Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Fatah and Hamas announce unity - for at least the eighth time

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Shmuel Levin

In recent weeks, much has been reported about a proposed Fatah-Hamas unity government. "Fatah and Hamas to form unity government" reads the headline from Al-Jazeera. However, this headline falls short on two accounts. First, this new reconciliation attempt is only the latest of multiple similar reconciliation attempts - we count eight previous times in all, below. Second, it is very unclear that any real and meaningful reconciliation agreement has in fact been reached this time round.

A history of failed reconciliation

Ever since the 2006 conflict between Fatah and Hamas, multiple reconciliation attempts have been floated between the parties. Here is a brief overview of these attempts:

  • The very first Hamas-Fatah unity government was formed in March 2007, per the Fatah-Hamas Mecca Agreement that had been reached in February. Following the announcement of the 83-3 vote in favour of the new government, "lawmakers jumped up from their seats and clapped". But within four short months, Hamas took control of the government during the Battle of Gaza in June. In turn, Palestinian President Abbas dissolved the unity government and fired Hamas-aligned Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.
  • Less than a year later, on 23 March 2008, the parties signed the Yemeni-sponsored Sanaa Declaration which promised to revive direct talks after months of hostilities. Yet, within hours of signing, the deal collapsed after Fatah insisted that it would only agree to direct reconciliation talks if Hamas relinquished its control of Gaza. In turn, Hamas refused to attend the talks "because president Mahmud Abbas is continuing to weaken the Hamas movement and he has not released any Hamas detainees in the West Bank". As such, the talks scheduled to be held in Cairo during November were "delayed to an undetermined date".
  • A new round of talks began the following year in February 2009 following Operation Cast Lead, and an agreement was reached to set up a new government by March of that year. Both parties also agreed to the staged release of prisoners from their rivals. But, despite Fatah-aligned PM Salam Fayyad offering to resign, talks were suspended in April after the parties failed to reach an agreement.
  • In October that year, another reconciliation agreement proposed by Egypt failed due to what Egypt termed "inappropriate conditions". Although Fatah unilaterally signed the Egyptian compromise, Hamas refused due to objections over the proposed format of elections. Additionally, Hamas objected to a ban on armed groups not subordinate to the PA. Hamas' refusal came despite Abbas stepping back from his previous demand that Hamas first relinquish control of the Gaza Strip.
  • Talks were once again held in February 2010, "designed to overcome obstacles" from the previous year's talks in Cairo. Representatives from both parties also met in Damascus in September and November 2010 "to help revive Egyptian efforts at reconciliation." However, these talks yielded little results.
  • In April 2011, Egypt struck a surprise deal (‘the Cairo Agreement') following secret talks between the parties. Under this agreement, the parties would form a caretaker unity government "composed of independent figures" until elections would be held. In May, the deal was formally signed amid much fanfare at a ceremony in Egypt. But, by June the talks were called off indefinitely after no agreement was reached on who would serve as prime minister, as Hamas refused to support Fatah-backed Salam Fayyad. Additionally, the formation of a unity government was put on hold as Palestinian President Abbas sought Palestinian statehood at the United Nations.
  • Yet another agreement was signed in Doha in early 2012, as a "step forward" in the implementation of the Cairo agreement of April 2011. This agreement pledged that the parties would lead a joint interim government until elections later that year. But, by April 2012, this deal, too, began to stall. Following power shortages in Gaza, Hamas began detaining Fatah members on allegations of political conspiracy.  Then, in May 2012, a new Cairo agreement was signed, marked once again with a ceremony but not much else.
  • Following the UN recognition of Palestinian non-member observer statehood in November 2012, it was again announced that Hamas and Fatah were moving towards reconciliation, and both parties held separate talks with Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi. But it was more than a year later, on 23 April 2014, that the parties signed an agreement to form a unity government within five weeks. 
  • Finally, on 2 June 2014, a Palestinian government was sworn in under the leadership of Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah. But, although this government still exists today, Hamas has refused to allow its operation in Gaza, and instead operates its own Hamas-led government. Since then, talks have been held between the parties in December 2015 and January 2016 to try and complement the agreement.

The current reconciliation attempt

The latest round of peace talks hosted by Russia saw the parties reach "agreement to begin consulting with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas within 48 days on setting up a national unity government". However, as Israeli-Palestinian Affairs scholar Yoni Ben-Menachem argues, this announcement elicits scepticism on a number of accounts.

First, Palestinians have already seen "12 years of meetings, statements, and press conferences of the Palestinian factions on a national reconciliation, but nothing has happened on the ground".

Furthermore, even where past agreements have been signed, this has not precluded Hamas from operating its own shadow government in Gaza. Beyond delivering public statements, it is unclear how previous bones of contention would now be overcome in practice.

Second, the ‘Moscow statement' is only an "agreement to begin consulting" with President Abbas. Effectively, this means that it is no more than a recommendation that passes on the baton to President Abbas. According to Ben-Menachem, PA sources suggest that President Abbas has only supported the statement thus far to please the Russian Foreign Minister and maintain good relations with Russia.

Finally, despite the ‘Moscow statement', Hamas-Fatah rivalry appears to be alive and well. As Ben-Menahem notes, it was only in the last few weeks a network of Hamas operatives working to undermine the PA in Ramallah were arrested.

More recently, Hamas arrested Fatah journalists working in the Gaza Strip, and sentenced 8 Fatah members to various prison terms on Wednesday, for "undermining revolutionary unity."

On top of this, a recent dispute between Hamas and Fatah over electricity and fuel payments in January led to serious power shortages across the Gaza Strip. More recently, Hamas has rejected the new date for local elections that was called by the Palestinian Authority until "after ending disagreements, achieving reconciliation, and uniting Palestinian institutions, including the political, judicial, and security levels".

For now then, the latest reconciliation attempt may prove to be yet another round of public statements with little actual substance.

 

Image source: AP; (Haaretz)