Making peace

Published : Jun 03, 2011 00:00 IST

PALESTINIAN PRESIDENT MAHMOUD Abbas (left) in conversation with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal (right) after the signing of the reconciliation deal in Cairo on May 4. - AP/HAMAS MEDIA OFFICE

PALESTINIAN PRESIDENT MAHMOUD Abbas (left) in conversation with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal (right) after the signing of the reconciliation deal in Cairo on May 4. - AP/HAMAS MEDIA OFFICE

West Asia: The reconciliation between the Fatah and Hamas, which was brokered by the new government in Egypt, renews hope among Palestinians.

THE surprise news that the Fatah, which controls the West Bank, and Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip, have decided to bury their differences and work together in the interest of Palestinian unity has created a renewed sense of hope among Palestinians. The two sides have been at loggerheads for the past four years. The violent split between the two mainstream Palestinian groups had helped Israel stall the peace process.

The new show of unity is the cumulative effect of the upheaval in the Arab world since December 2010 and the pressure mounted by the younger generation of Palestinians. Both the Fatah and Hamas have realised that two factions cannot rule Palestine separately. But nobody is taking the new-found unity for granted. Palestinian Authority (P.A.) Chairman Mahmoud Abbas pointed out that Israel would not want to see any Palestinian unity because it thrived on divisions among Palestinians. There are no guarantees about the success of the agreement, which has many enemies, and there are attempts to undermine the agreement from many parties, Abbas said shortly after the agreement was initialled.

The new Egyptian government, which played an important role in brokering the peace agreement, is not hostile to Hamas and wants to reposition Cairo as a key player in the region. Egypt has announced that it is opening the Rafah crossing on its border with Gaza so that there is a return to some semblance of normal life in the Palestinian territory.

Hamas officials have said that the agreement became possible because of the change of government in Egypt and the failure of the P.A.'s peace talks with Israel. Abbas has conceded that the people's revolutions in the region influenced the positive outcome. The exiled Hamas leadership in Damascus may have been rattled by the turmoil in Syria. The Muslim Brothers, who are leading the opposition in Syria, have close links with Hamas. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is expected to emerge as the single biggest party when elections are held later in the year.

The Fatah leadership has been disenchanted with the Barack Obama administration, especially after it exercised its veto in the United Nations Security Council on the resolution condemning the Israeli settlement expansion. The united front put up by the Palestinians comes at a time when the P.A.'s move to get international recognition for Palestinian statehood is gaining momentum. The U.N. General Assembly is expected to grant formal recognition to Palestine as an independent state, with or without a peace deal, in September. Only Israel and the U.S. are openly opposed to this move.

Hamas, which until recently was against the plan to hold elections in the Palestinian territories, has now agreed to participate in the presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for May next year. Until the elections, Hamas and the Fatah will retain their separate security apparatuses in Gaza and the West Bank, though the eventual goal is the integration of their military forces. Political detainees held by both sides are expected to be released soon.

Palestine is bigger than both Hamas and the Fatah, it is bigger than all the factions. Hence efforts should be concentrated on building a broad national front towards the attainment of freedom from the hideous Israeli occupation, said a statement from the leftist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Similar statements of support were issued by other parties, including the Palestinian People's Party, the former Communist Party. Genuine reconciliation and democratic elections are aimed at empowering the Palestinian people, which is precisely why Israel opposes the agreement, said Hannan Ashrawi, the prominent activist and Palestine Liberation Organisation executive member. She said that previously the Israeli government was claiming that it had no partner to negotiate with as the Palestinians were divided. Now the same government is saying that President Abbas must choose between peace with Israel and peace with Hamas and that he cannot have both. But Hamas is part and parcel of the Palestinian political landscape, said Hannan Ashrawi.

