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What pushed Hamas and Fatah into each others arms?

By Michael Omer-ManWriters on this website have speculated that a soon-to-be-signed Palestinian reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah was spurred by a fear shared by both Palestinian leaderships that they’ve lost all legitimacy among their constituencies. Others have suggested that the deal represents a Hamas willingness to support Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s (Fatah) efforts to achieve on-paper statehood in the United Nations this September. But the fact of the matter is that nobody outside of the two parties’ leadership circles knows what the deal actually entails, let alone what prompted it.

The lack of available information combined with the steady flow of new developments prevents any authoritative analysis of what the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation means. Therefore, here are several key points to be considered when attempting to make sense of the new unknown reality, without any authoritative conclusions.

Part I of this post will focus on possible causes and catalysts for Hamas-Fatah reconciliation. Part II will deal with the possible consequences and implications of the move.

Fear of the Arab Spring – Hamas’ forceful takeover of the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian Authority’s (Fatah) subsequent decision to cancel elections have left both parties without traditional democratic legitimacy. Against the backdrop of the Arab Spring, where popular movements have demanded and to some extent succeeded in ousting non-representative governments, neither Fatah nor Hamas can or should be compared to the dictators that were overthrown or those still facing popular uprisings. Former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Yemini President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Bahraini King Sheikh Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad all found themselves on the losing end of decades-long dictatorships and monarchies of well-established countries that could ostensibly be taken over by a revolutionary movement. Contrarily, the current situation faced by the feuding Palestinian political leaderships represents democracy gone awry in a body politic sans statehood.While there is a notable March 15 movement within Palestinian society to demand change in its leadership, the call was for unity among the feuding parties, not replacing them.

The September Plan – In order for Abbas’s initiative seeking international recognition of statehood in the United Nations to carry any weight, there must be a unified Palestinian leadership to receive the conferment of statehood. One line of thought suggests that Hamas recognized the importance of the September Plan and therefore chose to join Abbas in order to present a united front for world consumption.

The second benefit for Hamas in getting behind the September Plan is that although the group has made significant headway in the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead and the Gaza Flotilla incident in augmenting international sympathy for Palestinians in Gaza, its armed resistance and terrorist tactics have brought about few tangible achievements to show for. It may very well fear being left behind should Abbas’ September Plan gain traction and prove beneficial for the Palestinian national movement.Abbas too needs reconciliation in order to make the September Plan work. He knows very well that declaring statehood in the West Bank while lacking any control, let alone representation, in the Gaza Strip would be meaningless and without legitimacy within Palestinian society. In order for the September Plan to be appreciated by the Palestinian people (both in Palestine and the Diaspora), it must apply to both the West Bank and Gaza.

The Mubarak-Assad angle – Yet another factor that likely led Fatah and Hamas to make the compromises necessary for reconciliation is that the two have lost or are in the process of losing their long-time state benefactors. Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was probably the strongest supporter of Abbas’ Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority stretching as far back as the key role played by Egypt’s Abdel Nasser in forming Yasser Arafat’s Fatah-dominated PLO in the 1960s. The new Egyptian government (both its military rulers and any future democratically elected government) is unlikely to be as loyal a supporter of Fatah over Hamas as Mubarak and his point man Omar Suleiman were in the past. Likewise, Hamas has long relied on the Assads in Syria (the group’s political and military leadership is based in Damascus).

With Syrian President Basher al-Assad facing an uprising that is unlikely to subside anytime soon, Hamas realizes that Assad is far to preoccupied with his own problems to continue acting as the benefactor they have come to rely on. This angle was strengthened by a report in Al-Hayat on Saturday that the Hamas political leadership was granted permission by Qatar’s emir to relocate to his island nation. A Hamas spokesman later issued a quasi-denial, saying, “as far as I know, we were not told to move to another country.”On a side note, it will be very interesting to see how the United States reacts to Hamas placing its official headquarters a few miles from the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet and the command and control center of US military operations in the Gulf. Syrian support for Hamas and Hezbollah has long been a major point of contention between Damascus and Washington and the reason for Syria’s designation as a state sponsor of terror by the State Department. How will the US respond to one of its closest Arab allies picking up Syria’s role in this regard?

