Palesine: Behind the Mecca Accord

After months of internecine fighting that has resulted in more than 90 Palestinian deaths, Fatah and Hamas signed a deal on February 8 to form a new unity government. The deal, brokered by Saudi Arabia, was signed after a two-day emergency meeting in Mecca.

Under the agreement, Hamas leader and current Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minster Ismail Haniyeh will retain his post. Eleven of the new government's ministers will be drawn from Hamas and 12 from Fatah. The key Interior Ministry, which controls the security forces, will be filled by an independent chosen by Hamas, however Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas must approve the choice. There are unconfirmed reports that the finance and foreign ministers will also be independents appointed in the same manner.

On February 15, Haniyeh formally submitted the current cabinet's resignation to Abbas. Abbas "then asked Haniyeh, as head of a caretaker government" to form a Hamas-Fatah coalition government, Associated Press reported.

Abbas, as part of the Mecca deal, had sent Haniyeh a letter calling on him to disband the cabinet and form a new government within five weeks in order to "be presented to the Palestinian Legislative Council for a vote of confidence". Conspicuously absent from the letter and the Mecca deal was any mention of the three demands drafted by Israel and adopted by the "Quartet" — the US, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia — as the prerequisite for lifting a crippling economic blockade on the PA.

The demands, which Abbas and Fatah had previously said Hamas must adopt as a condition for unity, called on Hamas to "renounce violence", recognise Israel's "right to exist", and adhere to all previous international agreements signed by the Fatah-dominated Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

Instead, Abbas's letter called on Haniyeh "as the head of the upcoming Palestinian government to commit to the higher interests of the Palestinian people ... and to work in order to achieve its national goals as was approved by the Palestine National Council, the clauses of the Basic Law and the National Reconciliation Document [NRD] ... and to respect international resolutions and the agreements signed by the Palestine Liberation Organization."

Not calling on Hamas to abide by the demands of the Israel and the Quartet and only to "respect" international agreements signals a major retreat for Abbas and Fatah.

The NRD, which Abbas had formerly sought to use as a trigger for the dissolution of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), was written in May 2006 by five Palestinian militants jailed by Israel, including Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti and Hamas member Abdel Khalek al Natsheh. Hamas's acceptance of it is simply a formal recognition of the significant transformation in political positions that the organisation has undertaken in recent years.

The NRD calls for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, and the recognition of the right to return of refugees driven out of Palestine during the establishment of Israel. The document recognises the right to armed resistance against the occupation, however it calls for it to take place only inside Palestinian territory occupied by Israel since 1967.

Since 2005, Hamas has adhered to a self-imposed ceasefire and has not carried out suicide missions inside Israel. In addition, Hamas has repeatedly stated that while it would not formally recognise the right of Israel to exist, it did recognise Israel existed and offered a long-term truce ranging between five and 90 years.

Sections two, four and six of the NRD call for the integration of Hamas and Islamic Jihad into the PLO as the "legitimate and sole representative" of the Palestinian nation. Sections 16 and 17 call for the reform of the Palestinian security forces in order to ban "political and partisan action by the members of the security services" and for the security forces to "coordinate and organise" in relation to the forces of resistance — all points that Hamas has argued for in the past year.

According to one Hamas leader, quoted in the February 9 Jerusalem Post, the Mecca Accord means that "Fatah made 90% of the concessions, while Hamas only made 10%". The article also reported that a number of senior Fatah members are not happy with the deal because they feel Fatah was forced to compromise, not Hamas.

In a February 13 British Guardian article, Hamas political chief Khalid Meshal noted that the Mecca Accord is based on "the consensus among Palestinians that their primary objective is to win their freedom, and that their struggle should be solely against the occupation". Meshal wrote, "We Palestinians have been victims of invasion, occupation and oppression for almost a century. Yet we have been constantly blackmailed to make concessions and give up more of our legitimate rights. Since the elections of January 2006 [when Hamas won control of the PA] our people have been boycotted and punished by the international community for exercising their democratic rights." He added that it is now "up to the international community to respect this accord and the will of the Palestinian people".

Thousands of Palestinians took to the streets in Gaza and the West Bank to celebrate the signing of the agreement. The response from the Israeli government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the Bush administration was more muted. Israel, along with Washington, had hoped to topple the Hamas-led PA by imposing a crippling economic blockade on the Palestinian people for the past year, while helping arm, train and finance Fatah members. In January, the US Congress approved US$86 million in funding for this, and in late 2006 Israel approved the shipment of more than 2000 rifles, 20,000 magazines and 2 million rounds of ammunition from Egypt to Fatah. Israel has allowed US, British, Jordanian and Egyptian military instructers to train Abbas's Presidential Guard in Jericho.

A joint Hamas-Fatah government will make it difficult for the US and Israel to continue to pursue its tactic of favouring Abbas over the PLC. Former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk told Time magazine that Abbas and Fatah's compromise with Hamas is a "considerable embarrassment" for the US government.

According to Indyk, who was quoted in the magazine's February 9 edition, "This is not what the Administration had in mind ... They were expecting Abu Mazen [Abbas] backed by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, would be moving into a process of excluding Hamas. They did not expect that Abu Mazen would compromise with Hamas. They didn't want him to compromise with Hamas, and they didn't think it was necessary." Indyk said that Washington had failed to anticipate that Abbas would opt for "conciliation and cooperation" rather than "confrontation".

Abbas, however, was forced to break from the preferred US route because of growing outrage among Palestinians about the escalating Hamas-Fatah conflict. In the past month, dozens of rallies and marches have been held in the Occupied Territories calling for an end to the fighting and for a unity government. Opinion polls have repeatedly shown that the majority of Palestinians support the formation of a unity government.