Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah resigned last month along with his unity government, dealing a setback to reconciliation efforts between rival Palestinian factions. Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, denounced the move as an attempt by Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, and his West Bank-based political party, Fatah, to further marginalize Hamas. A round of intra-Palestinian talks in Moscow ended last week without any further progress to bridge the divide. Our Current Affairs Unit now discusses the deepening Fatah-Hamas split and the internal politicking that is hampering efforts to resolve it.
The failure of Palestinian reconciliation has many causes. Ideologically, the two antagonists have irreconcilable platforms. Hamas is an Islamist organization that calls for the destruction of Israel and advocates terrorism, while Fatah, which controls the Palestinian Authority, is a secular movement calling for a negotiated two-state solution to the conflict with Israel. More practically, years of separation have created vested interests that are difficult to neutralize. In its decade of rule over Gaza since violently taking control of the territory in 2007, Hamas has appointed tens of thousands of civil servants, and it wants any new government to keep them on the payroll. Additionally, it has allocated some public lands in Gaza to its supporters, and it wants the Palestinian Authority to recognize these transfers.
The core question, however, is what to do with Hamas’ sizeable and well-armed military wing, which refuses to disarm, ostensibly because it wants to continue its campaign of violence against Israel. Fatah’s position is that an armed Hamas would render any reconciliation meaningless, since a new unity government would be saddled with the thankless responsibilities of governance while Hamas maintains the real power due to its armed capabilities, like Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Egypt, which sponsors Palestinian reconciliation talks, has proposed a gradual process in which the Palestinian Authority-backed government would be reinstated in Gaza as a first step toward addressing the practical issues of governance. The Palestinian Authority would be fully empowered to control border crossings, taxation and financial issues, while the two sides continue negotiations over the thornier issues of ideology and Hamas’ militias. Hamas has shown willingness to engage with these proposals since they keep its most valued assets—its weapons—intact. Fatah, however, has been adamant in refusing to deal with any issue until Hamas commits to disarm. Both sides are deeply entrenched in their positions and have proven immune to external pressure and to the overwhelming Palestinian public demand for reconciliation. Unless one side dramatically changes its stance, reconciliation does not seem possible in the foreseeable future. One of the issues complicating reconciliation is the ongoing contest within the Palestinian Authority over Abbas’ successor. The 84-year-old Abbas, who is also the head of Fatah and the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, has methodically prevented the emergence of clear front-runners in the succession battle, often by marginalizing any contenders who disagree with his policies.
This has had a direct impact on the Palestinian Authority’s policy toward Gaza in two ways. First, most Fatah leaders have declined to oppose Abbas’ stance on Gaza for fear that it would negatively affect their chances for a shot at the presidency. As a result, Abbas’ adamant refusal to compromise, and his insistence on continuing to impose economic sanctions on Gaza as a way to pressure Hamas, have gone unchallenged despite being deeply unpopular.
Second, this protracted succession process and the jockeying for position within Fatah has created a kind of political paralysis, whereby its leaders are unable to agree on who would lead a new government. They would prefer not to elevate one of their colleagues to such a position, because it would give that person an advantage in the succession battle. Thus, in the background of talks to establish a unity government, Fatah cannot even figure out who would replace Hamdallah as prime minister and head of its own government. Until the issue of succession is resolved, this paralysis within Fatah will continue to pose an obstacle for reconciliation.
Palestinians in Gaza are bearing the brunt of the rift. Israel, which sees Hamas as an enemy sworn to its destruction, has drastically limited the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza since Hamas took over the territory in 2007. Egypt, which sees Hamas as a national security threat due to its links to the Muslim Brotherhood and its collaboration with Islamic State elements in the Sinai, has also closed off its border with Gaza. Moreover, since Hamas is an internationally designated terrorist organization, the international community—which has traditionally contributed a significant portion of the Palestinian economy—refused to financially support a Hamas-led government in Gaza and has limited its contributions to basic humanitarian assistance.
This isolation has led to a sharp deterioration of economic and humanitarian conditions in Gaza. The World Bank estimates that overall unemployment is at 50 percent and youth unemployment is at a staggering 70 percent. These conditions have been exacerbated by the Palestinian Authority’s decision to impose sanctions on Gaza in order to pressure Hamas to accept its terms. These sanctions have included, for example, cutting payments for fuel to Gaza, resulting in electricity being rationed to four hours per day for residents of Gaza in 2018, before a temporary fix was found.
In addition to the humanitarian and economic impact, tensions between Israel and Hamas have flared up into three major rounds of hostilities since 2007, resulting in thousands of Palestinian fatalities and widespread destruction of Gaza’s infrastructure.
The division has also affected the Palestinian cause as a whole, as progress in peacemaking is difficult when one side can only speak for half of its people. It has also opened the door to foreign influences from elsewhere in the region, where Hamas is aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood-oriented camp of Turkey and Qatar while the Palestinian Authority is aligned with Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Perhaps most devastating, however, is the social impact of the Fatah-Hamas schism on Palestinians’ national cohesion. An entire generation of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have grown up separated from one another, influenced by negative stereotypes perpetuated by both Hamas and Fatah in their ceaseless effort to shift the blame against the other.
By Progress PalmSprings who is a senior researcher and fellow with the PalmSprings Institute of International Affairs, based in Johannesburg. He is also concurrently a TV Producer for a plethora of Current Affairs shows with a reach of 790 million viewers on LoveWorldSAT.