In the 10 years since Hamas executed its bloody coup and seized control of Gaza, the terror group and President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement have attempted to patch up their differences on many occasions.
But agreements aimed at restoring Palestinian unity at Mecca in 2007, Sana’a in 2008, Cairo in 2011 and 2012, Doha in 2012, and the Shatri refugee camp in 2014 have all foundered and rapidly fallen apart.
The latest efforts between the two sides, announced last weekend, poses challenges for both Hamas and Fatah.
The moves have arisen as a result of a profound crisis in Gaza, provoked by Hamas’ establishment earlier this year of a permanent administrative committee to oversee government in the Strip, and Abbas’ efforts to finally bring the Islamists to heal. Seeing the committee as a further affront to his authority, the furious Palestinian president stopped paying Gaza’s electricity bills to Israel – Hamas steadfastly refuses to deal with the Jewish state directly, leaving the PA to ensure a supply of power from it to the enclave – which has produced shortages and regular power cuts. Abbas also slashed payments for the salaries of civil servants in Gaza and reduced the number of travel permits for Gazans needing medical treatment.
While Abbas demanded the administrative committee was dismantled, Gaza returned to the control of the PA, and elections held, Hamas said there would be no movement until the president dropped the sanctions. The resulting impasse was only seemingly broken by the terror group apparently caving in and announcing it would scrap the administrative committee. Hamas also said that it was willing to enter negotiations with Fatah, hold a general election and form a national unity government. The announcement on Sunday – by a delegation led by Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and its chief in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar – followed talks in Cairo mediated by the Egyptians.
In many respects, this reflects Hamas’ weakness. The plight of Gazans – unemployment is high and electricity often available for only three or four hours each day – has led to unprecedented protests against it. Sinwar, viewed by many as a radical, has been forced to adapt. As Grant Rumley, author of a new biography of Abbas suggests, he has “turned pragmatic in his time in office”. So much so that he has even found himself seeking the help of Mohammad Dahlan, the former head of security for Fatah in Gaza who negotiated an agreement with Egypt and Qatar for additional fuel and money for Gaza. While an arch-enemy of Abbas, Dahlan is also hardly beloved of Hamas, having once led the fight against it in Gaza. At the same time, Sinwar has been forced to curry favour with Egypt, arresting members of the Islamic State and cracking down on cross-border smuggling. Its draft revised charter, published in May, also made no mention of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that Hamas has long been aligned to but which Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has cracked down on.
In a resulting ‘phone call between Abbas and Haniyeh on Monday, the president praised the “atmosphere” created by Hamas. However, despite demands by Hamas that the PA immediately end its sanctions against Gaza, Abbas made no immediate commitment to do so. Instead, he will be dispatching the PA prime minister, Rami Hamdallah, to Gaza. Hamdallah has not visited the Strip since 2015. “We await the first steps on the ground. We want to see Mr Hamdallah received by Hamas, the door to all the ministries open,” Nabil Shaath, a senior adviser to Abbas, suggested.
The PA is rightly wary. Not only have previous agreements foundered in the face of Hamas’ intransigence but big questions remain to be resolved about how Gaza will actually be run, border crossings administered and, perhaps most importantly, the fate of Hamas’ security forces. There was no hint in its statement that Hamas has any intention of disarming.
Abbas faces other complications, too. His hard-line stance appears to have provoked a strong reaction against his leadership in Gaza. As new polling by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Social Research found this week: “Gazans are moving away from Fatah and the Palestinian leadership in an unprecedented way and without a parallel or similar process among West Bankers. President Abbas might have hoped that the sanctions he imposed on the Gaza Strip would force Gazans to reject Hamas and its policies forcing Hamas to dismantle its “administrative committee” that has served as a de facto government for the Gaza Strip. Despite the limited decline in Hamas’ popularity in this poll, it is plainly clear that Gazans are directing their greatest anger at Abbas and Fatah, rather than Hamas.” Thus, 80 per cent of Gazans wanted to see Abbas, whose approval rating stands at a mere 20 per cent, resign as president. In a head-to-head fight with Haniyeh in Gaza, Abbas would lose. Fatah’s popularity, which stood at 40 per cent nine months ago, has plunged to 28 per cent. Dahlan, meanwhile, has seen his popularity among Gazans double over the same period from nine per cent to to 23 per cent.
Nathan Thrall, a Middle East analyst with the International Crisis Group, argued to the New York Times that Hamas may, in fact, have partially outmanoeuvred Abbas. Its declaration that it would make its administrative committee permanent, he suggested, was a clever tactical ruse. “Now, it’s a grand concession to dismantle it.” Moreover, allowing the PA to take responsibility for delivering public services in Gaza may be a similarly smart move. “From an outside perspective, they have almost no control in Gaza today, so it’s better than nothing,” said Thrall. “But they look at it as, ‘Why should I take on the burden and blame?’”
But perhaps Abbas’ most immediate problem will come this week. The president is due to meet Donald Trump at the UN General Assembly this week where he will continue his effort to persuade the US president to formally commit to a two-state solution as part of the US’ current peace initiative. Trump, however, is unlikely to be receptive to such requests if Abbas appears to have concluded a reconciliation agreement with a terrorist group which refuses to accept Israel’s right to exist. Indeed, as the Americans will be keenly aware, the 2013-14 peace process led by former secretary of state John Kerry collapsed in the aftermath of Hamas and Fatah agreeing to form a national unity government in April 2014.