The political and ideological tensions between Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah exploded into civil war a decade ago. There were clashes, shootouts, and execution-style killings in the streets. Rivals were even thrown off high-rise rooftops.
The internecine fighting that claimed some 600 lives by the spring of 2007 was replaced by a cold war and a division of power, with militant Islamist Hamas seizing power in the Gaza Strip, and Fatah, the dominant secular party of the Palestine Liberation Organization, ruling Palestinian areas in the West Bank.
Despite multiple efforts at reconciliation from a rotating cast of regional players, the sides have remained in deadlock.
But this week Egypt, eager to regain its place as a power broker in the Middle East, will be hosting another round of talks. Fatah officials traveled to Gaza last week for the first time in three years and held a joint cabinet meeting amid cheering crowds. There seems to be movement in the positions of both sides.
Hamas, which has both political and military wings but is considered a terror organization by much of the international community, in particular has made it clear it is ready for a measure of compromise, driven by its desire to relinquish the day-to-day burden of governing Gaza to the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority (PA).
Conditions in the seaside strip of 2 million people, among the world’s most densely populated and impoverished places, have long been dire. Lately they’re worse, with 40 percent unemployment, daily electricity blackouts, water shortages, and an infrastructure devastated by three wars with Israel in a six-year span – the last in 2014 – that has yet to be restored. Gazans are squeezed by blockades from both Israel and Egypt that make it difficult to import commodities or cross into either country for medical or personal needs.
And for Fatah, a decade of divided rule has helped perpetuate the Israeli government line that there is “no partner” with whom to discuss prospects for peace. For Palestinians on both sides of the geographic and political divide, reconciliation would mean that finally their government might speak with a single voice to get things done internally and help lead to the goal of statehood.
The toughest issue to resolve is the question of Hamas’ military arm. Hamas was founded as an armed resistance movement, and finding a formula that could lead its fighters to lay down their arms will be tricky at best and may even be set aside until after a basic reconciliation deal is reached. Hamas has thousands of fighters and commanders, predominately in the Al Qassam Brigades, which led the fighting with Israel and the armed battles with Fatah in 2006 and 2007.
The key players in this complex puzzle of reconciliation – Hamas, Fatah, Israel, and Egypt – have their own motivations for such a deal to work, or fail.
Hamas finds itself at a pivotal moment, under pressure from the deteriorating situation in Gaza, and searching for new economic benefactors amid the Middle East’s shifting geopolitical landscape.
Hamas had long relied on the support of Syria and Iran, but shifted its dependence to Qatar and Turkey in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring. Qatar invested $1 billion to help restore infrastructure and other services in Gaza. But recently, several of its Gulf neighbors boycotted Qatar for what they charge is its support for extremist groups and Iran. Hamas now needs the diplomatic support of the Egyptians, who have been pushing for reconciliation talks.
In September, Hamas officially disbanded its civil government in a concession to the PA and tacit acknowledgement that day-to-day governing is not for them.
“Hamas has shown either no interest or no capability for acting like responsible local government,” says Howard Sumka, former USAID director for the West Bank and Gaza. “They have gone from one cycle to another of building up militarily and building up action against Israel. Things are defused for a while, and then there’s an effort at reconstruction. It’s a very depressing cycle.”
Earlier this year Hamas elected Yahya Sinwar as its new leader in Gaza. A founding member of Hamas’ military wing who spent 20 years in Israeli prison before being released in a 2011 prisoner swap, Mr. Sinwar has a reputation as a hardline but shrewd character capable of making tough, pragmatic decisions.
Assessments of Sinwar’s strategy differ. Some Gaza observers say he has decided Hamas should return to its resistance roots and become less involved in politics, letting the PA handle daily problems. But there is also a sense that after three wars with Israel that have brought more hardship to Gaza, he has decided to put military efforts on the back burner to focus instead on gaining a political foothold in the West Bank.
