For the first time since the Hamas takeover in June 2007, Palestinian national unity talks have a better chance of success than in previous times, and the Gaza situation is probably the reason.
This optimistic prediction can turn out terribly wrong, but I think the time is now ripe: the parties are much more realistic in their expectations and the public disgust with both sides after Gaza might produce the needed tipping point in favour of genuine reconciliation. Both negative and positive factors appear to favour such national unity among Palestinians today.
The assault on Gaza and its aftermath dramatically worsened the situation of activists on either side of the divide. Nationalists and Islamists suffered arrests, physical assault and witnessed killings because of their political affiliation.
Reports coming out of Gaza talk about militants affiliated with the ruling powers in Gaza violently attacking many nationalists, including cases of arrests, shooting (many intimidation style in the knees, legs and feet), as well as outright assassinations. Palestine TV has been broadcasting cases of individuals who claim to have been kidnapped (their term), injured or killed.
Hamas, on the other hand, has repeatedly called for the release of its supporters from West Bank jails and the opening of its charitable organisations, and has accused nationalists of helping out the Israelis during their assault.
There is no symmetry in the actions of the two major groups. Palestinian Authority supporters point out that the attacks in Gaza were brutal, violent and not based on the rule of law, whereas the case against the Palestinian Authority are mostly about administrative decisions taken by civilian officials and approved by the courts.
Hamas lost much support in its stronghold, in Gaza, following the end of the brutal Israeli assault. On the Palestinian Authority’s side, public support for President Mahmoud Abbas has also dipped as a result of his lackluster stand during the war on Gaza and the elapse of his legal term on January 9, 2009.
The lack of progress in the peace talks make Ramallah’s holding out on talks inappropriate. At one time it was thought that a breakthrough in the peace process, followed by a positive result in a national referendum, would strengthen Ramallah’s hand.
The aftermath of the brutal attacks on Gaza gave rise to a third power. Public opinion, independent leadership and non-Fateh and Hamas factions have been playing a bigger role in pushing the two large factions to close this nasty file of internal bickering and fighting.
The strong reaction from these groups following the mutual arrests produced quick results, both in Abbas’ call for the immediate release of Hamas leaders and the positive response from the Gaza powers. Politically, both groups failed to achieve their goals. Hamas’ military approach has failed as it has agreed to the ceasefire. Abbas also failed to produce the coveted peace treaty through political negotiations. Both Hamas and Fateh leaders have been weakened considerably as a result of the internal fighting.
For Hamas, the experience of running a government, even a reduced one, has had a humiliating result. Fateh’s arrogance, which failed to allow it to honestly and fairly deal with a rising competitor, has also taught it a lesson or two in the past two years.
Palestinian leaders of all colours and shades are convinced that the continuation of violent rivalry between the Islamic and nationalist leaderships will continue to have disastrous effects on the people. While anti-unity radicals in both groups continue to exist, the voice of the silent majority seems to be gathering steam. It has been argued that Palestinians are approaching the critical mass that would push for a different political resolution to the present madness. For better or worse, there is an acceptance that the rule of law and democratic processes are the only rational way to solve differences.
As Abbas’ presidential tenure has ended and the end of the Haniyeh-led Palestinian parliament term approaches, elections loom as the publicly accepted way to the question of who should be in charge of Palestine.
But elections will not happen without the consent of both Hamas and Fateh. In order to agree, the two sides must be convinced that the process will be free and fair, and they need to have a true chance to win.
Some argue that Hamas, which has been hurt by being in power, might actually prefer to return as a strong opposition and with a guarantee of legitimacy, rather than in power without freedom of movement and continued local and international ostracism. The lessons of Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Jordan and Egypt show that choosing not to win an overall majority (even if they think they can) is a saner policy than fighting for total power and finding yourself totally isolated.
Finally, the reconstruction of Gaza and the millions of dollars expected to come into the tiny strip provide perhaps the single biggest incentive for both sides. Hamas knows that an internationally acceptable government is a must for any money to enter. Europe and the US under Barack Obama are probably more willing to accept a role for Hamas in the new government.
Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad also need to work closely with Hamas which has control of the strip and therefore will have to be as flexible as the international community will allow. National unity is certainly a Palestinian as well as an Arab demand now, especially that the regular Arab summit, planed for March, in the Qatari capital of Doha is fast approaching.
Failure to achieve genuine unity that can be translated on the ground will undoubtedly lead to even further interference in Palestinian affairs. Unity, therefore, is the only choice for Palestinians.