Sunday 1 May 2011

Palestinian Peace Perpetuates Regional Conflict

The two main Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, surprised the international community with an announcement during the past week that they have reached an interim agreement between themselves. This agreement is based upon five major points including the formation of an interim unity government, the combination of their security forces and the release of each other's prisoners. It was agreed that a general election for the West Bank and Gaza will be called in approximately 8 months' time.

Hamas and Fatah have been in a state of conflict with each other since Hamas mounted a military takeover of Gaza in June 2007, and expelled the Fatah representatives who had governed the strip until then. Despite numerous attempts to reconcile the warring factions during the intervening period, the Egyptian mediators were unable to broker an agreement that both parties would sign up to. The suddent announcement last week came without prior warning that an agreement was imminent, and has given rise to questions as to how come the parties were able to come to such a quick agreement when previous attempts had failed over a lengthy period of time.

According to the parties, the agreement at this time has been facilitated by a change in the Egyptian government which was also reflected in the approach of the mediators. It is claimed that former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's government was anti-Hamas. As such, Hamas was disadvantaged in the negotiation by virtue of the bias of the mediators. Now that the government has changed and the mediation team reflects this change, we are told that an agreement was reached quickly and easily. This explanation sounds a little too simplistic to me, and I believe that other forces are at play here.

The "Arab Spring", the wave of uprisings sweeping the Arab world, will certainly have had some influence on Hamas and Fatah officials in their discussions to reach agreement. It is no secret that the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the Hamas administration in Gaza have both felt threatened that the "Spring" may also reach their areas of control. The substantial corruption in evidence in both areas, as well as the autocratic nature of their rule look distinctly similar to other Arab governments which have been overthrown. There can be no doubt that the empowerment felt by the downtrodden masses in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria could easily find its way to the West Bank and Gaza, with similar political consequences. As much as Fatah and Hamas have conflicts with each other, somehow the threat of a popular uprising by their people represents more of a threat to each of their power bases than the threat that they present to each other.

Another issue that may have influenced the reaching of an agreement, is the rehabilitation of Fatah in the international community. This has reached the point that there has been serious discussion about a possible vote at the UN General Assembly in September for the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state. This is a surprising achievement for Fatah, especially when one considers the way in which its representatives have avoided making any substantive progress in peace talks with Israel. The proposed UN vote looks distinctly like a reward for negotiating in bad faith with Israel, but it has a good prospect of succeeding nonetheless. The Hamas leaders will, no doubt, have been watching these developments closely and with some degree of jealousy. Hamas is an organisation that is blacklisted as a sponsor of terror by the US and a number of other countries. It has a bad name in the international community following the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, and after unceasingly firing missiles at civilians in the south of Israel. The Hamas leadership will view the agreement with Fatah as a possible route to gain some international credibility, by taking advantage of the progress that Fatah has made on the international stage.

Fatah has carefully avoided calling an election in the West Bank since 2006 when the last Palestinian legislative elections were held. On that occasion, the elections across both the West Bank and Gaza resulted in a resounding defeat for Fatah at the hands of Hamas. Abbas somehow managed to hang on to power after the international community rejected the possibility of a Hamas-run Palestinian Authority. Although the Hamas takeover of Gaza intervened thereby allowing Abbas the opportunity to continue his rule in the West Bank, he will remember clearly the rejection that he suffered at the hands of the electorate in the 2006 election. With increasing pressure coming from both inside and outside the Palestinian Authority area for an election to be held, an alliance with Hamas seems a good way for Abbas and his Fatah faction to guarantee themselves victory. Having to share the victory with Hamas still seems a better option than the possibility of another defeat.

The agreement between Fatah and Hamas brought a swift and unequivocal response from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He stated that Fatah needs to choose between peace with Hamas or peace with Israel. He made it clear that, by choosing to enter into a peace agreement with Hamas, all bets for further negotiations with Israel are off. It is clear that Israel could not consider holding peace discussions with a Fatah-Hamas alliance while Gilad Shalit remains in captivity, and while bombs continue to rain down on civilians from Gaza. This alliance may also give Netanyahu ammunition in the international community. Having spent many months claiming that Fatah is not really interested in reaching a peace agreement with Israel, and having endured a great deal of criticism that he has been one of the impediments to progress towards peace, Netanyahu is now able to point to the new Fatah-Hamas agreement to justify his claims that the Palestinians are to blame for the lack of peace.

There was no mention of the relationship with Israel in the 5 point agreement reached between the Palestinian parties, nor of any possible peace. Hamas was quick to announce soon after reaching the agreement with Fatah, that it will never recognise Israel's right to exist. Fatah made no effort to counter this position, so this is what remains on the record at this time. This may work to Israel's advantage by serving to ambush Fatah's plans to bring a vote to the UN General Assembly on Palestinian statehood. I believe that it would be much more difficult for many countries, particular European countries, to support a UN vote on a Palestinian state if Hamas is a party to the declaration of statehood.

While the Palestinians have been talking for some time about unity between the factions, my impression is that this unity agreement may well work against their best interests in the international community. Each party has its own reason for agreeing to the peace deal at this time, but I believe that it ultimately serves to buy more time for Israel just in the nick of time. The UN General Assembly vote was beginning to look like an ominous omen on the horizon for Israel, and the possibility of a unilateral declaration of independence was looking increasingly likely. The Palestinian unity agreement seems to me to be one of the only acts that could have torpedoed such a possibility, and seemed unlikely until the moment that it was announced.

This underlines the unpredictability of Middle Eastern politics. It also reinforces the fact that the Palestinians are really not serious about a peace with Israel, or the possibility of living alongside Israel as good neighbours. If this was a major consideration, it would surely have been one of the points in the agreement. For now, Israel will have to continue in the knowledge that the age-old intention of the Palestinians to rid Israel of the Jews has not changed in any way.

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