Analysis |

For Hamas, It’s Palestinian Unity for the Sake of Survival

Israeli efforts to strip the Palestinian government of its legitimacy could embroil the Jewish state in an unexpected conflict.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Palestinian supporters of Hamas during a ceremony marking the 66th anniversary of the Nakba. Nablus, May 15, 2014.
Palestinian supporters of Hamas during a ceremony marking the 66th anniversary of the Nakba. Nablus, May 15, 2014.Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Either Fatah or Hamas had to back down in order to enable the reconciliation deal between them to lead to a unity government. This time it was Hamas that blinked and was forced to accept Fatah’s terms. This isn’t the first time Hamas has had to forego its principles as a result of political or diplomatic circumstances. Years passed between the signing of the reconciliation deal and its actual implementation. If not for Hamas’ current political and diplomatic rut, the impending unity government might not have gotten off the ground at all.

The crisis in relations with Egypt led to the closure of the Rafah crossing and the destruction of almost all of the tunnels linking Gaza and Sinai. The Egyptian military’s power grab and expulsion of the Muslim Brotherhood, along with its labeling of them as a terrorist movement, turned Hamas into a public enemy in Egypt. Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf States pressured Qatar to toe the party line and stop funding Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas’ rift with Syria led Iran to cut off ties, leaving Hamas without any sources of funding with the exception of Turkey. All of these developments led Hamas to realize that if it wished to survive, it had no choice but opting for reconciliation with Fatah.

Hamas’ concessions are not just a technicality. Its previous conditions for reconciliation were based on the agreements signed in Cairo in May 2011 and Qatar in 2012, which stipulated that elections for the Palestinian National Council, the Palestinian Parliament and the presidency all had to take place as a “package deal.” That didn’t happen. According to the deal signed last April, Hamas agreed to establish a technocratic government, and postpone all three elections to a later date, while Mahmoud Abbas continues to serve as president in the meantime. But the agreement was much more far-reaching than that: Hamas has given up its long-held position that its overwhelming victory in the 2006 election grants it legitimacy to serve as head of the Palestinian government.

Abbas certainly has no great love for Hamas. His remarks on Hamas’ leadership attest to that fact, as do the mines he planted along the path to reconciliation. But pressure for reconciliation from the public in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip only intensified over the years. Also, Abbas’ fears that he would go down in history as the man who lost Gaza took their toll, especially after the failure to sign a peace agreement with Israel, which would have pushed Hamas into an even more difficult position. At the same time, the Hamas leadership, in particular, Khaled Meshal, softened its position on reconciliation. The result is that the formation of a Palestinian government, even if it’s a “government of technocrats,” will function by agreement between Hamas and Fatah. Israel was quick to state that it would cut off ties with the government and the Palestinian Authority, as it did after the elections in 2006. But this threat carries with it a contradiction: Security cooperation will continue. But with whom, exactly? Israel would be boycotting the same authority with which it wants to cooperate.

Israeli efforts to strip the Palestinian government of its legitimacy and punish it for the reconciliation could embroil Israel in an unexpected conflict. Not only do all the Arab nations support the reconciliation, they will also be the ones to generously fund the new government. The European Union also doesn’t see reconciliation with Hamas as a problem. Even Washington has not completely ruled out cooperating with the new Palestinian government.

According to a statement from the State Department spokesperson last week, the United States will consider its actions based on the composition of the unity government. In all likelihood, that composition won’t give Washington much cause to cut off ties. If Israel intends on staying isolated on this international front, it should take into account that the blockade policy on Gaza is also likely to fall apart since Egypt has promised to open the Rafah crossing with the formation of a Palestinian unity government.

The other course of action is to recognize the new Palestinian government, continue close cooperation and restart the negotiations instead of viewing reconciliation as a red line. It would mean understanding that the Palestinian government is an issue for the Palestinian public, just as the composition of the Israeli government is an issue for the Israeli public.

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