Why breaking the deadlock in Palestinian politics remains elusive

8 min read
West Bank
31 July, 2023

A meeting of Palestinian political factions in Egypt to mend internal political divisions concluded on Sunday with Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas announcing the formation of a joint committee on intra-Palestinian reconciliation.

"I hope that we can meet again on the brother soil of Egypt to announce to our people the end of the [Palestinian] division and the restoration of national unity," Abbas said.

"We must return to a single state, a single system, a single law and a single legitimate army," he added.

Earlier on Sunday, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh had urged Abbas to end security coordination with Israel and political arrests, while also calling for the "restructuring of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)" and democratic elections.

Three Palestinian groups - the PFLP-General Command, two Syrian-based 'Saiqa' organisations, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), a major player in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip - boycotted the talks.

"The meeting is another attempt to administrate the political division, not to end it"

Earlier last week, the PIJ announced that it would not attend the meeting unless the PA released all political detainees it continues to hold in custody, especially those belonging to the group.

On Tuesday night, the PA’s security forces arrested a senior leader of the Jenin Brigades, the Palestinian resistance group based in the northern city, who belonged to the PIJ.

Earlier in July, the PIJ accused the PA of breaking a deal reached with the Jenin Brigades by not releasing two of their PIJ members, despite the group guaranteeing calm in Jenin during the visit of Mahmoud Abbas to the city. The PIJ and the Jenin Brigades rallied Palestinians to protest against the PA’s detentions.

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The PA’s governor in Jenin, Akram Rujoub, denied that such a deal even existed, adding that the Palestinian president needs no permission from anyone to visit any part of the PA-controlled territory.

The meeting in Cairo between the Secretary Generals of Palestinian factions was organised by Egypt with the aim of breaching differences between Palestinian political camps.

On Wednesday, the PIJ Secretary General, Zyad Nakhaleh, said in an interview with the Egypt-based Arab satellite channel Al-Ghad that the meeting “will fail anyway”, pointing out that there is not enough common ground to reach any significant agreement.

Nakhaleh reaffirmed his group’s position of refusing to attend unless the PA releases all political detainees. He also revealed that Palestinian and Arab mediators had tried to reach a middle ground ahead of the meeting, stressing that “they presented nothing new that might change the current position”.

A Palestinian man helps an elderly woman to take cover as Fatah members clash with Hamas in Gaza City on 13 June 2007. [Getty]
Administrating Palestinian divisions

The meeting was the most recent of a series of attempts to overcome the Palestinian political rift that has dominated internal politics since the division between Fatah and Hamas following the latter’s takeover of Gaza in 2007.

Most Palestinian observers agreed that it would unlikely change the current status quo of Palestinian politics.

“The meeting is another attempt to administrate the political division, not to end it,” Hani Al-Masri, a leading Palestinian political analyst and director of the Ramallah-based Masarat think tank, told The New Arab.

“Both sides of the equation, namely Fatah and Hamas, refuse to give up their political gains,” he said.

"This is an example of both sides trying to maintain and capitalise on political gains, while knowing that there is no visible scope to end the political division"

“For Hamas, running the Gaza Strip is a major gain, and it seeks to keep its influence there at least, while for Fatah, the survival of the PA depends on its control of the security situation, in opposition to the line of resistance against the occupation,” Al-Masri explained.

Neither party are necessarily comfortable with the status quo, the analyst said, as the blockade of Gaza creates pressure for Hamas while Fatah knows that its political policy of negotiations has no horizon in light of a far-right Israeli government that rejects a Palestinian state and insists on expanding settlements.

“This means that there needs to be a political compromise to build a new national strategy, and the crisis of detainees between the PIJ and the PA shows that there is no common ground to create such a unified strategy,” he added.

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Splitting political shares

For Ubai al-Aboudi, a civil society activist and director of the Bisan research centre in Ramallah, who was previously detained by the PA, “the only way to end this deadlock is to hold national elections, for which the PA is not ready”.

In May of 2021, Palestinians were scheduled to vote for the first time in 15 years to elect a new president and a new legislative council for the PA. The Palestinian president called off elections one month prior, announcing that no elections will be held unless Israel allows Palestinians in Jerusalem to vote freely.

“Both sides of the decision know that there is no scope currently to overcome the division, but they need to agree on the arrangement of other interests while the division is still in place, like the Israeli facilitation of goods to the besieged Gaza Strip and the distribution of the Palestinian share of Gaza's natural gas,” Aboudi told TNA.

