Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

A divided Palestine makes for a hopeless peace process

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An AFP report yesterday indicated that, as predicted, Hamas and Fatah are dragging their feet on actually implementing the latest reconciliation deal.

Both sides have stressed their desire to repair the rift, but Mukhaimer Abu Saada, a political scientist at Gaza's Al Azhar University, said little of the deal appeared to have been implemented.

"On political prisoners, we hear that they are close; that the issue of Palestinian passports, newspapers will be settled," he said. "Every day we hear new promises."

"They each still have their own calculations," said Omar Shaaban of Palestinian think-tank Palthink in Gaza, suggesting both sides hope to strengthen their positions.

"[Abbas] thinks he can get something out of talks with Israel and Hamas relies on the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. They want to wait."

This suggests that the current deal will go the way of the three previous deals: all have been introduced to much fanfare and then quietly lapsed as, once away from the public eye, no agreement could be reached on how to actually implement the requirements. The reason for this is that while "Palestinian unity" as an idea is appealing to both factions, they have many irreconcilable differences and are still recovering from the Palestinian civil war in 2007, which saw considerable bloodshed as Hamas seized control of Gaza and Fatah consolidated power in the West Bank.

Atlantic writer Zvika Krieger notes that the two movements differ significantly in their outlook and their methods towards Israel, arguing that this is the most obvious distinction and that as a result, failed peace talks are detrimental to Fatah and beneficial for Hamas:

The clearest distinction between Abbas's Fatah and their main competitor, Hamas, is that Fatah argues for negotiations as the only way to resolve the conflict, and Hamas argues for violent resistance (or "popular resistance" as they are now describing it). Every time negotiations fail, Abbas loses credibility and Hamas gains. This is particularly true when Abbas draws a line in the sand (in this case, his demand for a settlement freeze) and then is forced to proceed anyway.

The subtlety missing from Krieger's analysis is the internal division in Hamas, which would probably go some way towards explaining why the group has trouble sticking to any kind of agreement. To illustrate this, compare the following two quotes from the Word for Word section of this month's Australia/Israel Review. Firstly, the head of Hamas' political bureau, Khaled Meshal, on the agreement with Fatah:

"We and Fatah now have a common basis that we can work on, and that is popular protest, which expresses the power of the people ... Fatah and we have political differences, but the common ground is agreement on a state within the 1967 borders."

Secondly, the Hamas Prime Minister in Gaza, Ismael Haniyeh, articulating markedly different principles:

"The armed resistance and the armed struggle are the path and the strategic choice for liberating the Palestinian land, from the [Mediterranean] sea to the [Jordan] river, and for the expulsion of the invaders and usurpers [Israel]... We won't relinquish one inch of the land of Palestine ... [Hamas will] lead Intifada after Intifada until we liberate Palestine - all of Palestine, Allah willing."

The positions taken by the two leaders make sense given their respective situations and can be largely attributed to the fallout from the Arab Spring. On the one hand, Haniyeh is struggling to uphold Hamas' declining popularity in Gaza and therefore has an interest in using the language of violence and resistance in order to shore-up support and distinguish himself from his Fatah rivals. Haniyeh also has new-found strength from the ascendent Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood next door, which may be giving him a sense of military strength and empowerment.

On the other hand, Meshal has found himself in a difficult situation. His bureau is currently based in the Syrian capital of Damascus, where it worked closely with Hamas' long-time ally Bashar al-Assad. Despite denying any intention to leave Syria, with the possibly-impending collapse of Assad's regime and the ongoing upheaval in Syria, the movement seems to have effectively fled the Damascus office. Meshal himself quit Syria several months ago and Reuters have reported intelligence analysts saying that he is unlikely to return.

The leader of the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, has effectively abandoned his headquarters in the Syrian capital, Damascus, diplomatic and intelligence sources said on Friday.

"Meshaal is not staying in Syria as he used to do. He is almost out all the time," said a diplomat in the region who spoke on condition on anonymity.

