Unity agreement between Fatah and Hamas a major shift for Palestine

Fundamentalist groups to join PLO and Palestine National Council

President Mahmoud Abbas: succession  issue has led to infighting. Photograph:  Mussa Qawasma/Reuters

President Mahmoud Abbas: succession issue has led to infighting. Photograph: Mussa Qawasma/Reuters

 

An agreement between rival groups Fatah and Hamas to form a unity government amounts to a major shift in Palestinian politics. As part of the deal, brokered by Russia, Palestinian institutions are to be expanded to include Hamas and another fundamentalist organisation, Islamic Jihad, both of which will join the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the Palestine National Council. The PLO has been the preserve of secular factions since its founding in 1964.

The December UN resolution calling for a halt to Israeli settlements and declaring them illegal, and the election of unpredictable Donald Trump to the US presidency, has given urgency to the quest for unity.

A newly elected council – to contain Palestinians from the diaspora as well as from the occupied territories – will select the PLO’s executive committee, the top Palestinian body. A deal has been on the Palestinian agenda since Hamas won the Palestinian legislative election in 2006, but Fatah and Hamas have repeatedly failed to agree on the package.

Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, leaving the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in control only of the West Bank.

Due to divisions within Fatah, the national council has not met since 1996. To achieve the agreement with Hamas, Fatah also had to end infighting over who should succeed octogenarian president Mahmoud Abbas. Former Gaza strongman Mohammed Dahlan has renounced his challenge and pledged to back intifada leader Marwan Barghout, who is imprisoned in Israel.

Russian mediation

Moscow’s mediation has boosted Russia’s role in the Middle East ahead of talks on reinforcing the December 30th ceasefire between the Syrian government and insurgent factions, which are set to open in the Kazakh capital, Astana, on Monday.

Palestinian leaders need to close ranks at a time when their people are facing unprecedented challenges. The Palestinian cause, which once solidified the Arab front against Israel, has been marginalised since the Arab Spring in 2011, followed by the eruption of warfare in Syria, Libya and Yemen and the harsh clampdown on political activity in Egypt.

Israeli settlements and closed military areas have continued to occupy land that Palestinians demand for their state, while the international community has called, ineffectually, for implementation of a “two-state” solution involving the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Both Hamas and the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority, based in Ramallah, have lost the support of their constituencies. Since Mr Abbas has been unable to secure a Palestinian state by peaceful means, Palestinian youths have begun attacking Israelis with knives and vehicles, igniting a sporadic “lone wolf” or “knife intifada” uprising in October 2015.

Hamas has failed to deliver food, fuel, security and clean governance to the coastal Gaza Strip. Gazans have recently demonstrated against Hamas over electricity being rationed to four hours a day due to lack of fuel for the power plant.

Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank are squeezed by Israeli “restrictions on the movement of people and goods; systematic destruction of the productive base; losses of land, water and natural resources”, the UN Conference on Trade and Development reported last September. “Occupation imposed a heavy cost on the economy of the occupied Palestinian territory, which might otherwise reach twice its current size.”