While the Hamas and PLO delegations in Gaza were preparing to declare reconciliation on Wednesday, in Ramallah the diplomatic business of the “state of Palestine” was proceeding as usual. Jordanian Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour arrived for a visit, meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and signing various economic, health and security cooperation agreements with PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah.
Almost simultaneously, the Hamdallah government’s foreign minister, Riyad al-Malki, was meeting with his Austrian counterpart Sebastian Kurz and at a joint press conference said the Palestinians were committed to continuing the talks with Israel beyond the original target date of April 29, and that Israel had nothing to fear from the internal Palestinian reconciliation, which would not undermine the talks. (These remarks came, of course, before Israel cancelled Wednesday’s planned meeting of the negotiating teams.)
The Palestinian news agency Wafa, which answers to the PLO Executive Committee headed by Abbas, reported the reconciliation agreement in a dry, businesslike fashion, while the Gaza government’s information department made a festive and emotional announcement. Wafa stressed that this was a deal “to begin implementing the agreements that the parties had reached in Cairo (2011) and in Doha (2012).” These two agreements had been preceded by efforts at reconciliation between 2008 and 2010, and came close to being implemented in the weeks following Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza in the fall of 2012. But in all those earlier rounds, the various committees tasked with implementing the deals’ provisions became deadlocked, and hostile language returned to the discourse between the two sides.
This latest round of Palestinian reconciliation, like those before it, was the result of several honest if contradictory motivations, as well as political realities. The Palestinian public and its two rival factions – Hamas and Fatah – understand that the internal rift serves Israel first and foremost, and that the disconnect between Gaza and the West Bank is congruent with Israeli policies. The vast majority in Fatah and all the other PLO member groups are convinced that a fair agreement signed by Israel of its own free will is no longer possible. Only Abbas and some of his close associates continue to believe in negotiating.
The reconciliation, therefore, is a way to strengthen the Palestinians internally in preparation for the next confrontations with Israel (popular, diplomatic, political, and perhaps even military, if and when Israel chooses the military escalation option).
Reconciliation is also consistent with the increasing demands to hold public elections for the PLO’s legislature. The rival movements have come to realize over the years that neither can bring about the absolute political downfall of the other, as had been hoped at various stages after Hamas won the 2006 elections. At the same time, the dual-government arrangement was being increasingly perceived as a petty fight over government positions and narrow personal interests rather than a battle of differing worldviews, and this was causing a steady erosion of confidence in the existing Palestinian political system. Both sides understand this, which is why reconciliation efforts were always welcomed by the general Palestinian public, both here and abroad. All these factors bode well for the success of the new reconciliation effort.
But there are other motivations at work that might undermine the unity pact. Malki’s remarks on the Palestinian commitment to negotiations reflect Abbas’ position. There is reason to believe Abbas is using the reconciliation (like his repeated announcements about dismantling the PA and the tactical applications to join various UN conventions) as a way to pressure Israel and the United States by demonstrating that he has other options, even if he isn’t thrilled about using them.
There is reason to believe that the Hamas regime, which has suffered several severe political and economic blows this year, is using reconciliation as a way to soften Egypt’s policy toward it, and perhaps gain some easing of the blockade that Cairo has imposed on the group and on the Gaza Strip. Many Palestinian observers predict that the collapse of the PA – assuming Israel sticks to its policy of weakening it – would help strengthen the position of Hamas and its government. If Hamas joins the PLO, it will become a major force within it, and if it doesn’t join, it will be perceived as a true and legitimate representative of the Palestinians. These mutual suspicions about the motives of the other party could end up scuttling reconciliation once again.
The announcements on Wednesday bypassed the security questions: The reconciliation agreement will demand far-reaching changes in the security cooperation between the PA and Israel, on the one hand, and on the other will obligate Hamas to stop using weapons in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. A halt to PA-Israel security cooperation, however, is liable to lead to an Israeli military escalation that will force Hamas into the position of having to choose between its commitment to armed resistance and its obligation to the principle of “uniformity in setting policy.”
Beyond the political issues, and despite a trend of increasing religiosity among the Palestinian public, the PLO and Hamas have different, if not contradictory, worldviews. The nationalist PLO will continue to suspect Hamas of being more committed to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic principles than to national and social Palestinian interests. Hamas will go on being hostile toward the secular culture that has always been part and parcel of the PLO, and see it as the result of negative Western influences. The reconciliation agreement is a way for each side to bring more adherents to its ranks and grow stronger.
The Palestinians welcomed the declaration of the agreement (or the agreement to implement an agreement) with skepticism and caution. They know, or at least sense, the obstacles to its implementation. They know that Israel may take revenge for the reconciliation efforts, and that the United States also opposes them. But if they believe that both sides are honestly taking this step as a way to strengthen the Palestinians internally, they will be willing to bear the consequences of any Israeli or American punishment.