Demystifying Palestinian Unity

Demystifying Palestinian Unity

Desperation drove Fatah and Hamas to work together. Whether or not they are desperate enough to stay together remains to be seen.

“Hamas’ signature of the agreement came as a surprise to me too. I could not understand why they have finally said yes.” These were the words of the President of the Palestinian Authority (PA) Mahmoud Abbas to Fatah leaders in Ramallah on May 10, about a week after Hamas and Fatah signed a deal to end the four-year split between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and establish a new government of independent technocrats to rule over the two areas. For some, the unity agreement was a marriage of convenience. For others, it was nothing but an empty gesture set to collapse in days or weeks.

Why after standing their ground against a unity government for so long did Hamas finally have a change of heart? To at least some extent, the answer lies with Abbas himself. During the past year, Abbas made a number of concessions to Hamas, accepting almost all of its conditions for forming a unity government. Most of these concerns focused on ensuring that the two groups would have equal influence in the creation of the various committees needed to implement a unification agreement and, ultimately, in the formation of the new government. For his part, Abbas had only two conditions: the new government, he insisted, must not be a Hamas-Fatah coalition but a government of independent technocrats. Furthermore, Abbas insisted that he—not the parliament, dominated by Hamas, nor the new government—would determine the PA’s platform. As PA president and chairman of the PLO, the government of independent technocrats would serve under him. He would therefore set the foreign, security, and peace-related policies and agendas.

Abbas is creating a worthy legacy. He had lost faith in Barack Obama, and he never really believed Netanyahu could be a peace partner. Knowing that he could neither complete a peace agreement nor end the occupation, he reasoned that the restoration of the unity of the West Bank and Gaza Strip would be the best he could deliver. And in insisting that Hamas and Fatah must agree on the formation of a government whose members come from neither party while he remained at the helm, he kept the public on his side. Abbas and a majority of Palestinians have long maintained that any unification measures must ensure that Israel and the Western donor countries are not in a position to punish the Palestinians by withholding money transfers as they did in the aftermath of the Mecca Agreement creating a Fatah-Hamas National Unity Government in May 2007. For Abbas, joining the West Bank and the Gaza Strip before presenting an initiative on Palestinian statehood to the UN in September is a significant gain: he can now claim that he speaks for all Palestinians. And if he fails in his UN bid, Hamas will be in no position to ridicule him.

For Fatah there were gains to be had as well. The party is eager to have new elections as soon as possible since the popularity of Hamas has dropped considerably in the five and a half years since it last won elections, and, moreover, any new elections will take place (thanks to a major Hamas concession) under a new electoral system—one that puts the Islamist group at a distinct disadvantage. In 2006, voting took place under a split system, with half of the seats selected in a national vote for electoral lists and the other half selected in a district-based vote for individual candidates. Hamas did much better in the district vote with its majority system than it did in the national vote, but the new system will allow only a quarter of the seats to be selected in districts. Currently Fatah is favored over Hamas by at least 15 percentage points and views new elections as its only chance to regain control over the Gaza Strip.

The youth revolts in the Arab World changed things for both Fatah and Hamas. For Hamas, they presented a tough dilemma. On one hand, the regional change had increased activism among young Palestinians. This in turn led to greater pressure on Abbas and Hamas to accept unconditional reconciliation. And it was the young people in particular who had abandoned Hamas, not only for its refusal to reconcile but also for its authoritarian policies and its undeclared agenda of imposing an Islamized social order that took away many social and political rights of Gaza residents. The rise of violent Salafist groups was seen by Palestinian youth as a sign of the horrible future to come if Hamas continued to rule Gaza without challenge. Hamas' response was to crack down on demonstrations, and it began to resemble those authoritarian regimes violently struggling to survive in places like Yemen and Libya. For Abbas, the revolts reinforced the urge to unify. Just like Hamas, Abbas felt the domestic pressure: in order to preempt demands for regime change, he appeased his public by imposing serious restraints on the behavior of his security services in the West Bank. As a consequence, his government could no longer repress Hamas and other opposition activists with impunity.

On the other hand, the change in the Arab World threatened to unravel the regional alignment system that made the previous status quo tenable. Abbas lost Mubarak, his most important regional ally. He knew it was just a matter of time before Egypt changed its policy regarding Hamas, leading to a de facto independence for a Hamas-led Gaza Strip. But ultimately it was the change in Syria that really mattered. Hamas knew it would have to confront an impossible dilemma: either continue to support a bloody dictatorial regime in Damascus and lose the support of the Palestinian and Arab masses or side with the protestors and lose its base in Syria. Hamas cut its losses by accepting Abbas' offer. The Syrian regime's attempt to shift focus away from domestic conditions to Israeli-Arab matters by allowing dozens of Palestinian refugees to cross the border with Israel on the Palestinian Nakba Day—May 15, the day Israel was created and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians became refugees—is not likely to change conditions in Syria or change Hamas' calculations.

The full implications of the unity agreement are not yet clear. Domestically, little is likely to change before the elections next May. Hamas will probably remain in effective control over the Gaza Strip even as Abbas assumes nominal control over that part of the Palestinian territories. Fatah will probably retain effective control over the West Bank but will have to tolerate open political activities by Hamas.

Abbas believes that he remains in full control over the peace process. This may or may not be tested in the coming months. If in the next few weeks he is given a reason to return to peace negotiations (or offered a permanent deal in the form of American bridging proposals), the risk of Hamas contradicting him increases and the agreement would be severely strained. If Hamas goes this route, the chances for a full implementation of the unity agreement—with elections still taking place as currently scheduled—are slim. If Hamas chooses not to contradict him, Abbas can use the next elections as a referendum over any peace deal or parameters he signs or accepts with Israel or the United States. If the peace process is not renewed before September, Abbas can count on Hamas supporting his efforts at the UN and Hamas can use the agreement to strengthen its base in the West Bank. As President Obama considers his next move in the Middle East and the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, instead of rejecting out of hand a new Palestinian government agreed to by Fatah and Hamas, the smart thing would be to test Abbas and his new government.