Is Palestinian national unity possible?

An emergency February 7-8 Mecca summit sponsored by Saudi Arabia that brought together the leaders of rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah resulted in a power-sharing agreement between and a plan to form a national unity government. Palestinians hope a unity government can achieve the international recognition required to lift the crippling economic embargo against the Palestinian Authority that has been imposed by the West since Hamas won control of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in last January's elections.

Associated Press reported on February 9: "Much of the negotiations centered on a single word. [Fatah-aligned Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] pressed Hamas to accept the stronger stance of 'committing to' past peace accords with Israel signed by the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Liberation Organization [PLO]. But in the end, he was forced to settle for the promise to 'respect' them." It is unclear whether this will be enough for Israel and the US to accept a government that Hamas is part of and lift the blockade of the PA. A summit is scheduled between the US, Abbas and Israeli PM Ehud Olmert for February 19.

Under the agreement, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh will remain the PA's prime minister. The two groups have agreed to reform the PLO, which Hamas and Islamic Jihad will join. Hamas believes reform of the security forces is also needed: despite the fact that it won the leadership of the PA, the vast bulk of the PA's security apparatus remains firmly in the hands of Abbas.

The Mecca summit was the latest attempt to quell the violence that erupted between the two groups in mid-December. The key goals of the talks included to negotiate an immediate and effective ceasefire, to revitalise a reformed PLO, and to form a government of national unity. The two weeks prior to the summit saw the worst political violence between the factions yet.

Hamas ousted Fatah from its 40-year rule in a landslide victory in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections in January 2006, however Abbas remains the president of the PA (presidential elections were held in 2005). Abbas has consistently challenged Hamas's rule, with US and Israeli backing.

A series of ceasefires negotiated by Egypt and Saudi Arabia were short-lived. The latest round of violence began on February 1, breaking a three-day ceasefire, when Hamas's Executive Force intercepted Abbas's Presidential Guard driving a convoy of trucks from Israel into the Gaza Strip through the Kerem Shalom crossing. Hamas alleged that the trucks were carrying weapons, which Fatah denied, its members issuing contradictory and inconsistent claims about the contents of the convoy.

Inter Press Service journalists Jon Elmer and Nora Barrows-Friedman reported on February 2: "In late December, an Israeli-approved arms shipment of 2000 rifles, 20,000 magazines and two million rounds of ammunition from Egypt passed through the same Kerem Shalom crossing into the Gaza Strip." The US is determined to bolster Abbas's Presidential Guard against Hamas's Executive Force, both elite paramilitary groups of several thousand members. The US Congress in January pledged US$86 million to strengthen Abbas's force to "fulfill Palestinians' obligations" under the US-sponsored "Road Map" to peace — i.e., to crush any actual or potential armed resistance to the Israeli occupation.

The editorial of the February 8 Israeli Haaretz noted, "It is sufficient to hear the strong denials of Abbas regarding the news of the weapons transfers to appreciate the kind of embarrassment that this Israeli policy is causing him, and the position of lack of credibility in which it places him".

In response to the attack on the convoy, Fatah gunmen attacked the Islamic University in Gaza City on February 2, setting parts of the building on fire. Targets of the factional violence have spread from police stations and government buildings to civilian institutions, and more disturbingly, residential homes and streets. These Gaza street-fights, in one of the most densely populated areas in the world, have resulted in dozens of civilians being killed and hundreds wounded.

During the attack on the Islamic University, Fatah announced that they had captured a group of "Iranian weapons experts" on the campus. Ali Abunimah, in a February 3 article for Electronic Intifada, commented: "The allegations about Iranians were universally dismissed but they revealed the extent to which Abbas officials have adopted the Israeli and American paradigm as their own."

Israel prevented the deputy PA prime minister and the planning minister, both from Hamas, from leaving the West Bank and travelling to Mecca to participate in the talks, and while the talks were beginning, a number of provocative attacks were carried out against Hamas activists by Fatah. The convoy of Hamas minister for refugee affairs Atef Uwdan was fired upon near Gaza City, however no-one was hurt.

