Hundreds of people, many of them waving Palestinian flags, celebrated the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas on Thursday in Gaza City’s Square of the Unknown Soldier. Palestinian and foreign Arab television stations broadcast the celebrations live.
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Many of the people who gathered in the square expressed approval for the reconciliation, but added that they expected immediate change. They were referring not to national, military or strategic issues, but to the needs of their daily lives — from a reliable supply of electricity and medicines to employment and freedom of movement.
Palestinians, both in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, realize that it’s premature to celebrate reconciliation in the broader sense of the word, to talk about national and strategic unity. Many see the agreement as a compromise between two organizations that divided the nation between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip for a decade and were forced to reconcile due to massive pressure from the Egyptian government as well as an internal and regional crisis that threatened the Palestinian national project and the aspiration for self-determination.
Hamas’ conduct in Gaza since its dissolution of the shadow cabinet that was established some months ago, deepening the crisis with the Palestinian Authority leadership, demonstrates that the organization genuinely intends to renounce control of the Strip. It also shows that civilian control, the need to deal with day-to-day problems, hurt Hamas’ popularity. The sanctions imposed by the PA in the past few months led the Hamas leaders to understand that governing comes with a civilian and political price.
This attitude change is led by no other than Hamas’ leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, despite his being seen as militant and extreme. Sinwar said last week that he would “break the head” of anyone who sabotages the reconciliation, while at the same time threatening Israel that Hamas could launch as many rockets at it in 51 minutes as it did during the entire seven weeks of the 2014 war.
Sinwar’s statements mark a new Hamas strategy — a willingness to concede civilian control over the Gaza Strip, but not to disarm, at least until an arrangement is made to end the occupation, in which case Hamas and the other armed factions will have a reason to discuss the issue.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, 83, and Fatah understand that in the near future they have nothing to offer the Palestinian people regarding the peace process, in view of the statements made by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and members of his cabinet. If there is any chance that U.S. President Donald Trump can be trusted to come up with an effective peace plan, Abbas cannot afford to speak only for the West Bank. In view of this scenario, the reconciliation seems like the only option open to Abbas and Fatah. So the agreement is mainly a confluence of interests, best described as follows: The PA and Fatah will rule aboveground and Hamas will rule under ground.
The third side to this meeting of interests is Egypt. Egyptian intelligence led the reconciliation move, and the Egyptian view of it can be summed as a matter of national security. Egypt, grappling with Islamic State terror in Sinai, saw Gaza under Hamas rule as a potential hothouse for a logistic and ideological Islamic State base and a refuge for terrorists from Sinai.
Under Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, Cairo cannot extend to Hamas sovereign privileges such as opening the Rafah crossing regularly, which would help perpetuate the Palestinian split between the West Bank and Gaza. The attempt to advance the move with former Fatah man Mohammed Dahlan wouldn’t have received Palestinian, Arab and international legitimacy, the kind the PA has in the international community.
So the only option was to return the PA to the Gaza Strip as part of the deal signed in Cairo six years ago, with the necessary amendments and the option to bring Dahlan in at a later stage.
The Palestinians are convinced the Egyptian position received a nod from the White house and the United Nations, and perhaps from Israel as well, in view of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. The deal also opens the possibility for a prisoner swap deal. So the meeting of interests is even broader in the short run.
Translating the deal into a move with a strategic regional significance in the long run requires extensive international intervention that would adopt and lead an international peace initiative or act to implement the Arab peace initiative. Abbas mentioned this initiative again last month in his speech, when he warned of the approaching moment in which he would declare that the two-state solution had collapsed.