In Ramallah Wednesday, Fatah officials initialed a preliminary agreement aimed at mending the rift with Hamas, though the Islamic militants balked – a sign that the conditions for reconciliation may not have ripened.
A powersharing deal is aimed at ending more than two years of divided rule between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza that has sapped Palestinian public morale, stymied the political system, and dimmed the prospects for achieving an agreement with Israel to establish a Palestinian state.
"The question is, if the Palestinians can't find reconciliation between ourselves, how can we reconcile with the Israelis?" asks Mohammed Dejani, a political science professor at Al Quds University. "People are fed up and tired, and there's a lot of despair."
Even though Palestinian public opinion is overwhelmingly behind a unity deal, the lingering bitterness and distrust between the groups has prevented an agreement despite several rounds of Egyptian mediation since the Hamas takeover in gaza in June 2007. The two sides are separated by a wide ideological rift, and each accuses the other of operating under the influence of foreign powers; Fatah under pressure from the US and Israel, and Hamas advised by Iran. Most recently, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's decision to postpone action on the UN-issued Goldstone report on the Gaza war sparked harsh criticism from Hamas.
Trust is most lacking on several key issues, including new elections, who controls security in the West Bank and Gaza, whether Hamas's military wing will be disarmed, and how power will be shared in the Palestinian government and the Palestine Liberation Organization – long dominated by Fatah. Khalil Shaheen, an editor of the Al Ayyam newspaper in Ramallah, says the Egyptian-brokered plan uses vague wording on some issues in an attempt to secure approval from both sides. While such an approach may lead to an agreement, it could delay reconciliation in practice and thus defer benefits for both sides.
What Hamas, Fatah would gain from reconciliation
For Hamas, an agreement could ease the international political boycott on the organization and shift pressure on Israel to end an economic blockade of the coastal strip that has largely cut off Gaza's 1.5 million residents from the rest of the world. But it is also wary of Fatah security officers returning to Gaza.
That means that any accord must involve an agreement preserving the security divide between the West Bank and Gaza until each party builds up political trust in the other side, says Professor Dejani.
"The issue is how to reconcile between two powerful movements," he says. "They aren't at a place where they have the confidence to share power equally in those areas. There is still a lot of bad blood."
Fatah, meanwhile, could lose ground to Hamas if the prospect for peace with Israel dims. Analysts say that Fatah's flirtation Wednesday with a compromise stems from low expectations about the resumption of peace talks. After being attacked for meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjmain Netanyahu in New York, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has dug in on insisting that Israel freeze settlement activity before talks. The US meanwhile, seems to have backed away from such a stance, weakening Mr. Abbas.
"He is predicting that the political process is heading to a dead end with the Israelis," says Mr. Shaheen, the Al Ayyam editor. "President Abbas needs to strengthen his situation and he might be forced to speak with Hamas and reach an agreement."
Tension over the Goldstone report
Officials and analysts also suggested that Fatah's gesture this week was a tactical move aimed at shifting pressure onto Hamas after several weeks in which Abbas has come under harsh criticism at home for his positions on peace negotiations with Israel and for postponing action on the UN-issued Goldstone report, the most comprehensive international investigation of Israel's offensive in Gaza earlier this year.
"Our standing has been hurt a lot," says Kadoura Fares, a Fatah party leader from Ramallah. "We are interested in creating the impression that we are not putting a blockade in front of reconciliation, and that Hamas wants to evade signing an agreement."
The Palestinian leadership has since reversed its position on the Goldstone report, pressing for its approval during two debates in the UN Security Council this week. Abbas's request for a UN delay on approving the report, which accused the Israeli army of breaking international law during its war against Hamas missile launchers in January, sparked widespread Palestinian anger.
In Gaza last week, Hamas supporters threw their shows at a picture of Abbas with an X though it, reflecting widespread Palestinian anger at the move – even in the West Bank.
Before Abbas agreed under US pressure to delay action on the Goldstone report, Hamas had said it was ready to sign an agreement. But on Oct. 7 Hamas canceled plans for a meeting with Fatah in Cairo, where the two were expected to sign a deal Oct. 26.
On Wednesday, Israeli website Ynet reported that Hamas official Fawzi Barhoum said the organization would not be pressured into signing a reconciliation agreement.
"The Goldstone report is still shaking the atmosphere," he said.
On Tuesday in Jenin, Abbas referred to Hamas-controlled Gaza as a "dark emirate" and accused Hamas gunmen of fleeing the Gaza Strip during the war.
Such comments raise questions about whether reported progress in the unity talks reflect a desire for genuine agreement.
"A lot of people believe that we're in the realm of PR spin in term of this reconciliation agreement," said Rob Blecher, a regional analyst at the International Crisis Group. "National reconciliation is a big Palestinian public demand. Both sides want to play the reconciliation card to their advantage."
Why reconciliation is important to US, Israel, and Egypt
Reconciliation is a wild card for Israel and the US, which have said that a Palestinian powersharing government must back peace talks, recognize Israel and stop violence. It would provide a test of President Barack Obama's policy of engaging US enemies in political talks. Israel is unlikely to recognize a government with Hamas participation.
For Egypt, an accord would mark an important ratification of its influence as a regional mediator.
The Egyptian plan calls for Palestinian elections in June 2010, a vote which Abbas hopes will weaken Hamas' hold on the Palestinian parliament. But it also envisions sharing security powers in Gaza with Hamas, an arrangement that will be difficult for Fatah's security officers to swallow.