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With second meeting in June, China finds opportunity in Hamas-Fatah talks

China is increasingly seeing Hamas as a legitimate political force in the political process on Palestine’s future and statehood, refusing to condemn or describe the group as a terrorist organization.
Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas shakes hands with China's President Xi Jinping after a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on June 14, 2023. (Photo by Jade GAO / POOL / AFP) (Photo by JADE GAO/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

In late April, the meeting between Hamas and Fatah hosted in Beijing garnered a great deal of attention from the international community. The prospects of internal reconciliation of the Palestine factions after more than a 17-year split may not offer an immediate solution to the Gaza crisis, but Beijing sees the unity and capacity of Palestine as an indispensable condition for the long-term success of achieving a Palestinian state. 

Even before the Gaza crisis, China’s view of Hamas and Fatah has differed. On the one hand, China is increasingly seeing Hamas as a legitimate political force in Palestine’s future and statehood. Refusing to condemn Hamas or describe it as a terrorist organization, the Chinese have used UN General Assembly Resolution 3070 to justify its determination. According to the director general from the Department of Treaty and International Law at the Chinese Foreign Ministry, that resolution “reaffirms the legitimacy of the peoples’ struggle for liberation from colonial and foreign domination and alien subjugation by all available means, including armed struggle.” This, in China's view, could be interpreted as a legal justification for the Palestinians in combating the Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. 

The Gaza crisis more broadly reaffirmed to China Hamas’ presence, influence and popular support as a political entity, leading to their conclusion that Hamas cannot be excluded from the political process. This led, before the Fatah-Hamas meeting in China last month, to a rare publicized meeting in March between a senior Chinese official and a Hamas official in Doha.

An evolved view of Hamas

On the other hand, China’s view of Fatah has not improved in the last two decades. Since the death of Yasser Arafat in 2004, Fatah’s reputation has continuously declined in China, especially over the lack of effectiveness in its governance record, its relationship with Israel, and its corruption and internal politics. Chinese analysts such as Niu Xinchun, who recently wrote in a commentary on Guangming Daily, argue that the strength of Fatah lies in its international recognition. but that’s about it.

When the Chinese look at the Palestinians' struggle, they cannot help but recall China’s own experience that led to its victory during China’s own revolution, especially its armed struggle and cooperation with the nationalist party during the anti-Japanese war from 1937 to 1945. During these eight years, China was invaded by Japan, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was the minority opposition party vis-a-vis a much stronger Kuomintang(nationalist) government supported by the United StatesThe CCP is a firm believer in armed struggle, and the political approach taken by Fatah is seen as one of the reasons for the Israeli expansion in the West Bank. At the same time, China also sees the Palestine issue through the lens of a much-needed united front strategy because of CCP’s own experience with building “a broadest political coalition that could represent the majority of the people.” Such a united front in Palestine presumably will maximize the voice of the Palestinian political forces as well as represent the most legitimate negotiation authority from a Palestinian government. China first recognized and established diplomatic relations with the Palestinian Authority in 1988. In 1995, China set up its liaison office in Gaza, which was moved to Ramallah in 2004. In 2023, China and Palestine established a strategic partnership.

Tempered expectations

Reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah will strengthen the legitimacy and popular support for the Palestinian movement. It may also strengthen Fatah and bring some moderation to the Islamist group Hamas. More importantly, their reconciliation will unify the voices within the Palestinians and present a “united front” to counter the Israeli attacks.

Beijing has tempered its expectations enough to note that China is not the first to make the attempt to bring Hamas and Fatah together. In fact, a similar meeting was held in Moscow this past February to discuss the formation of a unified Palestinian government and the reconstruction of Gaza. There was no miracle from Moscow, but the Chinese are taking a long-term approach to address the internal weaknesses of the Palestinian movement. The impact over the Gaza crisis may be limited for the time being, but in China’s view, building up the capacity, internal coherence and cohesiveness for a strong, unified Palestinian movement will eventually strengthen Palestine’s ability and therefore its chance to have a more balanced relationship with Israel and to achieve statehood.

China is laying the groundwork for the future landscape of the Israel-Palestine issue. The effort to promote Hamas-Fatah reconciliation will also gain China more positive reception among the Muslim countries. Beijing has announced the next round of meetings between Hamas and Fatah will take place in Beijing in mid-June. This potentially will be the next key area China will try to score in the Middle East peace domain.