By Yousuf Abdelfatah
In early October Hamas and Fatah signed a reconciliation agreement in Cairo brokered by the Egyptian government that Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas called a “declaration of the end to division”. Currently Hamas governs the Gaza Strip and Fatah governs the West Bank but the hope is that this reconciliation will eventually lead to the formation of a national unity government that would govern the entirety of Palestine. A united Palestinian government would improve the living conditions for millions of Palestinians, especially those living in the Gaza Strip.
As the first step of the reconciliation process Hamas dissolved their administrative committee of the Gaza Strip on September 17th. The administrative committee was established to organize governance of the Strip and was created without the approval of Fatah. As part of the reconciliation both sides will have to agree to holding new elections in order to form a unity government that would govern both Palestinian territories. They will also need to work out the administrative logistics of such a government. This is no easy task. There was a previous attempt at a unity government in 2014 but it fell apart in quick order. Additionally, Hamas has to turn over control of the Gaza Strip by December 1st. In return the Palestinian Authority’s sanctions on Gaza will be lifted. Both sides will return to Cairo in November for more negotiations on forming this unity government.
This is no doubt welcome to the many residents of Gaza whose suffering has intensified in the past few months as a result of the conflict between Hamas and Fatah. In response to what authorities described as Hamas’s establishment of a “shadow government” in Gaza, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas imposed harsh sanctions on the Strip. These sanctions limited the entry of fuel, cut Gaza's supply of electricity to a few hours a day, and decreased medical services, worsening the already dire humanitarian crisis in Gaza. According to the United Nations, Gaza is becoming “unlivable.” Mercifully for residents of the besieged Strip, these sanctions will now be lifted and the situation will at least marginally improve.
The question on everyone’s mind is “will this deal succeed?” After all, there have been four reconciliation agreements in the past six years and so far none of them have been successful. While no one truly has the answer it does seem as if there’s hope as several important domestic and international factors have changed.
On the international front the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar has severely affected one of Hamas’s principal supporters. At the same time Egypt appears to once again be interested in Palestinian reconciliation efforts. Following the coup in 2013 the Egyptian government, lead by Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi adopted a much more hostile position towards Hamas. However, this newest round of talks was sponsored by the Egyptians, who have played a much more active role as of late when it comes to mediating the situation in Gaza. Domestic realities in Palestine have changed as well. Hamas now has new leaders, Ismail Haniyeh and Yahya Sinwar, who are based out of Gaza and have appeared to be more willing to play ball and make important concessions. Additionally, the aging and increasingly unpopular Abbas needs reconciliation efforts to succeed in order to preserve both his leadership and his legacy.
While the initial reconciliation agreement is encouraging there are several hurdles that the two parties will have to overcome. One of the main issues will be Hamas’s militant Qassam brigades. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has declared that he will not allow Hamas to continue to operate this armed wing independently of the Palestinian government and that they should be folded into the state’s security apparatus. Hamas, however, has claimed that this is a red line for them and that they will not give up their fighting force. Another difficult issue is how Hamas will be integrated into the PLO. Hamas has made it clear that they expect to be included in the reformed PLO but there are fears that including the group would undermine Palestinian statehood efforts and would cause the international community to withdraw its recognition of the PLO as representative of the Palestinian people.
Yousuf Abdelfatah is the blogger for Middle Eastern and North African Affairs. He is a senior at Rutgers University where he studies Economics and Political Science