Ramallah-based political analyst and former advisor to Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian negotiators.
Q - Efforts to bring together the Fatah party of Mahmoud Abbas, which dominates the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank (under the overall control of the Israeli army), and Hamas, which rules in Gaza (also under overall Israeli military control), have resumed once again after a bitter, decade-long split between the two major Palestinian political factions. Can you explain what is taking place right now?
Diana Buttu – “Hamas and Fatah are trying to form a new technocrat government for the Palestinian Authority that will manage the affairs of Palestinians in the areas of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip that the PA governs, based on a unity agreement previously signed but not fully implemented.
“Last week, the PA cabinet based in the West Bank traveled to the Gaza Strip and met with Hamas for the first time in three years. This week, representatives of Fatah and Hamas are meeting in Cairo to try to work out the details of implementing the unity deal.
“The aim is for the Fatah dominated PA administration in the West Bank and Hamas’ administration in Gaza to unite, keeping in mind that both remain under Israeli military rule. Once the government is formed, it is expected that general elections for the PA will be called.”
Q - How did we get to this point?
DB – “Following Hamas’ 2006 victory in elections for the PA, the international donor community took the decision not to deal with the democratically-elected Hamas government. For the donor-dependent PA, this meant losing nearly 40 percent of its budget, with Israel seizing the other 60 percent, derived from Palestinian tax revenues it collects on behalf of the PA. The result was that the PA’s roughly 150,000 employees (which includes physicians and teachers) did not receive their salaries for nearly nine months.
“To bypass the Hamas government, donors put in place measures to undo the financial transparency safeguards that the PA had previously set up. In short, the international community continued to demand that it work with Abbas’ Fatah party and not with the newly elected, Hamas-led government. In 2007, the Hamas-Fatah dispute reached its peak, with Fatah and the remnants of the previous PA government removed from office. This set off the current 10-year rift between the two groups.
“Today, Gaza is on the brink of a humanitarian crisis due to the decade-long siege and blockade that Israel imposed on it following Hamas’ election win, which is a form of collective punishment and illegal under international law .
“The blockade has ensured that Gaza’s water supply remains polluted, as much needed supplies to repair the system are not allowed in; that Gaza’s economy is unable to develop, and in fact is de-developing, due to Israel’s refusal to allow goods out of Gaza and to allow the free movement of goods (including medicine) into Gaza; that Gaza’s residents only receive electricity for a couple of hours a day due to their inability to repair the electricity grid; and that Gazans are not able to rebuild the more than 100,000 structures that Israel destroyed in its 2014 bombing campaign.
“Earlier this summer, in an effort to pressure Hamas, Abbas further exacerbated this humanitarian crisis by slashing funding to Gaza’s health care system, deciding that he would no longer assist Palestinian patients in need of medical treatment leave Gaza, that he would no longer pay Israel for the small amount of electricity supplied to Gaza, and that he was cutting salaries of PA workers in Gaza.
“These measures, combined with Hamas’ recent amendment of its charter to support a two-state solution with Israel are what spurred Hamas to make gestures towards Abbas.”
Q - Over the past ten years, there have been numerous attempts at reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, all of which have failed. Is there any reason to believe they will succeed this time?
DB – “Talks between Hamas and Fatah have gone on for over a decade and their inability to reconcile their differences has led to two major developments: it has worsened the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip created by Israel’s siege and blockade, and it has exacerbated a lack of trust in the political parties and system.
“More than two-thirds of the Palestinian public want to see Abbas resign and polls indicate that fewer Palestinians will participate in any upcoming elections. For these primary reasons, the push to reconcile is greater than it has been in the past. The worsening conditions in Gaza have also lead Hamas to a more conciliatory posture.
“That said, for it to succeed this time, a number of issues must be addressed, including who will supervise crossing points in and out of Gaza and whether the movement of goods and people will be increased, particularly with Israel exercising ultimate control of all entry and exit. It is also unclear whether Hamas or the PA will be responsible for policing in Gaza.”
Q - Why haven’t they succeeded up until this point?
DB – “One reason is that the approach by Fatah to date has been to seek the elimination of Hamas, not cooperation with it. This was done by Abbas denying Hamas the ability to join the Palestinian political umbrella group, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which Abbas also heads. It is clear that Hamas is not going away, so a solution must be found for Fatah and Hamas to cooperate rather than compete.
“In addition, they have not succeeded up until this point because of international interference and its impact on Palestinian decision-making. For example, one of the conditions that has been forwarded by Fatah for ‘reconciliation’ is a demand that Hamas agree to recognize Israel, renounce armed struggle, and abide by the Oslo Accords. Yet these same demands have never been placed on Israel. Israel has never recognized the right of Palestinians to an independent state or self-determination of any kind, has never renounced its state terrorism, and it has consistently violated the spirit and letter of the Oslo Accords, including through massive illegal settlement construction on stolen Palestinian land.”
Q - What will it take for real national unity to occur?
DB – “To achieve unity, the focus must be on developing a strategy to liberate Palestine from Israel’s now 50-year-old military occupation and other violations of Palestinian human rights, and not merely on ‘ruling’ pockets of the occupied West Bank and Gaza under Israel’s overarching military control, as has been the case for decades. All Palestinians living in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip live under Israel’s oppressive military regime. Finding a means to address this is of paramount importance, rather than keeping afloat a deeply flawed PA that only seeks to collaborate with Israel and that is increasingly repressive of any dissent. When the focus is shifted to liberation – and not ruling – genuine unity can begin to take place.
“Along these lines, for nearly 25 years Fatah has adopted a failed strategy of bilateral negotiations with Israel instead of pushing (or even being open to) other methods of addressing Israel’s denial of Palestinian rights and freedom, such as supporting the grassroots boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, or organizing mass popular protests against Israel’s military rule. Instead, even as it is glaringly obvious that talks with Israel will not succeed under the current circumstances, Fatah continues to behave as though it is the sole political party in Palestine and its program of negotiations is the only one that can succeed. This lack of acceptance of a plurality of views is one of the main reasons that there is such internal strife.”
Q - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already said that Israel will reject any agreement between Fatah and Hamas that does not include Hamas completely disarming, both parties formally recognizing Israel as a "Jewish state" (as opposed to just recognizing Israel), and other conditions that are clearly designed to undermine reconciliation efforts. Why does it seem that Israel wants to sabotage the deal?
DB – “Israel knows very well that Palestinian strength is in unity and hence will do anything it can to undermine efforts to form a united front. For example, this summer as Israel imposed measures to block Palestinians from freely accessing their holy sites in the Old City of occupied East Jerusalem, Palestinians from all backgrounds (including Muslims, Christians, men, women, elderly, youth, and members of all political parties) came together to demand that Israel end these measures. And they were successful due to their unity and numbers.
“Israel continues to benefit from the Hamas-Fatah split. As long as it remains, Israel is free to continue its suffocating and illegal blockade on Gaza, to steal more Palestinian land to build and expand illegal settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem, to demolish Palestinian homes and schools, and its myriad other violations of Palestinian rights.
“It also allows Israel’s extreme right-wing, rejectionist government to claim it has no ‘partner’ for peace because Palestinians are divided. If unity is achieved, Israel will no longer have any excuses and Palestinians will be in a much stronger position in our struggle for freedom, justice, and equality.”