Landmines of reconciliation
Despite the fanfare, it appears there are major issues still to be resolved on the Palestinian reconciliation front, not least implementing what has been agreed, writes Saleh Al-Naami
Asaad Qambaz, 24, was surprised when on 4 May he came home at night in the old district of Nablus and found a message from the Palestinian Authority's (PA) intelligence agency asking him to come in for questioning. When Asaad, a Hamas member, called some of his friends he found out that they too were asked to go for questioning because they participated in a march sponsored by Hamas in the city for the first time in five years. The march was to celebrate the signing of a national reconciliation agreement. In all the cities where Hamas organised marches to mark the occasion, its members were called in for a warning against political activism.
The organisers of the marches were keen on raising the picture of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, but despite an optimistic atmosphere in the West Bank and Gaza Strip after the deal was signed, this optimism was not enough to uproot distrust between the rival sides. On Thursday, in bitter cold conditions in Nablus, tens of women were protesting outside the central Jeneed jail that houses a large number of political detainees, to demand the speedy release of their sons, husbands and relatives.
Fatemah, a student at Al-Najah National University, said the first thing she and her family expected after the reconciliation agreement was signed was the release of her brother Khalil, a university student, who is detained without charge. Hamas has asked for the release of political prisoners as a top priority commitment in the deal, but Adnan Al-Damiri, spokesman for the security apparatus in the West Bank, said that the release of political prisoners would only take place by presidential decree.
Hamas also wants to see an end to security coordination between PA security agencies and the Israeli army, which Hamas MP Musheer Al-Masri said could detonate reconciliation. Hamed Al-Bitawi, head of the Palestinian Scholars Society and a Hamas MP, described security coordination and reconciliation as "polar opposites". But the PA responded unequivocally that it would continue cooperating with Israel on security issues.
Hussein Al-Sheikh, minister of civilian affairs in Salam Fayyad's cabinet and a member of Fatah's Central Committee, said that security coordination with Israel "will continue under all circumstances". Indeed, Haaretz newspaper reported that routine meetings between PA security officials and Israel continued without interruption.
But these worrying conditions did not prevent Palestinian factions from continuing to work together to form joint committees to oversee the implementation of what was agreed on. Palestinian factions are currently trying to recruit talented professionals in the fields of law, economy and administration to member teams that will study the application of technical details in the reconciliation deal.
Meanwhile, the issue that dominates internal debate among the factions is who will head the interim government. There is a long list of candidates, but it seems that none of the candidates is being seriously considered if he is not nominated by Fatah or Hamas. Sources told Al-Ahram Weekly that Hamas still insists on nominating independent MP Jamal Al-Khodari and Kamaleen Shaath, president of the Islamic University in Gaza. On the other hand, Fatah also has several candidates led by incumbent Prime Minister Fayyad who is supported by Abbas, and Palestinian businessman Moneeb Al-Masri who is currently the leader of a group of independent Palestinian figures that played a critical role in bringing viewpoints closer between the two sides.
Fatah said the criteria for choosing a prime minister should be that his governance should not put the West Bank and Gaza under siege. Jibreel Al-Rajoub, member of Fatah's Central Committee, clearly stated as much: "We want a government which will help lift the siege on the West Bank and Gaza, and promote the Palestine Liberation Organisation [PLO] as the representative of the Palestinian people in partnership with all political forces." Al-Rajoub warned against forming a government that embarrasses the PLO. He added that the next prime minister "should have no faction or political party affiliations", and that the tasks of the government "are the criteria determining who the prime minister will be."
But many Palestinians believe that the deal that was signed in Cairo did not provide sufficient or clear solutions for some of the most pressing problems facing Fatah and Hamas. Many observers believe that both sides will need to display adequate goodwill, necessary flexibility, and make some compromises in order to reach agreement on issues that can no longer be postponed for another year until elections are held. Hani Al-Masri, a prominent writer and political analyst, warns of three "landmines" in the Cairo agreement that could spark intense disputes in the future if left unresolved.
"The first loophole in the deal is the absence of a joint political programme," asserted Al-Masri, who played a role in attempts to close ranks between Fatah and Hamas. "Also, there are security issues that both sides agreed to postpone until after the elections. The third weakness pertains to the leadership role of the PLO which has not been defined, and opens the door for clashes with the PLO's Executive Committee."
Al-Masri added: "All these issues could be compounded if agreement is not reached regarding unifying the security apparatus until after elections. How can we supervise elections under two separate security agencies? Detentions and restrictions on freedoms could continue." Al-Masri argued that the situation "requires a plan, even a gradual one, to integrate and rebuild security agencies. While delaying the step could circumvent an immediate explosive situation, the landmine could detonate at any moment."
Al-Masri stated that the next government would not have political powers, especially for negotiations with Israel, which would amplify the absence of a joint political programme. Al-Masri also warned about the PLO's vague leadership role, since the parties agreed that its decisions cannot be blocked, but "in a way that does not contradict the PLO's Executive Committee". He described the last phrase as a major landmine and demanded that the PLO's authority be better clarified in order for it to genuinely have control over decisions.
Meanwhile, Israel continues its attempts to undermine Palestinian reconciliation by lobbying the world community against the deal, and attempting to strip the legitimacy of the next Palestinian government. Maariv newspaper revealed on Sunday that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu would announce in his address to the US Congress that there is no chance of reaching peace between Israel and the PA after Fatah signed a deal with Hamas. The newspaper quoted sources in Netanyahu's office that said he would tell Congress members at the end of this month that peace was impossible as long as Hamas does not adopt the conditions of the International Quartet, which include recognition of Israel and renouncing violence. The newspaper said that Netanyahu intended to propose a political initiative to end the conflict, but reconciliation made him change his mind because it proves that Abbas has abandoned the path to settlement.
Saeb Ereikat, member of the PLO's Executive Committee, has had enough of Netanyahu's "opportunism" and demanded that the Israeli prime minister stop provoking the US Congress to halt US assistance to the Palestinians. "The Israeli government, under orders from Netanyahu, has for some time been pressuring US Congress members against the PA," Ereikat told Palestinian official radio. "This demonstrates Israel's intentions towards us, namely that this government is not a partner in peace, but a non-stop provocateur for the destruction of the PA. This is absolutely unacceptable and only the Israeli government will shoulder the responsibility for the collapse of the peace process, because it chose settlements over peace. This government continues to dictate conditions on the ground and refuses all attempts by the international community, including the US, to stop settlement building and accept the references of the peace process."
Ereikat vehemently denied reports that Hamas gave the PA a deadline to end negotiations with Israel, saying that these reports are unfounded. He stated that discussions with Hamas have not started but will begin soon, and described reconciliation as the path to settlement and peace. He urged all parties to do their utmost to maintain united ranks. "We cannot achieve peace without reconciliation and without the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem becoming one geographic unit," Ereikat asserted. "Neither can we reach democratic elections without reconciliation."
Ereikat addressed US officials by saying that they should realise that in the absence of reconciliation it is impossible to move "towards peace on the basis of democracy and a two-state solution". Ereikat said that the next Palestinian government "will be committed" to the programme announced by President Abbas during the signing of the reconciliation agreement. But despite the optimism of the Palestinian people in the wake of the reconciliation deal, there are many hurdles on the road to implementation. Most prominently, Israel's brazen inference and years of accumulated mutual distrust among the Palestinians.