As the two leading Palestinian factions came together in Cairo today to sign a reconciliation pact, Palestinians are optimistic that the Arab Spring may help mend a four-year split and strengthen their push for statehood.
"The opinion of all Palestinians is to get united. It brings them a sense of power, and a sense of strength, and a sense of unity to be able to deal with Israel," says Bassem Ezbedi, a political science professor at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank. He acknowledged that there are "all sorts of obstacles," some of which could be "explosive."
Indeed, just as Arab countries around the region are grappling with new forms of government, Palestinians understand that achieving harmony between the Islamist militant rulers of the Gaza and the Western-backed secular party that controls the West Bank will be a year-long project at least.
Fundamental differences persist between Hamas and Fatah, as underscored by their contradictory responses to Osama bin Laden's death this week.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh on Monday praised Osama Bin Laden as an Arab "holy warrior," and condemned the US raid that killed him. The Fatah-dominated PA welcomed his death, however, with Prime Minister Salam Fayyad saying he hoped it marked "the beginning of the end for this dark era."
Two opposing security doctrines
Despite sounding upbeat about the reconciliation deal, politicians from Fatah and Hamas give differing interpretations of what it means for Hamas’s doctrine of armed uprising against Israel or the Palestinian Authority’s security coordination with Israel.
Sheikh Fadel Hamdan, a Hamas legislator in the West Bank, said that Hamas would only give up the right to armed "resistance" against Israel at "the final stage" of an agreement. (Hamas has said it is willing to consider an open-ended cease fire with Israel but not a conclusive peace treaty.) He called the PA and Israel’s security cooperation "problematic," arguing that it doesn’t help the Palestinian people.
Azzam Abu Baker, a Fatah official, says the security coordination with Israel is a necessary fact of life aimed at preventing Israel’s military from overrunning Palestinian cities in the West Bank. As for Hamas’ armed militia, he asserted that the unity agreement doesn’t allow either side to act unilaterally against Israel.
Prof. Ezbeidi says that merging two opposing security doctrines is only one of a myriad of issues that could doom the agreement. But the yawning divide is clear even to the Palestinian public.
"It is impossible to have two big heads under one hat," says Said Saleh, a construction worker building a new office for the Palestinian prime minister. "Unity is a dream of every Palestinian that could end up in a nightmare."
Arab Spring gave impetus for reconciliation
The announcement last week of a reconciliation deal came as surprise. Multiple rounds of negotiations since Hamas’ takeover of Gaza in 2007 have failed.
Palestinians have become cynical about their domestic politics, accusing both parties of focusing on narrow interests rather than the national good. Recent public opinion surveys conducted before the deal was announced found that a majority didn’t expect a reconciliation in the near future.
Regional turmoil, however, changed the playing field. Grass-roots youth movements in the Middle East stirred up Palestinian street protests in March, which politicians credit with raising pressure on both parties – despite the thin turnout. One organizer vowed to lobby for a representative of young Palestinians in the new interim government.
"We think of ourselves as the silent majority that went out into the street," says Bashar Azzeh, a 31-year-old entrepreneur who will be traveling from the West Bank to Cairo when the reconciliation deal is signed on Wednesday.
Another factor that may have contributed to the new push for unity is the fact that negotiations have been moribund since last September. With no active peace talks, differences between Fatah and Hamas – which doesn't support the peace talks – are easier to overlook.
Now, as PA President Mahmoud Abbas's government pursues official recognition of Palestinian sovereignty from the United Nations, they can present a united front – thereby making their case more compelling.
A road map for full reconciliation
Despite high hopes for a resolution, Mr. Azzeh says that many Palestinians remain uneasy about what happens next. The Egyptian-brokered agreement calls for elections within a year, a joint committee to coordinate security issues between the sides, a temporary government of technocrats, and for a release of political prisoners.
But much more needs to be done to mend Palestinian fences. There needs to be a follow-up agreement to implement unity. Borrowing a term from Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, Azzeh called for a "road map" for Palestinian reconciliation.
"The devil is in the details," he says. "We have many problems. We have to work on the political level, the social level, and the economic level. If there is no road map there, is no reconciliation."