Israel Pulse

Hamas, Fatah ignore elephant in the room, for now

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Article Summary
Egypt believes that building trust between Hamas and Fatah should precede clarifying the remaining difficult issues between them, such as what to do about Hamas’ military wing.

Only two days were needed for Fatah and Hamas to agree to a framework for reconciliation and turn over a new leaf. According to the agreement reached in Cairo on Oct. 12, administrative authorities will be transferred to the Palestinian Authority (PA); Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ people will oversee the crossings between Gaza and Israel; the Palestinian Presidential Guard will be posted at the Rafah crossing at the Egypt-Gaza border and European agents will ensure weapons are not smuggled into Gaza. 

In 48 hours, the two sides appear to have succeeded in skipping over all of the obstacles and bridging all of the rifts, after agreeing not to discuss the most essential issue, the root of the problem, the main difference that has stood between them for more than 10 years: control over Hamas' military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades.

In fact, Fatah and Hamas agreed on all the points over which they had no disagreement. For instance, control over the crossings between the Gaza Strip and Israel. To allow the Erez and Kerem Shalom crossings to operate, PA personnel had remained there even after Hamas' military revolt in Gaza in 2007, playing the same role they held before the rebellion. They remained there even after Abbas decided to cut PA assistance to Gaza earlier this year. 

As for the Rafah crossing, deploying the Presidential Guard there, supervised by European agents, is an unequivocal demand from Egypt. Lacking this arrangement, the Egyptians would not have allowed the opening of the crossing, which has become the territory’s oxygen supply. Even a significant hurdle such as dissolving the administrative council Hamas established in Gaza was removed a month ago, on Sept. 11, on the eve of Hamas’ announcement of its desire for reconciliation.

Thus the reconciliation agreement offers nothing new, aside from Hamas' and Fatah's agreeing that they need to reconcile, whether to please Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi or because they had a clear sense that that is what the people wanted — reconciliation now. 

The need to establish a mechanism to integrate Hamas officials into the PA administration delayed by a couple of hours the declaration that the two sides had reached a reconciliation agreement. It was also decided that a joint committee will work on establishing a joint policing and intelligence operation. 

An Egyptian proposal according to which a national security council would be established where Fatah, Hamas and Egyptian representatives would work together, as was reported in Al-Monitor, is what paved the way for all of the agreements, including the recognition that there are major differences that remain to be resolved. The question of control over Hamas’ security apparatus cannot be resolved at this point in time. Hamas claims that the Qassam Brigades are a weapon of the resistance, and if Hamas agrees to dismantle the outfit, it would mean losing not only an operational but also an ideological resource. Meanwhile, Abbas is not prepared to agree that after a reconciliation trial period, Hamas would still retain a military that obeys its orders like Hezbollah's military force in Lebanon.

A senior Palestinian source who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity said the Egyptians backed up Hamas’ claim that as long as the occupation continues, it will not be forced to demilitarize. Thus it was agreed, in line with Abbas’ demand, that Hamas would commit not to initiate any acts of aggression against Israel either from Gaza or the West Bank. The question, however, is what constitutes an act of aggression? Is building tunnels on the border with Israel an act of aggression? At least as far as Israel is concerned, digging tunnels next to the border or underneath Israeli towns inside the Green Line is an unequivocal act of aggression. 

The Egyptians’ working assumption is that building trust between the sides should precede resolution of the difficult issues. That is, realizing the reconciliation by establishing a unity government and a joint policing apparatus on Nov. 1 will lead, in the Egyptians’ estimate, to dismantling the walls of animosity, leading to discussions of the points of disagreement and ultimately to the stage of compromise. 

An Israeli security source told Al-Monitor that the understandings reached were cobbled together with rough stiches that could break at any moment. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the source said that as long as routine life continues, the reconciliation could work. He added, however, “But what would happen if the American delegation presents [President Donald] Trump’s plans for resolving the conflict, and Abbas finds himself in negotiations with Israel? Would Hamas back him up? Would it not back away from the whole package?”

“Building trust,” said the source, “could happen when there is a common goal, but not when there is disagreement in principle. Hamas’ method is to build a military force as a balance of deterrence and resistance to Israel, while Abbas believes in diplomacy and sees it as effective. Abbas is known to see the establishment of a Palestinian state within the ’67 borders with border adjustment as a goal. Hamas, despite the changes to its charter initiated by the outgoing head of the political bureau, Khaled Meshaal, left the ’67 borders as a hazy issue, and it is doubtful whether Ismail Haniyeh, [Meshaal's successor] who is controlled by the military wing, would ever be ready to declare that he would give up the ‘Waqf land’ [lands considered sacred heritage].”

“We’re building trust now,” the Palestinian source told Al-Monitor, “and letting time do its work.” According to him, Hamas is interested in reconciliation, but how much it will be willing to compromise is a question that can only be answered with the passage of time. 

Shlomi Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, reporting on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work. On Twitter: @shlomieldar

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