Hamas and Fatah have come to a new reconciliation sponsored by Egypt that ends Hamas’s control of Gaza. Several critical issues – the disarmament of Hamas, the status of multiple civil services, and the recognition of Israel – remain unaddressed, and will be taken up soon before fresh elections. The reconciliation, if implemented, can united Palestinians, save Gaza and Hamas and energize the peace process. And if Israel does not play the spoiler, this reconciliation effort – unlike previous attempts – could actually succeed.
Once again, the world has witnessed an attempt to unify the two principal Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah. On Oct. 12, the two parties met in Cairo for another round of discussions and, for the fourth time, reached a fresh agreement in the hope of forming a unified government. In 2007, Saudi Arabia sponsored a reconciliation process and agreement between the two parties in Mecca. In 2011, Egypt sponsored a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, known as the Cairo agreement, with a promise of fresh elections, but that soon fell apart. In 2012, Qatar sponsored another attempt to reconcile the two parties, and a fresh agreement was signed in Doha, but that too failed to bridge the gap between Hamas and Fatah. There is hope, however, that the most recent accord could survive, if only the people of Gaza and the leadership of Hamas fully recognize that Hamas’ policies have brought nothing but war, isolation and misery to their people. That said, the Israeli military response to rocket fire from Gaza has played a key role in the destruction of the Strip.
Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, has controlled and governed Gaza since its surprise electoral victory in January 2006. It immediately repudiated several of the international commitments, including recognition of Israel, that the Palestinian Authority had made. This led to isolation, blockades, sanctions, several wars with Israel and a stalled peace process as Israel used the division within the Palestinians to stop negotiations. In short, Gaza has suffered the complete destruction of its infrastructure and economy , while, the West Bank has enjoyed relative development. Such is the degree of desperation inside the Gaza Strip that Hamas has no choice but to negotiate on Egypt’s terms. Thus, it appears that Hamas has finally surrendered to international pressure and accepted Egyptian mediation backed by the promise of aid from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
Why is the deal inevitable?
Palestinian unity is essential for the forward movement of the peace process with Israel, which could lead to an independent Palestinian state. All parties know and recognize that the absence of an effective government in West Bank and Gaza that can legitimately speak for all Palestinians has seriously impeded negotiations. Without a unified government in Palestine, Israel has claimed that it does not have a “real unified” partner in the peace process and used the situation to advance settlement building and systematically reduce the land area of a future Palestinian state. The development of these settlements strategically complicates the creation of a viable state. The Palestinian state that seemed possible in 2007, is now an illusive goal for the Palestinian Authority. Since 2006, according to the data maintained by Peace Now, Israel has enabled 200,000 new settlers to settle in the West Bank and East Jerusalem – a staggering 50 percent increase. The Arab-Israeli conflict is a conflict over geography, but the key weapon in this conflict is demography.
The humanitarian crisis in Gaza has reached such drastic proportions, thanks in large part to the enduring embargo, that this effective surrender by Hamas is inevitable. The decade-long blockade has essentially destroyed the infrastructure of life for many in Gaza. Basic services are nonexistent. Thousands of homes have been destroyed, relegating tens of thousands to live in tents. The water smells of sewage. Electricity is available for just a few hours per day. The economy has been shattered. Unemployment has reached 50 percent, with little growth or industry. Travel outside of Gaza for work or otherwise is nearly impossible. Food and medicines are difficult to find. Three brutal wars with Israel in 2008-2009, 2012, and 2014, have further heaped destruction and mayhem on the already impoverished and densely populated Gaza. To live in Gaza today would be to live in one of the most miserable places on Earth.
Therefore, Hamas had no choice but to capitulate in order to save the population of Gaza from utter disaster. This agreement will bring some legitimacy to Hamas if the party is included in a unity government recognized by Israel and the international community; thereby salvaging the future of political Islam in Palestine. Through this deal, Hamas might be diminished, but at least it will survive.
What does the deal include?
The deal in principle ends the unilateral government Hamas established in Gaza in June 2007, and gives the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority responsibility for security, governance and the borders of Gaza. The two factions will form a unity government and have an election as early as December. The Palestinian Authority will be responsible for the day-to-day administration of the Gaza Strip and the integration and dismantling of the Hamas government and civil services. The Rafah crossing, Gaza’s lifeline to Egypt and the outside world, will be under the Palestinian Authority’s control.
