One year of failed unity in Palestine

One year of failed unity in Palestine
A year after the unity deal between Hamas and Fatah, why do attempts for Palestinian national reconciliation repeatedly fail?
9 min read
06 June, 2015
Palestinians march for unity in April [Anadolu]

Last week marked the one year anniversary of a Palestinian reconciliation government under Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah.  

It was formed under the "Al-Shati" unity deal, which aimed to end the long standing division between Hamas, based in Gaza, and Fatah, who dominates the Palestinian Authority in the West bank.

There were plans to hold elections in the Palestinian territories within six months. There were also hopes the reconciliation would improve conditions in Gaza by increasing freedom of movement through the Rafah crossing, and facilitating reconstruction efforts.

All of these aims have failed to materialise, with Hamas and Fatah accusing each other for the deal's failure.

"Hamas is responsible for this disruption. It should give the unity government the opportunity to manage affairs in the Gaza strip," Hani Al-Masri, head of the Palestinian Centre for Policy Research & Strategic Studies told the Turkish press agency Anadolu.

However, Hamas complained that handing control over to the Palestinian Authority (PA)

     Understanding the issue of aid is crucial to understand the split between Hamas and Fatah.

would mean giving up their authority in Gaza. Hamas spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri said in January that the reconciliation government was just a "tool in the hands of Mahmoud Abbas", refering to the Prime Minister in the West Bank. 

The unity deal led to the confusing existence of two governments exercising various degrees of control over Gaza: one in the strip headed by Ismail Haniyeh and Hamas, and one unity government headed by Hamdallah and dominated by Fatah.  

A year later, many questions remained unanswered, such as why Hamas agreed to the deal even though it seems to challenge their power, and why the split between Hamas and Fatah continues despite the deal.  

Aid and Egypt

A potential explanation for Hamas' participation in the unity government is the question of aid. Due to Hamas' designation as a terrorist organisation by a number of key international players, Western donors only wish to pass aid to Gaza through the PA, even though the West Bank government has little control on the ground in Gaza.

Understanding the issue of aid is crucial to understanding both the split between Hamas and Fatah, and their superficial attempts to reconcile, argues Alaa Tartir, program director at Al-Shabaka, a Palestinian policy network.

"Western and Gulf aid helped in entrenching, sustaining and subsidising the divide between Hamas and Fatah, which is harmful for the Palestinian people and their struggle for self-determination. It also created a cheap Palestinian internal divide," he said, while stressing that aid is only "one component" of the process that led to the deal, citing regime change in Egypt as another factor.   

"The lack of an 'honest broker' in Egypt is another reason that delays reconcilliation," an analyst on Palestinian affairs told al-Araby.

Egypt is yet another external actor who has no motive to encourage improvements in the Palestinian political sphere.

The Egyptian supreme court only recently overturned a court verdict that branded Hamas a "terrorist organization", and frequently blames attacks in Sinai on the group.  

However, Egypt does not enjoy especially strong ties with the PA either.

The Palestinian with whom they might have a particulary close relationship is the ex security chief in Gaza and strongman Mohammed Dahlan, who has been living in exile in the UAE after being accused of corruption by Mahmoud Abbas.  

Acting as an emissory for the UAE (key funders of the military-backed regime in Egypt) Abdul Fattah Sisi has far more to gain from a relationship with Dahlan than from dealing with either Hamas or the PA - official representatives of the Palestinian people.  

Youth movements in Gaza have recently emerged, calling for protests demanding reconciliation to facilitate the rebuilding of Gaza. One such protest in April was cleared by Hamas in a matter of minutes.

However, this wider context of aid and geopolitics is lost on some of these young Gazans, who want reconcilliation and blame Hamas for the delay in the reconstruction of Gaza and the stalling of the unity agreement.

"Reconstruction has stopped because Hamas still controls

     With the emergence of the authoritarian trends in the West Bank and Gaza, both Fatah and Hamas has little incentive to bridge the divide.
- Alaa Tartir, program director at Al-Shabaka

the borders in Gaza. I think that this issue will be fixed if Hamas gave the PA control over the borders," said Ahmed Lafi, 21, an activist calling for reconciliation.

The Times of Israel reported that the PA was withholding reconstruction funds from Gaza until it gains control over the Rafah crossing.

"Very little aid is reaching Gaza for reconstruction due to a number of reasons, including the failure of Fatah and Hamas to implement a genuine reconciliation agreement," Tartir explained.

He has little hope of having a genuine and representative "unity government", saying that it is their joint entrenchment of Palestinian fragmentation that truly unites the two parties.

"Within the current dynamics, and the emergence of the authoritarian trends in the West Bank and Gaza, both Fatah and Hamas have little incentive to bridge the divide," Tartir said.

The PA continues to crack down on Hamas members in the West Bank, with hundreds of them in PA jails. Recently, Human Rights Watch reported that 25 students were arrested in the wake of Hamas' success in the Beirzeit University elections in Ramallah.