“That was a tough lesson for Hamas over the past 10 years. You can raise the slogan of resistance forever, but the outcome is a devastated population, infrastructure, and daily life,” says Prof. Mkhaimar Abusada, a professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza.
Hamas wants to focus on protecting Gaza from Israel, Professor Abusada says, and views Israel’s relatively free hand in Palestinian areas of the West Bank as a cautionary tale.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas, the increasingly unpopular successor to late PLO founder Yasser Arafat, has spent the last decade in paralyzing limbo between the fissure with Hamas and the lack of progress in negotiations with Israel. The most recent talks with Israel were in 2014, and like most efforts to find some middle ground, broke down over continued building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and disagreements over what Fatah-Hamas reconciliation might look like.
Fatah has a direct interest in having one government, one president, and speaking in one voice. Fatah officials also feel pressure from residents of both Gaza and the West Bank who blame both factions, alongside Israel, for their situation and believe unity will bring progress.
Mr. Abbas has likely decided that chances of a peace deal with the hardline Israeli government are more dim than ever, so focusing on rebuilding internally might be the best option.
Abbas’ decision to clamp down hard on Hamas by cutting the salaries of PA employees in Gaza and limiting electricity there has already resulted in Hamas concessions.
But he has made it clear he will not tolerate an armed Hamas or a situation in which Hamas controls forces on the ground in Gaza and Fatah focuses on the business of governing, in the model of Hezbollah in Lebanon.
“We, in the West Bank, operate according to a single law and a single authority,” Abbas said in an interview with Egyptian television Sunday. “I order to arrest anyone who holds weapons that is not under the auspices of the law, even if they are Fatah members, and that is what is meant to be.”
But Fatah also is likely feeling a bit trapped by the popular pressure to reconcile, because Fatah, like the Israelis, is concerned that with reconciliation, Hamas could eventually become dominant in the West Bank.
Hamas has long been Israel’s Public Enemy Number One, viewed as a terrorist organization bent on the destruction of the Jewish state. Aside from periodic rocket attacks on the south, Hamas has also been Israel’s adversary in three wars and carried out scores of attacks within Israel.
But for Israel, having “one address” in its relations with the PA is double-edged. It could make security and other coordination easier and lead to much desired “quiet” on the front with Gaza, but it also would make it more difficult for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to lean on his go-to stance that there is no partner to negotiate with as long as the Palestinians are divided.
And a PA with Hamas engaged as a full partner goes against long-standing Israeli policy that it does not engage with Hamas.
Mr. Netanyahu last week criticized the reconciliation efforts as “imaginary appeasement where the Palestinian side is reconciling at the expense of our existence.”
He said any partner in a peace process must recognize Israel as a Jewish state, which Hamas does not, and that for any deal to be recognized by Israel, Hamas’ military wing would have to be dismantled and Hamas would have to end its relations with Iran.
Egypt, a member of a Sunni axis working to counter Iran, controlled Gaza until the 1967 Middle East war, and is well aware of the inherent instability of the current humanitarian situation in the seaside strip. It hopes a unity deal between Hamas and Fatah will help improve daily life there and in turn stave off any potential “trouble” that could seep across its borders.
President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is also looking to bolster his and Egypt’s profile as a pan-Arab leader and sees the mediator role as a way to help do that.
The central Egypt-Gaza border crossing at Rafah has been closed for most of the time since Mr. Sisi took power in 2013. Egypt hopes to leverage its influence on Hamas to pressure it to end its support for Islamic State militants in northern Sinai, who have repeatedly attacked Egyptian installations. Hamas has helped ISIS with weapons, money, training, and medical assistance, according to Alon Eviatar, an Israeli reserve lieutenant colonel.
Trying to encourage Hamas and Fatah ahead of the Cairo talks, Sisi termed them “preparation” for a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians. A deal would also be a win for Egypt as it tries to cement its warming ties with the United States, which is in favor of the PA extending its control over Gaza and supports a deal that would lessen the inflammatory tensions there.