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Palestinian unity is no substitute for a viable political system

Where do the U.S. and Israel want Hamas: as part of a transparent political system, or in underground tunnels?

By Sam Bahour

Palestinian “unity,” reconciling tensions between Hamas and Fatah, is being revered as the foundation that can extract Gaza from the misery wrought upon it by yet another brutal Israeli military onslaught. The devastation from what Israel called “Operation Protective Edge” is overwhelming: nearly 2,000 Palestinians dead, over 10,000 wounded and paralyzed, and a third of the 1.8 million people in Gaza homeless. Added to this human tragedy is the rabid destruction of Gaza’s civilian infrastructure. Palestinian political “unity” requires an operating political system, which is something that Israel dismantled long ago with official Palestinian acquiescence. Anyone seriously wanting to see Palestinians survive this latest Israeli attack should support the reemergence of a fully operating Palestinian political system, rather than just the replacement of a pair of failed political monopolies with a reconciled but leaderless political duopoly.

File photo of Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Photo: PPO/Thaer Ghanaim - Handout)

File photo of Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Photo: PPO/Thaer Ghanaim – Handout)

If this newly founded Palestinian “unity” was cemented in a strategic political agreement and emerged from a unified political system that was representative in nature, one may have hope. But it was not. It is a unity of Fatah and Hamas, two non-representative political entities, one more militant today than the other, but both equally squeezed into a political corner that not only challenges their strategies to end the nearly five decades of Israeli military occupation, but also casts doubt on their political legitimacy.

On June 3, 2014—more than a week before three Israeli teenagers from the Gush Etzion settlement in the West Bank were reported kidnapped and murdered—I made the following comments on the Middle East Eye website and on my Facebook wall regarding the unity agreement reached in Cairo on April 23, 2014:

Palestinians have finally created what has been coined as a “unity government” after nearly eight years of paralysing division between the two largest political parties, Fatah and Hamas. This step is extremely overdue, but should be welcomed nevertheless for what it is: a baby step in the right direction, finally accepting government for what it is, a branch of politics and not some technocratic institute.

The Palestinian political spectrum is much more colourful than the bipolar duopoly that this new government depicts. If Palestinian decision-makers are serious about reconstituting an operating Palestinian political system, then no time should be wasted in passing a political party law so new political groupings, mainly youth groups, can organise politically, and then subsequently be allowed to enter elections for all levels of Palestinian governance—starting with the PLO and ending with the Palestinian Legislative Council.

In the meantime, US and Israeli threats against the government because Hamas has joined it are strategically misplaced. One must ask, where does the US and Israel want Hamas to be: in a transparent political system, or in underground trenches? Regardless, the Palestinian government is not any other country’s business unless, that is, they allow Palestinians to choose the Israelis we accept to lead Israel.

On July 3, 2014, the Israeli Air Force conducted 15 air strikes in Gaza supposedly directed at Hamas targets in response to a rocket attack from Palestinian militants. The subsequent bombardment of Gaza during July cut short the unified government’s efforts to take serious steps forward to solidify the unity agreement.

In a fury to stop the mass killing and destruction that came with the latest aggression against Palestinians in Gaza, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attempted to leverage the still-fresh unity agreement. Abbas appointed a “unity delegation” to negotiate with Israel indirectly, given that Hamas refuses to negotiate directly, for a permanent ceasefire.

Negotiating a ceasefire agreement was not planned to be the first act of the unity government, but Israel successfully disrupted any planned unification of the Palestinian political system by imposing the latest humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Instead of beginning organizational tasks such as reunifying ministries, integrating Gaza’s security personnel into the national security institutions, merging two legal systems, and holding national elections, the “unity government” effort morphed into a “unity delegation” to deal with the ceasefire. There is a huge difference between a unity government based on a unified political system and a “unified delegation” focused solely on saving what remains of the Gaza Strip.

Given the horrific carnage in Gaza, few in the West will even recall that the Israeli government lashed out against any unification of the Palestinians, threatened to cut funding, and took punitive measures to further entrench their state of military control over the West Bank. A very plausible argument can be made that massive destruction of Gaza and rampaging in the West Bank and East Jerusalem were all orchestrated to ensure Palestinians remain divided and Hamas continue to be perceived as a legitimate threat to Israel, providing the perfect justification for not ending the Israeli occupation.

Members of the Al Kaferna family stand in their flat which was destroyed by Israeli strikes in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza Strip, August 4, 2014. They went back to quickly salvage a few of their belongings during a short ceasefire. (Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

Members of the Al Kaferna family stand in their flat which was destroyed by Israeli strikes in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza Strip, August 4, 2014. They went back to quickly salvage a few of their belongings during a short ceasefire. (Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

With the ceasefire being the centerpiece of “unity,” I posted these remarks in the Middle East Eye on August 8, 2014:

The sheer use of the word “ceasefire” is insulting. It depicts an artificial symmetry that the Palestinians have fell for, even though reality on the ground is totally contrary.

For a fragile, non-representative, Palestinian unity delegation to be engaged in “ceasefire” negotiations with their military occupier (it means little if done directly or through intermediaries) sets up Palestinians for an Oslo-like phase, where, no matter what is agreed, the Palestinian side will be signing away rights that have been stripped from them by Israel for decades.

These rights, first among them protection, should be secured by Third States under their obligations toward the Fourth Geneva Convention, without the need for “resistance” or “ceasefire” talks.

A “ceasefire” simply reinforces the false impression that there is some hint of symmetry between Palestine and Israel. There is not! Furthermore, to be conducting these “ceasefire” talks [in Cairo,] the capital of a country that participates in the siege of the Gaza Strip, should be an embarrassment to every member of the Palestinian negotiating team, first among them Hamas.

