Now the real test
With resistance gains in Gaza and UN recognition in New York, conditions have improved for Palestinian reconciliation. Will Abbas follow through? Saleh Al-Naami investigates
Hassan could not believe he was reunited with his family. Five years of exile ended this week when he returned to his family home in Gaza City after a boost in relations between Fatah and Hamas. Hassan returned to his family as one of 20 Fatah members who were allowed to come back to the Gaza Strip on orders of the Gaza government headed by Ismail Haniyeh. These Fatah activists had fled to Egypt after military clashes erupted between Hamas and Fatah in the summer of 2007, which concluded with Hamas taking control of the Gaza Strip. Hundreds of Fatah elements quickly escaped after participating in attacks against Hamas members.
Bringing Hassan home was one of several steps by the Gaza government in a show of goodwill towards Fatah, reflecting closer ties between the two groups after what Palestinians viewed as a “victory” over Israel in recent confrontations, and “Palestine” being granted full state “observer status” at the UN General Assembly. The Gaza government decided to release all Fatah members who were arrested during the years of division, and rescinded many travel bans against Fatah leaders.
In return, Fatah delegations from the West Bank poured into the Gaza Strip to express their solidarity with Gaza. There are many signs of closer ties between the two sides in the West Bank on the organisational and population levels; together, the two groups sponsored an event celebrating the “Gaza victory” and there are other forms of coordination between them.
The Palestinian masses in the West Bank sent a clear and strong message to President Mahmoud Abbas that reconciliation must be reached as soon as possible. At the Palestinian Authority event welcoming Abbas home from the UN, crowds chanted and interrupted Abbas’s speech. They demanded reconciliation because it is “key to strengthening Palestinian resilience”. Abbas promised to reach reconciliation, and his words were well received by Hamas leaders.
Salah Al-Bardaweel, a leading Hamas figure, described Abbas’s political rhetoric as “realistic and not provocative”, adding that he no longer places any preconditions on reaching Palestinian reconciliation and ending division. Al-Bardaweel suggested holding an urgent meeting for all Palestinian forces to close ranks and rebuild the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) based on partnership.
There are many indicators that Gaza’s steadfastness in standing up to Israel’s military onslaught and the Palestinian president’s victory at the UN contributed to creating a conducive atmosphere for national reconciliation. Sources told Al-Ahram Weekly that Cairo will soon host Palestinian factions to discuss applying already signed reconciliation agreements. Informed sources said that Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshaal might meet with Abbas in Cairo based on an initiative by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. There is also a possibility of holding a meeting for all secretary generals of Palestinian factions, headed by Abbas, in Cairo.
Abbas secured the support of key Hamas leaders on the eve of his departure to the UN. Meshaal called him to express support for the move, and Haniyeh supported the step as well. Both Hamas leaders, however, reminded Abbas that genuine reconciliation would only be achieved through agreement on a new political agenda, unlike the one Abbas advocates that leaves no room for resistance.
Haniyeh also reminded Abbas that Palestine becoming a “non-member state with observer status” at the UN “crowns the victory by the resistance in the Gaza Strip based on the principle of no compromise or waiver.” “We welcome developments at the UN, but we are still committed to our unyielding strategy for the liberation of Palestine — all of Palestine from the river to the sea, from East to West,” declared Haniyeh.
Meshaal echoed the same: “We must view recognition of Palestine as a non-member with observer status as one strategy to accomplish the liberation project.” He added that the outcome of the war on Gaza encourages reaching reconciliation because Hamas is in a position of power. Meshaal also highlighted the importance of the UN move because “it unites nationalist Palestinian efforts as part of the reconciliation process”.
He added that he pressed on Abbas that this should be “part of a national strategy that includes resistance, which excelled in Gaza and sent a message that the Palestinian people can resist and stand up to occupation.” Meshaal added: “When we unite, reconcile, end divisions and have a single reference and political struggle, we will be much stronger and capable of achieving more. Our ability to resist Israeli aggression would be greater.”
Meshaal could use his trip to Gaza this week, to give a speech at a celebration marking Hamas’s 25th anniversary, to confirm his group’s commitment to pursuing national reconciliation based on resistance. This implies that any breakthrough on the reconciliation issue will depend on a clear revision in Abbas’s position regarding resistance. This is the sentiment of average Palestinians who want the president to modify his political outlook.
“Abbas used to describe resistance rockets as a farce and attacked the resistance at every chance,” said Osama Salman, a teacher who lives in Al-Maghazi Refugee Camp in the centre of the Gaza Strip. “The time has come for him to change his position after the resistance and their rockets proved potent in confronting Israel.”
Ashraf Al-Agrami, former member of Salam Fayyad’s cabinet who is close to Abbas, believes that closing national ranks is vital and necessary for Hamas and the Gaza Strip, because unity would make it difficult for Israel to attack the Strip once again. At the same time, Al-Agrami admits that national unity and ending divisions is essential for Abbas because world recognition of a Palestinian state would require a united political leadership.
“This is the best time to hold legislative and presidential elections to rejuvenate leadership positions and map out a strategy for the struggle and action,” he suggested. “This would enable the people to stand up to Israel’s settlement plans.”
Al-Agrami warned Hamas leaders not to mistake visits by Arab, Islamic and international officials to Gaza as recognition of Hamas’s legitimacy as ruler of the Strip, or weaken its resolve to achieve national reconciliation.
Meanwhile, some Palestinians believe the best test for Abbas’s determination to reconcile is ending security cooperation with occupation forces in the West Bank, as well as releasing political prisoners. Suspicions about Abbas’s intentions were further exacerbated by a report on Israeli television Channel 1 claiming a deal was struck between European states and Abbas in which these states would support Abbas’s move at the UN in return for re-launching negotiations with Israel without preconditions.
Any talks with Israel would destroy any possibility of national reconciliation.
Israel is not willing to risk a united Palestinian front and began security measures to undercut signs of people-to-people reconciliation in the West Bank between Hamas and Fatah. The occupation army and intelligence arrested dozens of Hamas leaders and MPs, and Israeli media commentators described this as a reaction to closer relations between the two sides. The dragnet was also seen as a way to prevent further “hostile action” against the Israeli army and settlers.
Although the domestic climate after the war on Gaza and Palestine being given “observer status” at the UN is better as Hamas and Fatah draw closer, it is still too early to judge if these two developments are enough to convince the leadership on both sides to bury the hatchet, if they do not demonstrate a genuine willingness to agree on a political agenda that incorporates the most common denominators between them.
One cannot also ignore the pressure Israel and the US are putting on Abbas not to reconcile with Hamas.