This was a surprise.
The announcement came at the end of the day, in the early evening. Reuters broke the story. Hamas and Fatah, meeting in Cairo, had reached agreement on reconciliation. Further details were not immediately available, and only a few pieces of information filtered out as evening became night, and later.
With the lack of information, there was much scepticism.
And, signs of possible trouble just ahead.
Isabelle Kershner (and four other correspondents in Cairo, Gaza and Washington) wrote in the New York Times that “In a televised address on Wednesday, even before the Fatah-Hamas press conference, the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, sent a stern warning to the Palestinian Authority president and Fatah chief, Mahmoud Abbas. ‘The Palestinian Authority has to choose between peace with Israel and peace with Hamas’, Mr. Netanyahu said, adding, ‘Peace with both of them is impossible, because Hamas aspires to destroy the state of Israel and says so openly’. The choice, he said, was in the authority’s hands”. This story is published here.
One Twitterer (from Gaza) called Netanyahu a “Drama Queen” after these remarks.
A Tweet from the Palestinian President’s office said, in response to Netanyahu’s remarks: @MahmoudAbbas – #Netanyahu has to choose between #Peace or #Settlement’s construction.
The NYTimes added, in its report, that Netanyahu said “Hamas ‘Fires rockets at our cities and anti-tank missiles at our children’, referring to a recent attack by Hamas militants on a school bus in Israel that killed a 16-year-old Israeli youth. ‘I think the very idea of the reconciliation shows the weakness of the Palestinian Authority, and leads one to wonder whether Hamas will take control over Judea and Samaria as it did over Gaza’, Mr. Netanyahu added, using the biblical name for the West Bank”.
While there is certainly deep apprehension among those Palestinians who hate and fear Hamas, many of the organized Palestinian factions and others expressed satisfaction and relief that the intensely destructive Palestinian division might soon be over.
The end to this division was one of the three main calls of the Palestinian March 15 Youth movement, headquartered (loosely) in Ramallah’s Manara Square, as well as in the internet. Their reaction was sober, and focussed. On Twitter, @PalYouthVoice wrote: “Now the work starts to demand a PNC elections, we want to be represented, we will not sit and celebrate yet”.
In a joint press conference in Cairo at 8pm, Fatah’s Azzam al-Ahmad said that the agreement was a translation of the efforts of the March 15 Youth movement. He and Musa Abu Marzouk of Hamas both paid tribute to Egypt’s “tremendous efforts”.
The NYTimes reported that Hamas’ Taher Nounou “credited the new mediators from Egypt, put in place after that country’s revolution, with ‘an exemplary performance’, including weeks of courtship at private meetings with each side before they met face to face with each other for the first time today”. The NYTimes added that “The tentative deal is the first sign that the recent upheaval in the region, and specifically the Egyptian revolution, has reshuffled regional diplomacy. Previously, efforts to reconcile the two Palestinian factions fell under the jurisdiction of Mr. Mubarak’s right-hand man, Omar Suleiman. Although he talked to both sides, he and the Egyptian government were considered openly hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is an offshoot”…
Some analysts speculated that the Hamas leadership in Damascus was especially eager to reach agreement now because of the bad political situation in Syria at the moment.
Celebrations broke out in Gaza, which has been under a Israeli military-administered siege that was tightened after the Hamas rout of Fatah/Preventive Security forces in Gaza in mid-June 2007. These celebrations were reportedly quickly disbanded by Hamas security in Gaza. There were no equivalent celebrations in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem).
But no one was thinking much, on Wednesday night, that they might be facing another international financial and political boycott such as the one that happened after a Hamas-backed party won Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2006. Due to sanctions demanded by Israel and imposed by major donors, starting with the U.S., some 180,00 PA employees were not paid their salaries for a year-and-a-half, and had to obtain personal bank loans to live. They were responsible for the interest payments on these loans, apparently even after their salaries were later reimbursed in full by the PA following the complete rupture between Hamas and Fatah in mid-June 2007.
The U.S. State Department reaction on Wednesday afternoon in Washington was muted. Haaretz reported that a State Department spokesman said: “We have seen the press reports and are seeking more information. As we have said before, the United States supports Palestinian reconciliation on terms which promote the cause of peace … To play a constructive role, any Palestinian government must accept the Quartet principles by renouncing violence, accepting past agreements, and recognizing Israel’s right to exist”. This was published here.