After all the dead are buried in Gaza and the mourning process comes to a close, politically we will be exactly where we were two months prior to this tragedy: living the illusion of unity in the absence of a legitimate political system. Meanwhile, the reality of military occupation keeps us physically and politically fragmented, led by unelected leaders, and sustained more than ever by foreign donors who have their own agendas. These are the ingredients for yet another round of violence.

Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American business consultant in Ramallah and serves as a policy adviser to Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network. He blogs at ePalestine.com. Read this piece in Hebrew on Local Call.

More than just the PA at stake in Palestinian reconciliation
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    1. Pedro X

      What Unity? Times of Israel reports:

      Fatah activist in Gaza Sami”Lashin, known as Abu Hassan, opened the door to discover some 20 masked men armed with rifles. When he asked the men what they wanted, one gunman stepped out of the group and promptly fired a shot at Lashin’s right thigh, and then two more at his left thigh, shattering the bone.”

      “One Fatah official, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal against his party members in Gaza, told The Times of Israel on Sunday that as many as 250 Fatah members in the Strip have been told by Hamas to stay home throughout Operation Protective Edge, and as many as 125 were shot at by Hamas operatives when they refused to comply. Ten victims of gunshots to the legs have been transferred to hospitals in Ramallah and Nablus in the West Bank, he added.”

      Former Shin Bet Director Avi Dicther said that Hamas had seen an unity government as a means of taking over the PA in the West Bank and carrying on the fight with Israel from there. He said the West likes to think that there is a difference between the political wing and the military wing. They are one and the same with the same goal, to eradicate Israel.

      Yuval Diskin, another Shin Bet Director, said Hamas is a terrorist group which when joined with the PA in an unity government made the unity government a terrorist organization. Further the unity government was a breach of the Oslo Accords. The PA was to fight terrorism not include it in its government.

      If Hamas wants any role in politics the group must disarm and accept the quartet’s conditions, renounce violence, recognition of Israel and agree to abide by past agreements. Those past agreements included disarming militant groups. So Hamas must be disarmed.

      Reply to Comment
      • Felix Reichert

        The unity Israel succesfully sabotaged by breaking its truce with Hamas. That unity.

        Reply to Comment
        • Pedro X

          Unity? Times of Israel:

          “One of the problems in the negotiations, it has emerged, is that the Palestinian delegation to Cairo – made up of Fatah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad representatives – is not a united group. For instance, while the Palestinian Authority under Fatah accepted the Egyptian proposals weeks ago, this was not binding on Hamas or Islamic Jihad.

          And even among Hamas, there are differences of opinion between its leader Khaled Mashaal, who sits in Qatar, and the leadership in Gaza, which is more eager to come to an agreement.”

          There never was unity, only posturing. Fatah claimed that Hamas had agreed to not resort to violence and would recognize Israel, while Hamas assured it had not agreed to recognize Israel nor had it agreed to limit its armed attacks. Hamas killed the three Israeli children to make this point.

          Reply to Comment
          • Felix Reichert

            Hamas didn’t do anything to make a point.

            The three teens were killed by a renegade faction, as the HEAD OF THE ISRAELI POLICE has confirmed.

            He explicitely said that had the command to kidnap (and/or kill) the teens come from Hamas leadership, the Israeli police would have known about it in advance.

            The (until now alleged) kidnappers (there is still no, none, ZERO evidence presented to the public of Hamas involvement) acted on their own, without authorization from Hamas leadership.

            And as I said: the unity government was sabotaged by the Israeli offensive, and by Israel breaking its truce with Hamas.

            Only AFTER that did the events you describe occur in Kairo and elsewhere.

            Reply to Comment
          • Whiplash

            Israel has already captured the commander of the operation who has confessed that he received financing from Hamas. Whether financing came from the political wing or the military wing is unimportant.

            Also one has to remember that Hamas has an ongoing general order that their cells should try to kidnap Israelis. In 18 months the Shin Bet thwarted 28 kidnapping plans. Shin Bet did not stop the 29th attempt. Hamas is fully responsible for the kidnapping and killings.

            Reply to Comment
    2. Ray

      They’d much rather Hamas down in the tunnels. Israel and the US don’t want the Palestinian people to be free to choose whatever type of governance they want. The US just wants them to be like any other “stable” (i.e. kleptocratic, repressive, Israel-accomodating, “anti-terrorist”) Arab regime. Israel shares this sentiment, and is motivated quite simply by rubbing out any party that doesn’t like them. In other words, both parties are driven by a control-freak policy, and a very animal desire to “survive” (whatever the cost is to other peoples). Democracy and fairplay figure absolutely nowhere into the equation for them.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Kiwi

      “Israel shares this sentiment, and is motivated quite simply by rubbing out any party that doesn’t like them. ”

      Ummmmmmm, are you listening to yourself? And what do you think the party that doesn’t like Israel would like to do to Israel if only it could?

      Reply to Comment
    4. Mikesailor

      KiwiL How about burying the pipe dream of an ethnically pure or dominant “Jewish” state instead substitutuing a “state of all its citizens” with equal rights and respoinsibilities for all? Or is your only excuse for continued repressions and brutality the pecul;iar idea ffof the man rigding the tiger: he dare not get off for the tiger MAY eat him while as long as he continues to ride, it cannot. Yet, sooner or later, he must give up his position therefore the question is HOW not WHETHER OR NOT. As a supposed Kiwi, would you advocate a lesser citizernship status for Maoris? Or those not of English ancestry? Or Jews? If it is not feasible for New Zealandf to discriminate like that, why is it excusable in Israel? Or are you just purely a racist hypocrite?

      Reply to Comment
    5. Kiwi

      Nice theory Mikesailor. Now show me a single Arab society which treats it’s minorities better than Israel treats it’s Arab Israeli citizens.

      Reply to Comment