A regional intelligence source, who also did not wish to be identified, said: "He's not going back to Syria. That's the decision he's made. There's still a Hamas presence there, but it's insignificant."

..."In the past month he may have only stayed five days in Syria and the rest he spent in Qatar, Turkey and Egypt," said the diplomat. "But he did not close the headquarters in Syria in full and there are some Hamas officials still there."

"Our belief is that Hamas will not announce a departure from Syria even if it happened," the diplomat added.

The sources said Meshaal was currently in Egypt. But "there was no agreement to open an office in Cairo. Not yet," said the diplomat. "The expected residence for Meshaal is Qatar where he may stay most of the time until the Syria smoke has cleared."

On his visit to Turkey, Meshal allegedly solicited a $300 million dollar donation, although Turkey has denied this. Furthermore, the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority (PA)'s ambassador to Turkey was very adamant that Hamas would not find a home there, while also denying that Hamas has indeed abandoned armed struggle.

As long as Hamas sticks to armed struggle against Israel, then Turkey, Jordan and Egypt cannot host an office of Hamas on principle, Palestinian Ambassador to Turkey Nabil Maruf said yesterday.

"You can't have an office for Hamas when they are saying they are going to demolish Israel. They cannot say these things from an office in Ankara or Istanbul. This is impossible. Logic states that it's not easy for these countries to accept having the headquarters of Hamas, because of the current political agenda of Hamas, which is completely different than the political program of Turkey, Egypt or Jordan," Maruf told Hürriyet Daily News.

Meshel has also made a recent trip to Jordan - unusual as Hamas was expelled from Jordan in 1999. As Douglas Bloomfield explains, while the Jordanian King has some incentive to pander to Hamas in public, Jordan's peace treaty with Israel and his reluctance to allowing Palestinian resistance groups to gain too much power in his country means that a re-opening of the Hamas base in Amman is unlikely.

The king recalls how Yasser Arafat and the PLO tried to overthrow his father in 1970, and he doesn't want another Palestinian terror group trying again. Abdullah wants to restore relations with Hamas, but also to keep the group at a safe distance. And he wants to protect his ties with the United States and Israel.

The king had a blunt message for Mashaal: "Negotiations between the Palestinian and Israeli sides with the support of the international community is the only way for the Palestinian people to recover its rights." At the same time, with the growing influence of Islamists in the Arab world, and their own stirrings in Jordan, the king wants good relations with the Muslim brothers and to lessen tensions with demonstrators at home.

As a divided Hamas struggles to find a new home for its external leadership, Fatah is facing problems of its own. For example, there was a setback in the PA's plan to become financially independent when it was forced to back down on planned tax increases. The PA's budget is overwhelmingly dependent on foreign aid and last year ran at a $1.1 billion deficit, largely due to unfilled pledges. PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad had planned to address this by doubling the tax on high-income earners from 15% to 30%, however he was forced to back down.

Meanwhile, there is, of course, the always present question of negotiations with Israel. The recent talks in Jordan seem so far to have brought no tangible progress, which Abbas blames on Israel's refusal to freeze settlement construction and Netanyahu blames on Abbas' refusal to discuss Israeli security concerns. The reality is probably closer to the analysis given by Yossi Alpher on website Bitter Lemons and republished in today's Australian: both sides recognised long ago that a final status agreement is not possible with the current state of affairs; after all, how could such a divided Palestinian movement hope to come to any sort of consensus agreement? Despite this, the international community is ramping-up to go through the same motions yet again.

The only cause for cautious optimism is articulated by Walter Russell Mead: perhaps the current situation really will force a change in Hamas.

In the few direct contacts I've had with Hamas, its been made clear that the organization doesn't want to repeat what it considers Arafat's greatest mistake: he accepted Israel's right to exist too early and in exchange for too little from the other side. It wasn't clear whether Hamas was open to making such a concession under any circumstances, much less what its conditions might be. But understanding the organization's bottom line is important; when circumstances change, so do your options.

One of the great unanswered questions in the Middle East: is Hamas changing its mind or just moving its stuff?

Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz

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