Representatives of the U.N., the European Union and the Arab League were present at the signing ceremony conducted at the headquarters of the Egyptian Intelligence Agency in Cairo. The only loud protests, predictably, came from Israel. Ever since the two factions started holding serious unity discussions in Cairo under the auspices of the post-Mubarak government in Egypt, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been issuing threatening statements. He has been saying that the only peace partner available to the Fatah-led P.A. is the Israeli government.

As a sign of the Israeli government's hostile intent, Netanyahu has withheld a planned $89 million transfer of funds meant for the P.A. The money is part of the tax collected on Palestinian territory. Israel collects tax and customs fees on behalf of the P.A., under the Paris Economic Protocol signed in 1995. Israel has on several occasions withheld the tax money to arm-twist the P.A. Two-thirds of the Palestinian budget is funded by tax receipts. Palestinian officials have decried the latest Israeli move as financial piracy.

Salim Fayyad, the Palestinian Prime Minister, said Israel's threats would not impede the reconciliation process. Hamas leaders have urged the P.A. to resist Israeli pressures. At the same time, the Hamas Prime Minister, Ishmail Haniyeh, urged the P.A. to dismantle all security coordination with Israel.

As the unity talks began in the last couple of months, Israel resumed targeted killings in Gaza with a vengeance. After the leaders of the Palestinian factions signed the reconciliation agreement on May 4, the Israeli government began to put considerable pressure on the United States Congress to make the Obama administration cut off funding for the P.A. Hamas has been on the U.S. terror list for a long time. It was U.S. pressure on the Fatah-dominated P.A. that led to the collapse of the unity agreement in 2006. The U.S. and Israel never reconciled to the victory of Hamas in the elections held earlier that year.

Netanyahu and company say that American money could now end up in the coffers of the Hamas-run administration in Gaza. Netanyahu, who is scheduled to visit the U.S. soon, will use the Palestinian unity agreement to stall the negotiations process by telling his sympathetic audience in the U.S. that he will not negotiate with terrorists and those who do not recognise the state of Israel.

President Abbas has said, with the concurrence of Hamas, that he will be in charge of the negotiations on Palestinian statehood and foreign policy in general. The new caretaker government that is being formed will comprise mainly technocrats. Politicians from the main factions will be excluded.

Although Hamas has not formally recognised Israel, its leaders have on several occasions said that they are ready to coexist with Israel, provided it withdraws from the occupied territories. This is the stand of all Palestinian factions. It is not required for Hamas to recognise Israel, Abbas emphasised. Addressing the complaints of the Israeli Prime Minister, Abbas said everybody had the right dislike, agree, disagree with Hamas, but they are our people.

Many Palestinians in fact agree with the stand Hamas has taken on the issue of recognising the Jewish state. They have said the recognition should be reciprocal, pointing out that Israel has not yet recognised an independent state of Palestine.

The PLO recognised Israel after the Oslo accords but Israel never bothered to reciprocate. Instead it set its mind to make the dream of Palestinian statehood unachievable. Hamas, which is not part of the PLO, has said that it has no objections to the Fatah continuing with the negotiations with Israel. If the Fatah wants to bear the responsibility for negotiating on nonsense, let it. If it manages to get a state, good for them, a senior Hamas official told the media.

The Obama administration has been quick to endorse the Israeli position, reiterating that Hamas is a terrorist organisation and saying that the unity move will undermine the peace process. Because of Israeli settlement expansions in the West Bank and Jerusalem, the peace process has been in limbo since September last year.

However, Palestinians have the backing of important regional players. The governments in Turkey and Iran have welcomed the new developments. The Iranian Foreign Minister hailed the auspicious agreement, which he said was one of the results of the Egyptian revolution. The E.U. at this juncture seems inclined to back the Palestinians. Jimmy Carter, former American President, has urged the international community to support the deal as it would enhance the chances for peace in the region.

Israel has reasons to be upset at the turn of events. A resurgent Egypt has once again assumed its rightful place in the Arab world and is playing a key role in the region. As of now, Cairo has the backing of countries such as Turkey, until recently a strategic partner of Israel, and Iran, a major backer of Hamas.

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