Yesterday, Ismail Haniyah announced the suspension of talks on a unity government in Palestine. Khalid Amayreh, in the West Bank, reports on earlier talks between Fatah and Hamas
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Clockwise from top left: A seriously injured Palestinian boy is carried into the hospital in Beit Lahiya; a man attends to the bodies of a Palestinian mother and her two children at a morgue after they were killed by a missile from an Israeli tank shell; a Palestinian man weeps after losing 13 members of his extended family, including his sons, in an Israeli shelling; a Palestinian woman reacts after her house was hit by a missile from an Israeli tank at Beit Hanoun
Before the Beit Hanoun massacre Hamas and Fatah appeared close to reaching an agreement on the formation of a government of national unity. The unity government was expected to include many "technocrats" who are unaffiliated with either Hamas or Fatah.
According to the draft agreement, the central aim of this new government will be the lifting of the draconian Western sanctions imposed by the United States, EU and Israel on the Palestinian Authority (PA) enclaves following Hamas's election victory early this year.
The sanctions have effectively crippled the Palestinian economy, impoverished Palestinians as never before and pushed tens of thousands of Palestinian families to the brink of starvation.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyah met for two hours Monday night (6 November) in an effort to put the final touches on the draft agreement. However, the meeting ended indecisively after Abbas rejected Hamas's choice for prime minister.
Hamas proposed current Health Minister Basem Naim, a medical doctor, who is associated but not affiliated with Hamas, as the next prime minister. Rejecting this choice, Abbas insisted that the next prime minister ought to be truly independent.
However, according to lawmaker Mustafa Barghouti, who attended the meeting, the two sides seemed confident that an agreement in this regard would be reached soon.
Fatah had earlier demanded that the next premier would have to come from the West Bank, but Hamas, it is said, was able to convince Fatah that at this juncture of the struggle for statehood, there was no point in having a prime minister from the West Bank who could be arrested or abducted by the Israeli occupation army on the first day he sits in his office, if only to humiliate the Palestinians and show them that Israel was still the enslaver and boss.
There are two more issues seemingly impeding the conclusion of an agreement between the two sides. The first being Hamas's insistence that Abbas obtain from the US and EU a commitment to lift the sanctions once the new government is formed.
But, for many obvious reasons, Abbas cannot force Western powers to undertake such a commitment, at least for the time being. However, it is possible that he can eventually get a pledge of some sort from the Americans and Europeans to put pressure on Israel to release hundreds of millions of dollars of Palestinian customs revenue levied by Israel but withheld as a punishment measure against the Palestinians for electing the Hamas movement. Abbas might also be able to get the US to send a signal to some Arab states that they can resume financial aid to the cash-strapped PA.
The second obstacle to concluding a deal between Fatah and Hamas is the latter's demand that a prisoner exchange between Israel and the Palestinians take place before the formation of the unity government. Abbas, however, argued convincingly that he had no authority over the Israelis and that in any case Palestinian national interests shouldn't be held hostage to Israeli whims.
According to insiders in both Fatah and Hamas, these two issues are likely to be settled soon, something that boosts hopes that a final breakthrough is within reach. The turnabout in Abbas's approach to Hamas has left observers wondering what made him abandon his former threats to dissolve the Hamas-led government and parliament, declare a government of emergency and call for early general elections.
Some observers here cite the latest Israeli rampage of murder and terror in northern Gaza, which resulted in the death of over 60 Palestinians -- the vast bulk of them innocent civilians -- and the maiming and wounding of dozens others, as a central factor that strongly militated against any contemplated steps by Abbas against Hamas.
Indeed, a coup by Abbas and Fatah against Hamas under such circumstances would have portrayed Abbas and his Fatah Party as collaborators with Israel, not only against Hamas, but against the Palestinian people and its just cause. And this would have proven a political suicide for the former ruling party of the PA.
Another factor in Abbas's turn around may be due to rumours that he had received a message from the Bush administration informing him that the US wouldn't actively oppose the formation of a government of technocrats as long as such a government agreed to renounce armed struggle, recognise Israel and accept outstanding international agreements pertaining to the Israeli- Palestinian struggle. Interestingly, the draft agreement between Hamas and Fatah doesn't explicitly stipulate the recognition of Israel but supports the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, which could be construed as a tacit recognition of Israel.
On Monday, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was quoted as saying that the US would rather see Hamas "inside" than "outside" the government. British Prime Minister Tony Blair made similar statements, saying that Britain would talk to Hamas if it accepted the conditions set up by the international community.
Thus, it is possible to assume that the US may have changed its own position vis-à-vis Hamas. Its erstwhile policy has been vindictive at best, aimed at isolating the movement and inducing popular revolt against its government in Gaza. Now perhaps, the US may be reconsidering its policy, having realised that all the economic, financial and street pressure failed to unseat Hamas or undermine its popularity.
There is a final important factor which may have prompted Abbas and Fatah to seek a compromise with Hamas. This lies in the presumption that in any new elections in the occupied Palestinian territories, Fatah has no guarantee that it won't lose again to Hamas, despite the growing poverty and the social-economic crisis facing the Palestinians. This view is corroborated by several opinion polls published in the Occupied Territories recently, showing that Hamas has, by and large, been able to retain its previous popularity.
On Tuesday an opinion poll released by the Palestinian Centre for Public Opinion in Beit Sahur and supervised by Dr Nabil Kukali, showed that over 75 per cent of Palestinians blamed the US, Israel, EU and Fatah for the financial-economic crisis in the Occupied Territories. Replying to the question "Who do you think is responsible for the deterioration in living conditions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip?", 30.6 per cent of respondents said the US, 28.4 per cent said Israel, 12 per cent said Fatah, three per cent said EU and one per cent answered "I don't know". Only 24.6 per cent said Hamas was to be blamed.
Israel will no doubt be angered by any genuine reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. Israel's policy has always sought to foment civil strife and intra-Palestinian fighting in the hope that a civil war in the Occupied Territories would eventually cause many Palestinians to emigrate. The Beit Hanoun massacre, yesterday, is yet another criminal attempt by Israel to kill two birds with one stone: terrorise the Palestinian people and sabotage any true reconciliation.