Palestinian unity government remains unlikely
Conciliatory moves announced by the Palestinian movement Hamas towards its rival Fatah will not be enough to bring an end to the differences between the two sides, let alone form a unity government, observers noted.
Hamas said it was disbanding a committee that was formed to govern Gaza and expressed readiness to hand over all government functions to Fatah. It also agreed to have elections in Gaza, which it controls, and in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, which is governed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
“We have taken practical steps on the ground. The administrative committee no longer functions in Gaza and we are ready, starting now, to welcome the government of national consensus,” Hamas official Ismail Haniyeh said.
Abbas, who was attending a UN General Assembly meeting, spoke by phone with Haniyeh for the first time in nearly a year, cautiously welcoming Hamas’s rapprochement bid without making any commitments. Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah is to visit Gaza for talks with Hamas officials.
The announcement came following Haniyeh’s return from Cairo, where Egyptian authorities hosted mediation efforts to bring the two Palestinian sides together.
Hamas came under pressure after Abbas announced 30% salary cuts for approximately 60,000 civil servants in Gaza who are on the payroll of the Palestinian Authority. Abbas also stopped paying for Israeli electricity deliveries to Gaza, leaving the strip with only a few hours of electricity a day.
“When Hamas said it will dissolve the administrative committee, it threw the ball into the Palestinian Authority’s yard, in the sense that they have acquiesced to their demands, so now what will the PA do for Hamas? It’s a tit for tat, a barter,” Abdulsattar Qassem, a political science professor at the an-Najah University in Nablus, told Al Jazeera.
Unemployment is more than 40% in Gaza and a blockade imposed on it has left the economy in tatters. Israel and Egypt have shut their borders during most of the year, leaving thousands of people — out of a population of almost 2 million — unable to travel abroad for work or medical treatment.
“I have the impression that the general population, at least in the Gaza Strip, is really exhausted. Something has to happen and that’s why I’m slightly optimistic,” Bettina Marx, director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Ramallah, told the German website DW.
The move, however, was not expected to bring about a genuine push for reconciliation.
“Far from catapulting the Palestinians towards a hopeful new future, the most immediate result of the Hamas gambit may amount to little more than turning back the clock — and only to the beginning of the year,” David M. Halbfinger wrote in the New York Times.
“Actual reconciliation that could give new impetus to the peace process would require a motivated Palestinian Authority, a seismic shift by Hamas, and the forbearance of both Israel and the United States — none of which is clearly yet in evidence, and some of which seems as likely as an early Gaza frost,” he added.
The two Palestinian sides do not appear ready to put aside party politics for the sake of national unity.
“Substantial lasting and positive developments can be only realised through an inclusive and participatory political process that neither Fatah nor Hamas are interested in pursuing,” Alaa Tartir, programme director at the Al-Shabaka Palestinian think-tank, told Al Jazeera.
Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank are likely to remain doubtful of the possibility of a genuine reconciliation as there appears to be no middle ground to agree on.
“It’s all cosmetic at this point. Neither side will be able to bridge the ideological divide or forget their blood-soaked history anytime soon. If actual unity was possible, the two Palestinian factions would have likely found the formula in their previous agreements: Mecca in 2007, Sana’a in 2008, Cairo in 2011, Doha in 2012, Cairo again in 2012, and the Shati refugee camp in 2014,” wrote Grant Rumley in the Atlantic.
“The reality is that Hamas is unlikely to ever truly give up its military control over Gaza. The faction wants Abbas to pay for the costs of governing. Abbas wants total acquiescence and disarmament. Ultimately, there’s no middle ground here,” added Grant.
Security coordination remains the thorniest issue between the two Palestinian rivals.
“Over the past few years, when this file was put forward during advanced negotiations Hamas required the simultaneous exchange of security arrangements,” wrote Kifah Ziboun in Asharq al-Awsat.
“In practical terms, Hamas elements cannot work in the West Bank security services. Fatah members cannot work in Hamas-run security services in Gaza because of the political, security and partisan complexities,” wrote Ziboun.
There is also the objection of Israel and the United States to consider.
“Hamas is considered a terrorist organisation by the US, which may, as it did in 2006, slash funding to the PA should the Islamists join a Palestinian government,” wrote Orlando Crowcroft in Newsweek.
“The inclusion of Hamas at any senior level within a Palestinian negotiation team would likely be resisted by Israel — let alone by the US.”
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.