BEIRUT

Middle East

Palestinian unity fragile, circumstantial

Abbas, Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal arrive for a meeting in Doha. Reuters

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: While they may be united in negotiations over a Gaza truce with Israel, rival Palestinian movements have not set aside historic disagreements which threaten to shatter their fragile alliance, experts say.As Israel has pursued its offensive in the Gaza Strip, delegates from Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Palestine Liberation Organization have faced their opponents as one at talks in Cairo, albeit indirectly through Egyptian mediators.

Until recently, such a situation would have been unthinkable.

Since 2007, two Palestinian governments existed in parallel – Hamas in Gaza and the PLO-run Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, West Bank.

Then in April, the PLO – internationally recognized as the sole representative of the Palestinian people – signed a reconciliation agreement with Hamas and formed a national unity government composed of independent technocrats.

But according to Leila Seurat, a researcher at the Paris-based Center for International Studies and Research, “the sacred union on display in Cairo is largely fictitious” – and could easily disintegrate.

This “new form of partnership is circumstantial,” Seurat said.

“ Hamas and Islamic Jihad are behind the demands presented in Cairo. President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah Party just followed suit.”

Even the makeup of the negotiating teams suggested not all was rosy between the different factions.

Xavier Guignard, a researcher at the French Institute for the Near East (IFPO), noted the significance in Azzam al-Ahmad leading the Palestinian delegation at the truce talks, describing him as a “very political member” of Fatah, the dominant faction in the PLO.

Ahmad embodies “the old-school Fatah sentiment against Islamists” such as Hamas, which is closely linked to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Guignard said.

“His selection is a message to the Hamas negotiators that Fatah will not leave them alone.”

Hamas and Islamic Jihad, both of whom have seen a rise in popularity during the war that began July 8, are united in their demand that Israel lift its Gaza blockade, but remain “first and foremost competing factions.”

“ Hamas was created in a rush in 1987 as a response to the growing popularity of the Islamic Jihad,” Guignard said.

Islamic Jihad has consistently caused its rival trouble, firing rockets into Israel when Hamas was trying to stick to a cease-fire.

But now “ Hamas is very isolated, it needs partners,” Seurat said.

That is why, since the current conflict began, Hamas and Islamic Jihad have joined forces to fight Israeli troops and cooperated “at the highest political level” in Cairo, said Hasan Abdou, an analyst in Gaza.

Hamas appears determined not to let its temporary allies gain the upper hand, however, especially given the possibility of a return of PA rule in Gaza, which has been under Hamas control since the group won elections in the territory in 2006.

Before the Cairo negotiations fell apart, talks were leading toward allowing PA security forces to administer delivery of goods through crossings linking Gaza to Egypt and Israel. But “ Hamas would not totally lose control,” Seurat predicted.

PA border control, however, could jeopardize the delivery of money to Gaza from abroad – which arrives largely in cash – to pay the salaries of more than 40,000 civil servants in the coastal territory.

Persistent points of contention – first and foremost over money – make experts confident that general elections scheduled under the reconciliation deal will not take place within six months as the signatories had pledged.

“ Fatah seems to take every opportunity to settle scores with Hamas,” said Guignard, who noted that “the same day that reconciliation was signed, media reported the arrest of Hamas militants in Ramallah.”

Palestinian unity is being challenged not only by internal divisions but also by Israel.

Israel recently announced it had uncovered preparations for a Hamas “coup” against the PA, saying it had arrested 93 Hamas members in the occupied West Bank, and seized money and arms.

Abbas said he needed to examine the reports, and Hamas has not commented on them.

According to Adnan al-Damiri, spokesman of PA security services which cooperates with Israel, “the timing of the announcement by the Israelis is suspicious. They arrested these people in May and are announcing it now? It is an attempt to sabotage Palestinian unity.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 25, 2014, on page 9.

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Summary

Israel has pursued its offensive in the Gaza Strip, delegates from Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Palestine Liberation Organization have faced their opponents as one at talks in Cairo, albeit indirectly through Egyptian mediators.

Then in April, the PLO – internationally recognized as the sole representative of the Palestinian people – signed a reconciliation agreement with Hamas and formed a national unity government composed of independent technocrats.

Islamic Jihad has consistently caused its rival trouble, firing rockets into Israel when Hamas was trying to stick to a cease-fire.

That is why, since the current conflict began, Hamas and Islamic Jihad have joined forces to fight Israeli troops and cooperated "at the highest political level" in Cairo, said Hasan Abdou, an analyst in Gaza.

Palestinian unity is being challenged not only by internal divisions but also by Israel.

Abbas said he needed to examine the reports, and Hamas has not commented on them.


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