations between the two sides, especially US pressure on the Palestinian Authority (PA) not to reconcile with Hamas. Sources told the Weekly that US Ambassador to Tel Aviv Dan Shapiro told Abbas there is a possibility US President Barack Obama could succeed during his upcoming visit to the region to convince Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to change his position on reaching a political solution. Also, to take concrete steps on the ground to boost Palestinian support for a political solution, such as ending settlement building and Judaisation, as well as partially lifting economic restrictions on the West Bank.
Informed sources said Shapiro reminded Abbas that any signs of closing ranks between Fatah and Hamas now would be used by Netanyahu to dig in his heels, rejecting a halt to settlement building and Judaisation. Abdallah Abdallah, a leading Fatah figure, admitted the US was in indeed making this argument.