Optimism About Fatah-Hamas Reconciliation, but Tough Issues Aren’t Yet on the Table

Abbas, Haniyeh spoke for the first time in months on Monday, resolving to move toward a unity government in the West Bank and Gaza Strip

A Palestinian man and his daughter walk past the Arabic word "division" painted on a wall in Gaza City, on September 17, 2017.
Mahmud Hams/AFP

Senior officials in Fatah and Hamas have expressed cautious optimism this week about the imminent implementation of the reconciliation agreement between the main Palestinian factions ruling the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, respectively.

Other Palestinian factions are similarly sanguine, and the expectation is that the first steps in putting the Egyptian-brokered deal into practice will be made within a few days.

One sign of the growing Hamas-Fatah rapprochement was a phone call on Monday between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the head of Hamas’ political wing, Ismail Haniyeh. In their first conversation in months, the leaders resolved to move forward with the reconciliation and remove obstacles to its implementation.

In an additional expression of progress, Abbas and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi met in New York on Monday, on the fringes of the United Nations General Assembly.

Fawzi Barhoum, the Hamas spokesman in the Gaza Strip, said Monday that the Palestinian Authority should resume operating in the Hamas-run territory. He also demanded that Abbas revoke the financial sanctions it has imposed on Gaza in recent months.

But despite the positive statements on both sides, the PA is leery of removing all the sanctions, saying the real test of the agreement will be its implementation on the ground.

“The test will be the full transfer of management of the Strip’s affairs to the Palestinian government and the cancellation of all the steps Hamas has taken, including collecting taxes, controlling the border crossings and more,” said Dr. Ahmed Majdalani, a member of the PLO Executive Committee and advisor to Abbas.

Nevertheless, he said, the atmosphere is different than it was during previous reconciliation attempts, due to both the worsening humanitarian situation in Gaza and a changed diplomatic environment that includes massive Egyptian pressure to implement the reconciliation. This has led to greater willingness to move forward with the deal, Majdalani said.

The PA said its cabinet will meet within a few days to draft a plan for managing Gaza’s affairs. The question is how much Hamas will allow it to do so.

Mustafa Barghouti, the head of the Palestinian National Initiative party, said all the issues of contention were settled when the reconciliation agreement was signed, years ago.

“The important issue is moving toward a parliamentary and presidential election in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and whoever wins will govern,” Barghouti said.

The parties have avoided addressing the remaining issues that are in dispute, such as the future of Hamas’s military wing. Hamas, and especially its new leader in the Gaza Strip, Yahya Sinwar, have begun talking about emulating the system used in Lebanon, where Hezbollah maintains a powerful military wing while serving in the Lebanese cabinet. The PA, in contrast, wants Hamas to disarm at some point.