On the other hand, Hamas in Gaza has also been documented harassing and imprisoning members of Fatah.

"For aid to reach Gaza effectively and not to be wasted, first and foremost there is a need to bridge the legitimacy gap between the people and the political leadership," Tartir said.

Disillusion and Dependency 

Yehia Mahmoud who has previously supported reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, like many, now feels disillusioned with this aim, as well as with the current unity government.  

He describes formulation of the unity deal last year as being "like theatre, it was just an act". This reflects many suspicions at the time that there was never a genuine attempt towards unity.

There have been numerous attempts to reconcile over the years [AFP]

Other Gazans told al-Araby al-Jadeed there remains much confusion of the aims and authority of the reconciliation government, and the results it is producing.

"I think both inside and outside the Gaza strip nothing is clear. Both Hamas and Fatah supporters are confused. People are only thinking about how to get their daily bread and reconstruct their home. No one cares otherwise," said Fadi al-Salah, a Gazan resident and former activist for reconciliation.

Mahmoud has expressed scepticism towards Palestinians who still demand reconciliation using nationalist rhetoric: "I think they are living the same romantic ideas we did before. The reason why we had those ideas is because we were ignorant as to why things are developing the way they are."

Many independent Palestinian activists and those living in the diaspora continue to criticise both Hamas and Fatah and view a reconciliation between two corrupt political parties as pointless.

Yet, the situation in Palestine is complex due to the continuing dependency on salaries and infrastructure that these organisations provide. 

Loyalties towards various Palestinian political parties also stem through local concerns, and can be developed according to families and neighbourhoods.  

"Hamas and Fatah are not just governments, they are people," Yehia said.

Most Palestinians in Gaza rely on salaries either from Hamas or Fatah, or employment or support from UNRWA – the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees. 

This not only cements longstanding loyalties to either factions that sometimes depend on this material reliance rather than ideology, but it has also made the salary dispute the centre of the crisis facing the reconciliation government.  

During the crisis between Hamas and Fatah in 2007, Fatah made all their employees in Gaza go on strike, hoping the crisis would force the conflict in their favour. However, Hamas had a ready and willing team of civil servants to take over, leaving many unemployed Fathawi Gazans.

Since then, the PA has been paying their 70,000 employees a few hundred dollars a month to keep their loyalties.

Following the reconciliation, the 40,000 civil servants on Hamas' books have had their salaries repeatedly delayed under the Hamdallah government, with Hamas and Fatah employees

coming to blows at banks in Gaza.  Qatar has stepped in

     Hamas and Fatah are not just governments, they are people

Yehia Mahmoud

several times to pay Hamas salaries in order to smooth over the crisis.

Splits within the split

Not only have there been salary disputes between the PA government and Hamas employees, but also between Fatah in the West Bank and their counter-parts in Gaza. In February this year, there were reports pay checks for certain Fatah security officers in Gaza had gone missing. 

This was reportedly because those security officers were loyal Mohammed Dahlan.

Dahlan continues to have a chunk of support from Gaza, and directly financially supports affiliates there.

His accessibility and indigenous links to his home of Gaza go some way to explaining his popularity there, despite allegations of collaboration with Israel, human rights abuses and corruption.

However, Fatah supporters in Gaza - even those who support Mahmoud Abbas - often complain of being ignored by the PA. This is indicative of a wider cultural split between the West Bank and Gaza, with Gazans often complaining of being "looked down on" by the West bank.

Additionally, Hamas is experiencing some splits within its own ranks, particularly between its 'political' and 'resistance' wings, with the former, represented by Khaled Meshaal reportedly supporting Qatar and the latter favouring the Iranian axis.

Tartir is also critical of the influence of non-Western donors on the Palestinian political sphere.

"The Fatah-Hamas split opened space for Turkey and Qatar to emerge as new donors," he said saying that they had a more "open and active agenda" than previous donors sending humanitarian aid to Palestine.

"But these new actors were unwilling to challenge either the existing aid framework or the Israeli occupation and siege, which is why they are failing," Tartir said.

Vicious circles

After the reconciliation deal last June, sources in Gaza also relay that many Hamas members were angry, not only due to salary disputes, but also to the leadership's apparently abandoning of Gaza to the PA.

This led to some young Hamas supporters saying that the party should return to an opposition party of resistance. 

Shortly after the unity deal, the Gaza war took place killing some 2,400 Palestinians.

It is worth mentioning that many of the Gazan resistance's demands during the war paralleled the unity government's aims: opening the Rafah crossing, and allowing free flow of traffic and aid across the borders.

However, both the political route of negotiations through the unity deal, and armed resistance in Gaza have failed to improve the health of both the internal Palestinian political and economic sphere, as well as Palestine's standing against its occupier, Israel. 

Therefore, the sixty-year old question remains: what is there to be done?

"There is a need to seriously reform the political structures," Tartir said. "Otherwise, we will keep moving in a vicious circle, and with each move in that circle, we as Palestinians will lose more on all fronts."