Why the Palestinian unity government won't cut it for Israel

The new Palestinian government announced today incorporates Hamas, giving the militant group far greater sway in a territory that comes within 11 miles of Tel Aviv.

Reuters/Mohamad Torokman
Palestinian Waqf and Religious Affairs Minister Youssef Idaeis (right) shakes hands with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a swearing-in ceremony of the unity government in the West Bank city of Ramallah on June 2, 2014. Abbas swore in a unity government on Monday after overcoming a last-minute dispute with Hamas.

Israel says it will shun the new Palestinian government sworn in today, brushing aside promises by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that it would adhere to previous agreements and renounce violence. 

The unity government, comprised solely of technocrats, is a major step towards reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah seven years after they violently split paths, leaving the Palestinian house divided between Gaza and the West Bank.

Past reconciliation efforts failed to set up a joint government. But Hamas has found itself desperately squeezed between Israel and Egypt’s new leadership, which last summer destroyed the majority of the smuggling tunnels that provided the bulk of Gaza's consumer goods as well as sizeable tax revenue for Hamas, which is running a budget deficit of 75 percent for 2014

Despite Israeli threats to withhold tax revenue it collects on behalf of the PA, Mr. Abbas went forward with today's swearing-in ceremony, underscoring the importance of the move for Palestinian national unity.

“They want to punish us because we have an agreement with Hamas, which is part of our people,” said Abbas, whose new government includes 17 ministers, five of whom are from Gaza and all of whom are political independents.

Israel has long rejected any government that included Hamas, whose founding charter calls for the destruction of Israel.

Abbas tried to circumvent that by creating a government of technocrats committed to upholding the Quartet principles: recognizing Israel, abiding by previous agreements, and renouncing violence. (The Quartet is involved in mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and includes the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and Russia.) 

However, Israel says that since Hamas had input on appointing the new government, it de facto includes representatives of a terrorist organization.

“Enough with the tricks,” Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said to reporters in Jerusalem today, after an emergency cabinet meeting yesterday on the issue. “It’s very clear that … if they represent Hamas in the government, they represent a terrorist organization even if they are technocrats or they were never sitting in jail for any terrorist offense.” 

Mr. Steinitz expressed particular concern that the new government would not be committed to demilitarization, a key pillar of the 1993 Oslo Accords, under which Israel approved of the establishment of the Palestinian Authority.

“How can we or the world, recognize and cooperate with the [Palestinian] government that has in its possession, through Hamas, 12,000 Iranian missiles that totally violate the principle of complete demilitarization?”

The prospect of reunified Palestinian rule in the West Bank puts Israel on edge. More than 300,000 Israelis live in the territory, and its hilly ridges overlook Tel Aviv as well as Israel’s main international airport, which lies just four miles outside the West Bank

The only previous attempt at joint rule between Fatah and Hamas, after Hamas won 2006 elections, lasted less than 18 months. Then, in what some claim was a Western-backed coup to oust Hamas, brutal fighting broke out between the two sides, with shoot-outs, bombings, and officials being thrown off buildings as high as 12 stories. Hamas prevailed and gained full control of Gaza, while Fatah was forced to retreat to the West Bank. 

Steinitz said that such a takeover is not implausible in the West Bank, where improved coordination between Palestinian and Israeli security forces has produced a relative calm.

“To tell you that it can never repeat itself one day in the West Bank, I think this would not be responsible,” he said.

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