However, many issues remain unresolved and will be on the agenda when the parties meet again on Nov. 21. Key items on the agenda include: Hamas’ lack of recognition of Israel, its armed brigades that number over twenty thousand, its arsenal of weapons, and its labyrinth of tunnels that it has used so effectively in the past against Israel. Also unresolved is the fate of the huge alternate civil service, a major source of employment in Gaza that Hamas has installed in the past decade to control and administer the affairs of the Strip. Who will pay their wages, and will they continue to serve under the new unified PA government? Another critical issue upon which acceptance of the deal by Western nations hinges is the issue of Hamas’ commitment to the international agreements that it rejected 11 years ago and again in May 2017. Here is Article 21 from Hamas’ latest rejection of the international agreements that govern the peace process:
“Hamas affirms that the Oslo Accords and their addenda contravene the governing rules of international law in that they generate commitments that violate the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people. Therefore, the Movement rejects these agreements and all that flows from them, such as the obligations that are detrimental to the interests of our people, especially security coordination (collaboration).”
From the Israeli perspective, there are two major questions: Will Hamas recognize Israel, and will the movement disarm itself? If Hamas does not comply with these demands then the Palestinian Authority will be listed as a terrorist organization (as a result of merging with or including Hamas) by the United States and lose the $400 million in aid that it receives annually. Needless to say, in such a scenario there will be no resumption of the peace process.
As the talks progress, it will become clearer whether Hamas is seeking a complete makeover or simply looking for temporary relief from the crippling sanctions only to later resume hostilities against Fatah and Israel. If Hamas does transform itself then the pressure will shift to Israel to make more concessions to the Palestinians.
Why might it work this time?
The reconciliation could bring unity to the Palestinians and some relief to Gaza, but surely it will not be easy. The rank and file of Hamas will resist giving up arms. They cannot be absorbed in the regular security system without agreeing to many Israeli demands, and that will be a bitter pill to swallow. But the alternative is so stark that Hamas and its core will have to recognize that their approach has failed miserably. It has taken 11 years, three wars, and layers of sanctions to break the back of Gaza and Hamas, but it is clear that they can no longer privilege ideology over welfare or identity prerogatives over basic needs.
Two developments have brought about this change. The most obvious cause is the persistent blockade of Gaza by Israel in the north and limited blockade by Egypt in the south. But the Palestinian Authority’s recent decision to cut electricity to Gaza and salaries to their civil servants may have broken the proverbial camel’s back. The growing resentment among the people toward Hamas as a result of squalid living conditions pushed Hamas’ to surrender control of Gaza. Too, the meager $700 million budget with which Hamas governs a population of 2 million Palestinians mostly came from Qatar and its diaspora, with sporadic support from Iran and Turkey. With Qatar facing its own challenges and sanctions from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates — the trio underwriting this new agreement — Hamas might have realized that its capacity to sustain control over Gaza has run its course.
Without this reconciliation, there is no sustainable future for Gazans or political future for Hamas. The Gaza Strip is on the verge of a complete economic collapse, which would necessitate full-scale intervention from the international community to avert the already overwhelming humanitarian disaster. The deal allows Hamas to save some face and ensures that it remains in the government and politically relevant. Neither prudence nor concern for the welfare of its people are the movement’s forte, however, and Hamas could renege if it fears that the deal will put an end to its existense in Palestine.
What does the deal say about the changing geopolitics of the region?
There is no doubt that the United States has pushed Egypt to facilitate this reconciliation, giving Egypt the opportunity to once again assert itself and become central to the region’s politics. The move would also give the Palestinians hope that perhaps the Trump administration will push the peace process forward more aggressively than the previous administration. For Egypt, this is homecoming. It is once again an important regional power broker. Egypt now, like in the past, is the confidant of Israel and the United States and is shaping the destinies of smaller players in the region.
The clearest signal that this deal sends is that the Middle East has split into two camps: a tightly knit one composed of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates; and a loose alliance of Turkey, Qatar, and Iran. The first group also enjoys the confidence of Israel and the United States. Hamas, until now, subsisted on the financial largesse of Qatar, sporadic economic and military support from Iran, and the humanitarian and occasional diplomatic assistance of Turkey. Its pivot from Doha to Cairo underscores the growing impact of the first alliance. The Saudi-Egypt-UAE alliance, with the blessings of Israel and the United States, will probably dominate the international relations of most of the Arab World, while Turkey and Iran will remain influential only in Syria and Iraq. It should be noted that that with the end of Hamas’ unilateral rule in Gaza, the Egyptian government has been able to further weaken the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence in the region. This deal, if it lasts, is from the region’s geopolitical perspective a very big deal indeed.
Muqtedar Khan is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Policy. He also is a Professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Delaware. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.
Image Courtesy: AP