Moderation of and cleavages within Hamas – The Hamas leadership is comprised of two wings, the political bureau and its armed wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades. In recent months (and going back much further), the two faces of Hamas have been in a significant state of disunity. An exceptionally public rift took place during last month’s violent flare-up between Hamas and Israel. After the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades broke the Gaza resistance’s modus operandi by firing an anti-tank missile at an Israeli school bus, the political leadership suggested that the group’s armed wing was acting on its own initiative, against the wishes of the political leadership. Another major disagreement between the political and armed wings of Hamas has to do with negotiations for a prisoner exchange involving Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, whom the Izz al-Din al-Qassam is believed to be holding. The political wing has indicated it would have liked to conclude a prisoner exchange deal for the political benefit of being able to point to a tangible accomplishment, which it can call a success of its armed resistance model. The armed wing’s leadership, however, has reportedly been holding out for a better deal, with the knowledge that Shalit is one of the strongest cards it holds vis-à-vis both Israel and the Damascus-based political wing of Hamas.

While the Hamas political wing holds the purse strings over its armed wing, Izz al-Din al-Kassam holds all the guns and essentially runs the show in Gaza. One of the key elements expected to be part of a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation deal is the placing of Gaza Strip security services under the control of a jointly-run Palestinian Authority government or a redesigned PLO, in which Hamas would play a significant role. By doing so, Hamas’ political wing might be making a desperate attempt to wrestle on-the-ground control over the Gaza Strip from its own armed wing, even if it means sharing control with rival Fatah. The implications of this specific scenario will be explored in Part II of this post.

Michael Omer-Man is a writer and conflict analyst based in Tel Aviv-Jaffa. With degrees in Conflict Resolution and Middle Eastern Studies, he focuses on Israeli and Middle Eastern societies and the conflicts that plague them. He blogs and writes at conflictedland.com and The Jerusalem Post.

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    1. Michael W.

      I’m wondering what you guys think of Israel’s decision to withhold tax revenue collected by Israel for the PA. Technically, it’s the PA’s money. But then I think that if you switch the names “Hamas and Fatah” with “Taliban and Karzai regime”, I wouldn’t complain if the US froze the Afghan government’s monetary assets. What do you guys think?

      By the way, I think eventually Israel would have to negotiate with Hamas on something. Unlike the US, Israel negotiates with terrorists all the time.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Piotr Berman

      A small correction: Qatar is a PENINSULAR nation. For that reason the nation TV network has name “Peninsula” (or al-Jazeera).

      A more speculative correction is that Michael O-M
      does not consider the simplest possibility: Hamas was ready for a compromise all along, but not on “drop dead” conditions. And PLO was pretty much insisting on such conditions, egged by USA, Israel and, very importantly, Egypt. One of the sticky points was opening cargo traffic through Egypt, and before, the condition was that PLO (PA? a difference) would be in charge of what can cross. Now it seems that Egypt is ready to simply open Rafah crossing, with no word of anyone else controlling the customs. Thus is a mega carrot for Hamas.

      Thus considerations of connections far and close can be vastly simplified: Egypt has different interests than before. For example, there will be elections in the Fall in Egypt, and an inexpensive popular move is exactly what rulers are expected to do. Thus Hamas is reconciled with PLO for the same reason that the gas pipeline from Egypt to Israel was sabotaged. (I think this makes it most popular gas pipeline in Egypt right now. Pipeline politics and trade disputes are rife with convenient explosions.)

      Once temporary rulers of Egypt (who wish to be not-so-temporary) made their minds, it was clear that PLO has to join the deal and smile. Plus, Palestinians in WB and Gaza want unity too, so it was convenient for everyone involved that the deal looks like “unity”, and, at the very minimum, is called “unity”. Much more important that actual details of the deal (curiously undisclosed). Israeli and American protestations are really icing on the cake, from the political point of view.

      Reply to Comment
    3. @Michael W. – It’s pure political theater and childish retaliation. If they had announced the move after Hamas joined the PA government, then it might have some merits within the logic of standard Israeli policy. However, doing so before that takes place – and before details emerge of what such a government will look like – borders on larceny.

      Reply to Comment
    4. @Piotr – My apologies for the Qatar mistake. You are correct, of course. Regarding your other point, I believe I began to address that in the “Mubarak-Assad angle” section, although I did not elaborate on the scenario as you did. However, as far as the Rafah crossing goes, it is my understanding that Rafah is a passenger terminal and not a commercial crossing. Of the details that have emerged regarding Egypt’s decision to open the crossing, they are opening it to passenger traffic and not as a full-scale commercial crossing. While I’m sure this is a welcome development, it does not represent a complete turnaround for Egypt or really even a significant change in Gaza’s reality of living under an Israeli blockade. It is quite clear that Egypt will be playing a different role vis-a-vis Israel and the Palestinians in the near and distant future and there is not doubt that has affected recent developments. Thus, I agree with most of your points. The idea behind my piece, however, was that no one single factor can be credited with whatever led to the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement. Rather, it was likely a cacophony of factors that all lined up at the right moment in time.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Piotr Berman

      I really hope that Rafah will be open to cargo. The current trick of GoI is to treat WB like dogs, but Gaza much worse, so PA can appreciate that they could do worse.

