Abbas aligns himself with Hamas in tactical move

President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah proposes reworked ceasefire plan

US Secretary of State John Kerry meets Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in  Ramallah. Israeli forces pounded Gaza on Wednesday, meeting stiff resistance from Hamas Islamists and sending thousands of residents fleeing, as US Secretary of State John Kerry said on a visit to Israel ceasefire talks had made some progress. Photograph: Charles Dharapak/Reuters

US Secretary of State John Kerry meets Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. Israeli forces pounded Gaza on Wednesday, meeting stiff resistance from Hamas Islamists and sending thousands of residents fleeing, as US Secretary of State John Kerry said on a visit to Israel ceasefire talks had made some progress. Photograph: Charles Dharapak/Reuters

Thu, Jul 24, 2014, 01:00

As diplomatic shuttling intensified yesterday in an effort to secure a ceasefire to end the two-week conflict in Gaza, there was a public closing of ranks between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas on conditions for a truce.

The move by the Palestinian leadership under president Mahmoud Abbas to align itself with conditions set down by Hamas was widely seen as a response to Palestinian public opinion, but it could put Abbas in a more central position in the diplomatic push to end the war.

After an emergency meeting chaired by Abbas in Ramallah, the Palestinian leadership issued a statement saying it praised “the resolute stand of the great Palestinian people and the forces of resistance that are fighting heroically against the occupying army that is committing crimes and slaughtering our compatriots”.

The statement also called for a general PLO meeting to be held in Cairo, attended by all Palestinian factions.

Abbas, who has met the leaders of Egypt, Qatar and Turkey in recent days, yesterday received US secretary of state John Kerry, who said afterwards there had been “some steps forward” in the attempt to broker a ceasefire but that there was still work to be done.

Hamas last week baulked at an Egyptian ceasefire proposal, which would have involved an immediate cessation followed by talks on a settlement.

The militant group, which dominates the Gaza strip, said it had not been consulted about the proposal and insisted it would agree to a truce only if the siege of Gaza was lifted and prisoners were released.

Palestinian people

Yesterday in Ramallah, the West Bank base of Abbas’s Fatah faction, a senior official described Hamas’s demands as “the demands of the Palestinian people.”

With Hamas in the spotlight and protests taking place across the West Bank against the Israeli military assault in Gaza, Abbas has appeared sidelined since the conflict began.

According to Mahdi Abdul Hadi, the founder of Passia, a Jerusalem-based think-tank on international affairs, the shift in his rhetoric is rooted on domestic politics – specifically, a need to reflect public anger and retain credibility when faced with popular fury over the steeply-rising civilian death toll in Gaza. “His remarks totally backed the thesis of the resistance movement, unlike a speech last week when he was very critical of Hamas,” Hadi says. “Now he’s endorsing the resistance agenda. He is seeking to demonstrate his legitimacy as a leader.”

The shift could also benefit the ongoing diplomatic effort. Because Washington, like Israel and the European Union, classifies Hamas as a terrorist group, they have no direct contact and Washington must rely on proxies such as Egypt, Qatar and Turkey.

Mutual distrust

However, the talks have been hampered by the mutual distrust between Hamas and Egypt under president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, whose coming to power, after a coup that toppled Hamas ally Mohammed Morsi, was followed by the closure of the Gaza-Egypt border.

That severely curtailed the flow of goods into the enclave and reduced Hamas’s income from import taxes. Turkey and Qatar have open lines of communication with Hamas and UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon included a stop-over in Qatar on the itinerary for his visit to the region this week.

But Israel is openly opposed to giving Qatar or Turkey leading roles in mediation, given its troubled ties with those countries.

That leaves Abbas as one of the few potential interlocutors for a truce. Unlike Hamas, the PLO has pursued the peace process for two decades. Its efforts were set back in April when Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu called off US-sponsored peace negotiations over Abbas’s surprise power-share deal with Hamas.

Yet communication channels remain open between Netanyahu and Abbas. This trust in Abbas could be critical; one of the suggestions that has emerged from the talks, for example, is that the Gaza-Egypt border restrictions could be eased on condition that the Gazan side of the border was run by Fatah, not Hamas.

In a sign that Ramallah was trying to take the initiative, Fatah yesterday proposed a re-worked version of the ill-fated Egyptian plan, centring on a cessation followed by five days of negotiations on terms.