April 28, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Sound and Fury: Fatah and Hamas Reconciliation

 The announced reconciliation efforts between Fatah and Hamas are fraught with significant challenges that make it difficult for the two factions to actually implement any substantive agreement

• To truly reconcile with Fatah and form an internationally accepted negotiating partner, Hamas will have to publicly and unambiguously support Israel’s right to exist and, in effect, abandon its raison d’être

• Hamas already faces unprecedented challenges stemming from its loss of support and patronage from Syria, Iran, and now the Muslim Brotherhood due to Egypt’s crackdown, as well as a more assertive violent rival in the Palestinian Islamic Jihad

• The Palestinian Authority is facing intense financial pressures with the loss of Israel border crossing revenue and the expected loss of US financial support, further complicating efforts at unification and stability.

The recent announcement that perennial rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas would again seek a meaningful reconciliation was greeted with a trio of reactions, ranging from strong disapproval, deep skepticism, and cautious optimism:

Israel and the US strongly disapprove because of Hamas’ rejection of Israel’s right to exist and its refusal to pursue non-violent means of opposition.

Most interested parties expressed deep skepticism, both because this is the fourth agreement (after previous deals signed in Mecca, Doha, and Cairo) aimed at resolving the seven-year split and because of the many unresolved issues still separating them.

The European Union and supporters of both factions expressed cautious optimism that, indeed, this time could be different: that recent changes, such as Hamas’ lack of any meaningful regional support, increased pressure from post-Morsi Egypt, and Fatah’s lack of progress in negotiations with Israel have created an opportunity to form the ever-illusive unity government.


Political Divisions and Unification Hurdles

For seven years, Palestinian governance has been in a geographic-ideological split between the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA), which governs the 1.8 million Palestinians in the West Bank, and Hamas which governs the 2.7 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. For as many years, Palestinian officials have tried to reconcile the two factions, implementing none of the three agreements signed. The factional split and dramatic off-and-on-again reconciliation attempts are “full of sound and fury,” with little to show for the years of division and significant hurdles yet to overcome.

Internal politics have certainly complicated these efforts, with fierce fighting and rhetoric creating years of bad blood between the two. That said, a significant stumbling block towards reconciliation and then unified negotiation with Israel has been the requirement for Hamas to unambiguously—and without dual-language slight of hand—support and sign onto the 1993 Oslo I Accord. Oslo I calls for a two-state solution that recognizes Israel’s right to exist and the renunciation of terrorism and violence as a means of opposition. In effect, Hamas would have to cease being Hamas, since its raison d’être is the elimination of Israel through armed opposition. For its part, Fatah would have to restructure its security apparatus, which works relatively well with Israeli forces in the West Bank, since it is unlikely the same level of coordination would continue with Hamas in the mix. The security risks would increase while their ability to control the risks would decrease.

The question of why now, in terms of this latest reconciliation effort, is best answered by looking at Hamas and Fatah separately.

For Hamas, the answer is clearer, in that the group is under unprecedented pressures, finding itself without a state sponsor or haven. The group’s decision to abandon its leadership-in-exile sanctuary in Syria and denounce the Assad regime has left it hunkered down in Gaza, and with diminished support from Iran as well. To make matters much worse, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have moved aggressively against Hamas’ primary champion, the Muslim Brotherhood, cutting off badly needed support and border crossings from Gaza. For Hamas, reconciliation is a lifeline of sorts, if it manages to receive some support from the PA while hedging on accepting Oslo I.

For Fatah, the timing for the reconciliation move is less clear but still discernible. The complete lack of progress in the peace talks for almost a decade appears to have led Abbas to calculate that he needs to change the equation in some fashion to change the outcome. His intra-party fighting with rival Mohammed Dahlan is also likely a factor encouraging a new approach supported internally but rejected externally. The move, however popular domestically, will cost the PA financially. Israel has suspended payment of border tariffs and tolls, depriving the West Bank of an estimated $120 million a month, nearly 80% of its operating budget. Also presenting significant fiscal damage will be the $440 million of US 2014 support funding that will be withheld if reconciliation with Hamas proceeds.

Whether the fourth time is a charm in terms of actually implementing the signed agreement remains to be seen. The pact stipulates that the newly unified PA form a unity government of technocrats (not party hacks, in theory) and hold parliamentary and presidential elections within six months. The hurdles for Hamas’ becoming something other than an armed resistance party, of restructuring a security apparatus that depends on effective coordination with Israel, of implementing an unpopular financial austerity plan to counterbalance the loss of revenue, and forming an effective government are collectively—and each, individually—exceedingly difficult. These challenges suggest the sound and fury of this latest reconciliation might signify less than the expectations of the two factions.



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