The NYTimes reported that “Tommy Vietor, the spokesman for the National Security Council, said that the administration was seeking more information about the agreement and its terms, but sharply warned that it considered Hamas a terrorist organization that would not be a reliable partner in peace talks with Israel. ‘As we have said before, the United States supports Palestinian reconciliation on terms which promote the cause of peace’, Mr. Vietor said. ‘Hamas, however, is a terrorist organization which targets civilians’.”
UPDATE: But, in a separate article, the NYTimes later reported that the surprise reconciliation announcemen might compel the U.S. government to cut off aid to the PA, as it has done to Lebanon since Hizballah joined the government there. And, “It also casts doubt on American efforts in recent years to build up the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank, led by Fatah, as the legitimate leader of the Palestinians … There were … immediate calls by pro-Israeli members of Congress to withhold American aid to the Palestinians if their leadership included Hamas. ‘It calls into question everything we have done’, Representative Gary L. Ackerman, Democrat of New York, said in a telephone interview. He later issued a statement saying the United States would be compelled by ‘both law and decency’ to cut off all aid [n.b. - to the Palestinians]. ‘I don’t think there is any will on the part of the administration or the Congress to provide funds to a government that is dominated by a dedicated terrorist organization’, he said. The administration is already on record warning of that”. This is reported here.
UPDATE: Later reports gave more details about the agreement and about Hamas’ positions: YNet reported Thursday morning that Fatah Central Committee Member Azzam al-Ahmed, who has been involved in these reconciliation talks for at least three years, said at the joint press conference in Cairo that “The agreement is the beginning and we shall take quick steps to end the occupation and establish an independent Palestinian state”.
According to the YNet report, published here, Al-Ahmed said that the Palestinian people have waited for the agreement for many years, adding that the prayers of Palestinian youth have been answered. He accused Israel of using the division to ‘shirk its international responsibilities’ and added that the US also abandoned its responsibility for ending ‘the longest occupation in history’. ‘We as Palestinians have learned a hard lesson for the past three years in our struggle against the occupation. The occupation exploited the division to judaise Jerusalem, complete the fence and seize lands in the West Bank’, al-Ahmed said. ‘We felt a need to end the division to end the occupation’. The Fatah official stated that Israel had warned Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of the consequences of such an agreement. ‘When Abu Mazen (Abbas) presented his initiative, Netanyahu warned him, but Abu Mazen answered him from Moscow – Hamas comes first. Hamas is part of Palestinian life – it is the forefront of the struggle. Our unity is our best weapon against the occupation’. Hamas’ deputy politburo chief Moussa Abu Marzouk announced during the press conference of the coming of a ‘new age’ and said that all Palestinian factions will meet over the weekend to sign the agreement. ‘This is not the end of the dialogue’, he said. ‘After all the factions sign the understandings with Fatah and Hamas we shall form a new government and embark on a new era in the Palestinian struggle – in order to obtain our rights and preserve the Palestinian people’s national rights’.”
The same YNet report added that “Mahmoud al-Zahar, a senior Hamas leader who participated in the talks said that peace with Israel was not on the table.’Our program does not include negotiations with Israel or recognizing it’, Zahhar said in Cairo. ‘It will not be possible for the interim national government to participate or bet on or work on the peace process with Israel’.”
Though storm clouds are gathering, at the moment, however, the Palestinian leadership seems more pleased than worried.
The reconciliation conforms to a general Palestinian demand for reunification of the two major Palestinian political movements [Fatah die-hards and strict, usually leftist, Palestinian secularists excepted].and of the separated parts of the occupied Palestinian territory — which the PA had apparently even considered doing by force [with the support of third and fourth parties].
No one is in the mood to be pushed around any more.
Because of perceived intransigence and bad policies, Hamas has lost much sympathy it had gained among Palestinians on account of the the unfair treatment it received after its 2006 electoral victory. Many in West Bank were sure Hamas would lose badly in any new elections. But now, if it turns out that Hamas has made big concessions in order to reach this new agreement, it may stand to regain some of the support it had lost.
In general, Hamas appears to have more to gain from a reconciliation than the Palestinian Authority leadership in the West Bank.
UPDATE: Taking a different view, Noam Sheizef has written on +972 magazine here that “The Hamas-Fatah agreement seems like another victory for Abbas, whose legitimacy crisis might come to an end. It also shows that the Palestinians have decided to take the lead in the diplomatic process, and not let the US, or even Europe, dictate their path to independence. Naturally, Jerusalem claims that the Palestinian unity proves there is “no partner” on the other side, but it’s interesting to note that Washington didn’t shut the door completely on the new Palestinian government. Finally, Netanyahu has a new dilemma: after his comments tonight, could he still come to Washington and call for direct negotiations between the two parties, when Fatah shares power with Hamas?”