While leaders from both groups expressed optimism about the outcome of the Mecca summit, it will be difficult for a round of talks to resolve the underlying points of difference. The siege of Gaza and US sponsorship of Fatah have been major contributing factors to the violence. However it is also a manifestation of deeper divisions within Palestinian society regarding how to achieve national liberation.

When Hamas won the elections, the Middle East "Quartet" that drafted the Road Map — the US, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia — demanded that it renounce violence, explicitly "recognise" Israel, and acknowledge and abide by previous Palestinian agreements with Israel made by the Fatah-led PLO. When Hamas refused to consign itself to the framework of collaborating with the occupying Israeli forces — the framework that Palestinians had overwhelmingly rejected in the elections — aid to the PA was cut off, causing the shadow of impoverishment and malnourishment to spread throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), especially in the Gaza Strip, where 1.1 million out of 1.5 million people are dependent on food aid from the UN.

Hamas has made a significant transformation in recent years, including abiding by a self-imposed unilateral ceasefire since March 2005 in the face of brutal attacks on Palestinians by the Israel Defense Forces, which in 2006 killed more than 400 Palestinians in Gaza alone. Hamas immediately invited Fatah to join a national unity government following its election victory, an offer that was rejected. Hamas has implicitly recognised Israel, offering it a long-term truce.

The February 8 New York Times reported that the Syrian-based exiled leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, said: "I think the international community can do nothing but respect our wishes if we are united."

But Olmert said he hoped Abbas doesn't reach an agreement with Hamas to forge a national government if Hamas does not fully submit to the Quartet's demands. Abbas has consistently demonstrated that his principal loyalty is to the Quartet, and not to Palestinian unity, by insisting that Hamas agree to the Quartet demands.

Hamas has rejected the conditions as the reason why the Fatah-led PLO failed to win any meaningful gains for the Palestinian people since the 1993 Oslo Accords were signed with Israel, let alone statehood. Hamas spokesperson Khalil Abu Leilah was reported in the Jerusalem Post on February 6 as saying, "Hamas will make a huge effort to enable the formation of a unity government. But we will not accept the conditions of the Quartet because they are intended to humiliate the entire Arab and Islamic world." Abbas had threatened that if the Mecca talks had failed, he would call new PLC and presidential elections for June.

The US has made it clear that it sees Abbas and Fatah as part of the pro-US axis in the Middle East, comprising the governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, as well as Lebanese PM Fouad Siniora, in opposition to Iran, Syria, and the Lebanese Hezbollah movement.

Fatah's behaviour since January 2006 signals its further degeneration from its one-time role as a genuine national liberation movement: exploiting the embargo to foster dissatisfaction with the Hamas government; accepting arms and training from Washington; and trying to use its legacy and institutional weight to build an alternative centre of power that can essentially launch a coup against the democratic will of the Palestinian people to restore itself to power.

In her 2006 book The Road Map to Nowhere, Israeli academic Tanya Reinhart explained how the Fatah-led PLO since 1993 established a "system of centralized control and collaboration with the Israeli occupiers" that "resulted in degrees of corruption typical of banana republics". She explained the significance of the election of Hamas, and why it has prompted such a crushing response from Israel: "In voting for Hamas, Palestinians were opting for a party which had no history of collaboration with the occupiers, and which they believed would not be coerced into such collaboration in the future. But from the perspective of the Israeli army, Hamas's victory entails the complete loss of the network of control it had constructed in the territories since 1993."

Having lost a measure of its control over the OPT, Israel is determined to crush the Hamas government — by direct violent attacks, by starving the PA of its own tax revenue (that Israel collects), by kidnapping and imprisoning cabinet ministers and officials, by making it impossible for Hamas to govern and by strengthening its rival and encouraging an outright civil war.

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