      But if “life under Hamas rule” is better, including meaningful economic activity, the occupation of WB will be much more difficult in a variety of ways.

      So my theory, that Egypt promised full opening of Rafah, is a speculation, which WOULD explain everything if true. As it is, the “unity” is a piece of “strategic ambiguity”, a concept pioneered by Israel and hugely successful. First, Israel may have, or not, a bunch of nuclear weapons with unspecified means of delivery. Second, Hezbollah has, or not, a bunch of conventional missile which may be of lower of higher quality, and number from hundreds to 100,000. Can they reach all the way to Tel-Aviv? To Elyat? Ambigous, so GoI may err on the side of caution. Now Hamas may be an obedient part of PA or perhaps not, and all PA sanctions on Hamas institutions will be lifted, or perhaps not. Perhaps the details will be adjusted to diplomatic situation: PA is dependent on funds from Israel, EU and USA, and with diplomatic finesse that may keep all of them.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Ben Israel

      Now that HAMAS is part of a “unity government”, the official Palestinian Authority is now responsible for Gilad Shalit. Any relationship Israel has with the PA MUST now include absolute demands that the PA allow basic humanitarian treatment due him under international law, including visits from the Red Cross, mail from his family, etc. It is time Israel stop dithering with this and firmly demand these things, if he outright release is not possible at the moment.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Very insightful analysis.

      It struck me how much the parties at play in Israel/Palestine tailor their communication to their constituencies, much moreso than to their opponents.

      For example, Haniyeh yesterday described Osama Bin Laden as a martyr, a heroic fighter (with doctrinal differences), not an effort to endear Hamas with the west. I don’t really have a clue what audience that would appeal to, why it was necessary to state publicly.

      Similarly, Netanyahu tailors statements for Israeli and sympathetic American sentiment, much moreso than in any genuinely respectful “conversation” with the Arab or dissenting world.

      Reply to Comment
    8. @Ben Israel – Gilad Shalit was taken in June 2006. Hamas took over Gaza a year later. I’m pretty sure that line of reasoning was tried then too when Abbas the previous Abbas+Hamas government was in charge of the Strip. Furthermore, all of the demands you bring up have been made for the past five years. While I hope that the latest developments lead to Shalit’s release, or at least to Red Cross visits, the reconciliation agreement does not give the PA any more sway over his conditions or release than they had five years ago or five days ago. As it is, under the agreement to be signed on Wednesday Hamas will retain security control over Gaza, so the situation vis-a-vis Shalit remains unchanged.

      @Richard – Very true. That’s politics.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Phil

      @piotr – correction to your correction

      While Qatar is indeed a peninsular nation, the world الجزيرة or al-jazira translates as “the island”.

      شبه جزيرة or shibeh jazira (literally – psuedo island or island-like) is the arabic for peninsula

      Reply to Comment
    10. Lindsay

      How would the September Plan be implemented? Do any of the readers know what is involved in the process of the PA going to the United Nations and asking for recognition? Is this simply a vote in the General Assembly on a proposal they draft? Would this then be subject to an up or down vote in the GA as in 1948?

      I recall that after the PLO declared independence in 1988, many states recognized the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and the UN voted to refer to the PLO as Palestine. But, this of course at that time did not confer statehood.

      Thank you for your input.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Kandhan

      @ Michael Omer-Man: Neat analyses. Very insightful.
      I am convinced that the events that have been unfolding are part of the larger Geo-strategic and Geo-political changes that are shaping up in the middle-east. Almost all actors in the middle-east are looking at radical regime changes and democratic electoral process in the near future.
      Historically, Israel has been a direct/indirect issue in all conflicts middle-east – although interestingly this time around, all conflicts have been centered around issues endemic to the states themselves.
      In my opinion, it is just a question of time before Israel is nudged into conflict by players who might look at whipping up anti-semitic sentiments as a route to power – both within their states and in the Arab world.
      Iran is in a fine position to emerge the strong man in that area when the smoke finally clears and will hence make every attempt to shepherd the events towards a favorable outcome.
      Could this be then, an attempt by the US backed vestigial military regime in Egypt to soften the anti-semitic sentiments by offering concessions like opening up Gaza (reason why PA is onboard and no rhetorics are heard from the Israelis) on the one hand and Iran using the Hamas to seize the strategic imperative on the other hand? Politics does make strange bedfellows after all…

      Reply to Comment
    12. vvv

      “Hamas forceful takeover of the Gaza Strip” ?

      Hamas was elected!

      Reply to Comment