Rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah say they've agreed to end a four-year rift. If the agreement holds, it could pave the way for the first Palestinian elections since 2006 and end a period of simmering hostilities that have weakened both the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas government in Gaza.
In a deal brokered by Egypt, the two sides agreed in principle to form an interim government made up of “independents” and to hold elections in a year, officials said at a press conference. Officials said they would formally ink the deal within weeks.
The breakthrough comes as regional change has jarred calcified Palestinian positions. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have watched regional revolutions and held small protests against their own leaders, whom they see as unaccountable and corrupt. They've also urged the factions to put aside their differences for the sake of creating a Palestinian state. That has dragged Fatah's Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas's Khaled Mashaal back to the negotiating table.
Yet many observers are skeptical that the deal will hold, particularly when its comes to implementation.
“Looking at the past four years, at the lack of trust, the lack of confidence, the incitement on both sides, it makes every reasonable person question whether this will be implemented on the ground,” says Mkhaimer Abusada, political science professor at Al Azhar University in Gaza. But while they face obstacles, it appears that “both Hamas and Fatah have reached the point that there is no other choice but to end the divide and bring about Palestinian unity,” he says.
Schism developed in 2007
The schism between Hamas and Fatah opened in 2007, when Hamas wrested control of Gaza from Fatah in a bloody conflict. Since then, Fatah has controlled the West Bank and Hamas has ruled Gaza. The divide has complicated efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Egypt, under the rule of former President Hosni Mubarak, tried unsuccessfully for years to bring the two Palestinian factions together. Some Hamas officials were skeptical he was an honest broker however, since Mubarak detested their movement, an offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.
The quick success of the new government in brokering a deal will be a source of pride for Egypt, whose regional influence has declined.
Israel and the US, however, may well stand in the way of the agreement. Both nations consider Hamas, which won the 2006 Palestinian elections, a terrorist organization. They have said in the past they will not recognize a Palestinian government that includes the Islamist organization unless Hamas first renounces violence and recognizes Israel’s right to exist.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected the agreement. “The Palestinian Authority must choose either peace with Israel or peace with Hamas. Peace with both is not possible,” he said.
Officials in Cairo tried to head off a confrontation with Israel, implying the interim government would be made up of technocrats and not factional figures. They also said they had agreed on security cooperation, a key area in the ongoing dispute, but did not go into detail. Mr. Abusada said the agreement stipulated that Hamas would remain in control of security in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank until new elections are held and the government restructures the security apparatus. Hamas’s armed wing, the Al Qassam Brigades, has rejected laying down arms or giving control of security to the very forces they fought fiercely in 2007.
Changes in the region were key in pushing both sides to the table. While Fatah’s Abbas has sought to bridge the divide in recent months, he was motivated by the failure of his talks with the US and Israel to deliver tangible progress, says Abusada, pointing to the US veto of a UN Security Council resolution that would have condemned Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank. Fatah was also facing popular pressure for reconciliation.
Impatience in Gaza
Hamas, on the other hand, with a more neutral arbiter in the new Egyptian government, essentially ran out of excuses not to agree, says Emad Gad, an analyst at Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.
Gad says the upheaval currently under way in Syria, which hosts Hamas’s politburo, was likely a factor pushing the organization to the table. And it also couldn’t ignore the impatience of Gazans, who were tired of living under the blockade Israel imposed after Hamas took control of Gaza. As the wave of protests swept the region, Gazans organized protests of their own against Hamas, which were swiftly put down by Hamas security forces.
But the initial signs on the ground in Gaza were not positive, says Abusada. When Gazans went to a central Gaza City square to celebrate the announcement, they were dispersed by baton-wielding Hamas policemen. “That makes me wonder whether Hamas on the ground and Al Qassam is going to accept this and is ready to implement it,” he says.