In June, the Israeli government announced its readiness to arrange with the PA the exploration of natural gas from the Gaza Marine field, situated in Palestinian waters near the coast of Gaza, through Egyptian mediation and guarantees.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas makes a speech during a meeting of Palestinian groups' general secretaries in El Alamein, Egypt on 30 July 2023. [Getty]

At the same time, Israeli media reported the beginning of negotiations between the PA and Israel through Egyptian mediation to arrange the exploration of the Gaza Marine field.

Hamas, for its part, announced that the only Palestinian side that has the right to make a deal on Palestinian natural resources is a democratically elected Palestinian government, threatening to sabotage the negotiations.

Later, Hamas agreed to the development of the Gaza Marine field, in return for receiving a share of the revenues. Meanwhile, the PA denied reaching any agreement with Israel on the subject.

“This is an example of both sides trying to maintain and capitalise on political gains, while knowing that there is no visible scope to end the political division,” said Aboudi.

"The frustration of the Palestinian street is symptomatic of a dying Palestinian political system"

Social pressure and political frustration

“The Palestinian public opinion is increasingly frustrated with the lack of unified policy, while Israeli raids and settler violence continues, which explains the re-emergence of armed resistance in the West Bank,” Aboudi pointed out.

With Hamas caught between a resistance discourse and the political game, and the PA continuing to depend on opposing resistance and maintaining stability for its survival, together with the absence of elections, political and social pressures are increasing.

"[It is] heading towards a possible explosion," Aboudi said.

In June 2021, a wave of Palestinian protests swept across the occupied West Bank after the death of Palestinian political dissident Nizar Banat during his arrest by Palestinian security forces.

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Later in 2022, Palestinian lawyers protested against law-by-decree amendments to the judicial procedures law introduced by President Abbas. Also in 2022 and later in 2023, Palestinian public teachers staged several months-long general strikes in the West Bank, described as the largest social movement in Palestine in years.

According to a poll published last June by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 69% want general Palestinian presidential and legislative elections, although 67% said don’t believe that they would happen.

The poll also showed that 38% of Palestinians think that the most pressing problem confronting them is the Israeli occupation, while 22% said it is corruption, and 13% said it is the split between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. An overwhelming 71% supported armed resistance groups and 86% opposed the arrest of its members by the Palestinian security forces.

“The frustration of the Palestinian street is symptomatic of a dying Palestinian political system,” Omar Assaf, a civil society activist and leading member of the grassroots ‘Popular Conference’, which is calling for Palestinian national elections, told TNA.

Jewish Israeli settlers in Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood
Israeli settlers in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem in 2021. [Getty]
The status quo and a new political reality

“The Palestinian factions who are part of the political division and continue to hold on to their individual gains are part of the problem, not the solution,” Assaf said. “This is why, despite all previous meetings and signed accords between them, the general status quo hasn’t changed, and this new meeting will not be different,” he noted.

“Both sides of the equation, the PA and Hamas represent this system, which is increasingly separated from the pulse of the Palestinian street, which expresses itself in many ways,” said Assaf.

“The emergence of armed resistance groups, many times surpassing factional affiliations, and at the same time the increasing social pressure reflected in protests, strikes, and civil mobilisation, are all indications that a new internal Palestinian reality is making its way into existence”.

This new reality could overcome old divisions, notably the geographical fragmentation of the Palestinian people, and unite all Palestinians across historic Palestine and the diaspora, as reflected by the 'unity Intifada' of 2021, Assaf said. 

In May 2021, Palestinian protests against Israeli attempts to expel Palestinian families from the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, and against Israeli police raids on Al-Aqsa mosque evolved into a full-scale uprising lasting several weeks.

Palestinians in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Palestinian communities in Israel took part in protests and confrontations with Israeli forces and settlers, while Palestinian groups in Gaza engaged in an 11-day-long military escalation with Israel.

The uprising culminated on 18 May, with a Palestinian general strike observed in all of Israel and the Palestinian territories, for the first time in decades.

“However, this new political reality needs time to become a concrete project,” he said. “In the meanwhile, the status quo will continue, maybe with some minor changes."

Qassam Muaddi is The New Arab's West Bank reporter, covering political and social developments in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Follow him on Twitter: @QassaMMuaddi