Even after the double coups in mid-June 2007, Hamas continued to recognize Mahmoud Abbas as the elected President. When his term came to an end in January 2009, some in Hamas said that was the end of their support. Abbas extended his term for a year so that presidential and parliamentary elections could be held simultaneously, and Hamas seemed to tacitly agree, for the most part. Then, Abbas cancelled both elections, and later also municipal elections — ostensibly because of the continuing Hamas-Fatah feud — and said he would continue in office until new elections could be held, or until he couldn’t take it any more, whichever came first.
In solicited reaction after tonight’s announcement on agreement to reconcile, at least one Hamas official politely referred to Abbas as “President”.
Abbas has consistently said he wanted nothing less than the return of the status quo ante — the situation before the “military coup” of mid-June 2007. Gaza must come under PA rule, he has insisted.
Abbas recently responded to an invitation from Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh by saying that he was ready to go to Gaza “within days”. However, Abbas said, he was not going to negotiate but only to sign an already-reached agreement.
If agreement was reached today, it was almost certainly Hamas who made the greater concessions.
The NYTimes reported that “Palestinian officials said Hamas and Fatah agreed on three main issues that had thwarted previous rounds of talks aimed at reaching a national reconciliation. Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas leader, told Al-Jazeera from Cairo that the issues included the interim leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Palestinian umbrella organization from which Hamas has so far been excluded; a tribunal for elections; and a deadline for elections. Mr. Zahar said they were to be held within a year of the signing of the final agreement, which is expected to take place in Cairo next week. Mr. Zahar added that Hamas and Fatah would together nominate the members of the technocratic government and of the 12-judge elections’ tribunal. He also said that an agreement was reached on another contentious issue, control of the security services, but he did not elaborate. In November, officials from the two movements met in Damascus but failed to reach an agreement due to differences on security”.
According to a report by IMEMC, Zahar indicated that “this agreement will be presented to Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, for approval. He said that consecutive legislative and presidential elections will be held within a year after signing the final deal”. The report also said “The Hamas leader added that an agreement was reached to reform the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in order to restructure it to include all factions”. This report is posted <a href=”http://www.imemc.org/article/61146″>here</a>.
Israel’s interest in developing Gaza gas field — now, perhaps urgent, after today’s sabotage in the Sinai which again damaged an Egyptian pipeline bringing gas to Israel as well as to Jordan — is a big incentive to Hamas, which does not want to be left out. Netanyahu said in February that he was willing to reopen discussions with the Palestinians — because the Palestinians wanted it, he said. Then, a seemingly-preposterous [but quite serious] Israeli proposal was recently floated on building an artificial island in the sea offshore to house not only gas installations but also a desalinization plant, an airport, a seaport, and hotels and other attractions.
2005 – Cairo agreement between Hamas + Fatah that Hamas would join the PLO, Protracted discussions ever since without any resolution. [This would be a way to mute concern about Hamas' problems with prior agreements concluded by the PLO -- including the Oslo Accords and their recognition of Israel.]
2006 – Hamas, responding to demands that it should change into a political party, ran a slate under the name of the “Change + Reform Party” and contested January elections for the Palestinian Authority’s parliament, the Palestine Legislative Council. They won a majority (over 65%) of seats, to general surprise, including their own. Fatah, a poor loser, decided not to participate in the new government, and grew increasingly furious with Hamas. Israel demanded that the international community boycott the Hamas governed PA, and major donors, led by the U.S. complied. For over a year-and-a-half, PA employees were not paid their salaries, and had to take out bank loans and pay the interest on the loans themselves, too.
The major sticking point in the argument since then was that Hamas wanted seats in the PLO’s Palestine National Council (PNC) proportionate to its electoral seats it won in 2006 elections. Fatah said absolutely not, Hamas should not get more than 25% of seats. (Now, Fatah people say this is all moot, there should be new elections first, and they are sure Hamas will not win very many seats at all…)
2007 – A Saudi-brokered agreement was reached in Mecca on formation of National Unity Government, which took shape in March. But, in mid-June, Hamas — suspecting that PA Fatah-led Preventive Security backed by U.S. and others were about to make a military move to oust them from power — routed Preventive Security in Gaza. Abbas said this was a “military coup”, and dissolved the National Unity government. In a political coup, he established an new Hamas-free Emergency Government with Salam Fayyad as Prime Minister.
Now, the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Nabil el-Araby, has announced he will be visiting Israel soon.
Can he do anything to moderate the negative reaction in Israel?