The only option
To the ire of Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia resume efforts to re-establish Palestinian national unity, reports Khaled Amayreh in Ramallah
Palestinian national unity was broken following the mid-June bloody showdown between Hamas and Fatah, which ended with Hamas defeating Fatah and taking over the Gaza Strip.
This week, Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshaal met with top Saudi officials and updated them on the latest efforts to end the rift between the two largest Palestinian political movements.
According to Hamas officials in Gaza, Meshaal presented to the Saudi leadership "a comprehensive package of proposals" that would rectify the current state of division. The proposals include a willingness on Hamas's part to hand over "security headquarters" and "a number of civilian ministries" in the Gaza Strip to Fatah, which would be followed by the creation of a national unity government based on the Saudi-mediated Mecca Accord as well as the National Reconciliation Document.
Meshaal reportedly asked the Saudi leadership to exert pressure on Fatah's leadership, especially Palestinian Authority (PA) leader Mahmoud Abbas, who visited Riyadh last week and briefed Saudi King Abdullah on developments pertaining to the Annapolis conference.
Similarly, Egypt has asked both Hamas and Fatah to dispatch delegations to Cairo after the Eid Al-Adha holiday -- which comes 18 December -- in an effort to end the inter- Palestinian schism. It is not certain if Egyptian and Saudi efforts are being coordinated.
While careful not to appear as favouring either side, Saudi Arabia and Egypt last week allowed thousands of Palestinian pilgrims from the Gaza Strip to travel directly to Mecca without coordinating first with the Ramallah government. The measure infuriated the PA (and Israel), with one unnamed PA official quoted as saying, "Egypt stabbed us in the back."
The PA, which had invested much effort in organising the pilgrims' trip to Saudi Arabia in a bid to improve Abbas's status, hoped that the Saudi and Egyptian governments would shun and boycott the Hamas Gaza Strip government, possibly accelerating its demise.
It remains uncertain if rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas is possible under current circumstances. Fatah- dominated security forces continue to carry out an open-ended "inquisition" against Hamas in the West Bank. Thousands of Hamas members and supporters have been arrested, with many reportedly tortured by PA security interrogators.
Moreover, the PA government has recently closed hundreds of charities with alleged affiliation to Hamas in an apparent effort to stem the movement's popular appeal. Similarly, hundreds of teachers and public servants suspected of being members of Hamas have been fired from their jobs or transferred to other jobs of secondary importance.
For its part, Israel has warned Abbas that the re- establishment of a national unity government with Hamas will lead to the severance of relations between Israel and the PA. Similarly, the Bush administration would likely be unhappy if Abbas decided to re-institute a political partnership with Hamas, an organisation the US believes should be isolated and weakened.
Some observers in the occupied Palestinian territories are convinced that Abbas will not embark on any concrete reconciliatory steps with Hamas until he adjudges with certainty that Israel is not really serious about reaching an equitable peace settlement with the Palestinians based on UN resolutions. According to Palestinian columnist Hani Al-Masri, Abbas is already coming to the conclusion that Annapolis was a failure.
"He no longer speaks about the Annapolis conference in an enthusiastic tone. And I think that Abbas has come to the realisation that the chances of successful peace talks with Israel are very slim as long as Palestinian national disunity persists."
In reality, the Palestinian leader didn't have to wait long to find out that Annapolis was yet another deception. This week, the Israeli government announced plans to build more than 300 Jewish settler units in the Har-Homa settlement, adjacent to the predominantly Christian-Arab town of Beit Sahur. On Wednesday 12 December, Israeli media reported that hundreds of additional settler units were to be built in the West Bank.
Such plans fly in the face of varied Israeli undertakings -- in Annapolis and as a point on the "roadmap" -- to freeze settlement expansion in the West Bank. Enraged by new settlement activities, the PA urged Washington and the EU, as well as Arab states, to pressure Israel into shelving plans for further settlement expansion. Israel, however, has argued that "Har- Homa" is not part of the West Bank but part of Jerusalem, which the Zionist establishment views as its undivided capital.
As to the hundreds of other settler units being built throughout the West Bank, the Israeli government has told Washington that these had been planned long before the Annapolis conference.
Meanwhile, the PA appears helpless as to how to react to these deceptive tactics on the part of the Israeli government. Initially, some PA officials remarked that President Abbas wouldn't agree to conduct business as usual with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert if Israel didn't stop its settlement expansion. However, PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who is increasingly finding himself in a precarious position vis-à-vis the Fatah movement, said the PA wouldn't shun talks with Israel despite new settlement plans.
Abbas was scheduled to meet with Olmert in West Jerusalem Wednesday to discuss implementing the roadmap. Abbas will ask Olmert to freeze settlement activities. Olmert is likely to respond that a settlement-building freeze, especially in the vicinity of Jerusalem, would cause his government to collapse.
Though Israeli-Palestinian talks appear to be leading nowhere, Abbas is unlikely to agree to go back to the status-quo ante with Hamas -- to re-establish a government of national unity with the Islamic movement. Al-Masri told Al-Ahram Weekly that Abbas now feels in a better position to extract serious concessions from Hamas, given the latter's hermetic isolation in Gaza and the humanitarian and economic catastrophe unfolding in the Strip thanks to Israel's callous blockade.
"Hamas is now in a weaker position. They want to end this situation desperately and they are worried that Israel might decide to escalate its aggressions against Gaza in order to foil any possible rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas," he said.
Fatah is convinced that time is working in its favour. According to Hamas political leader Hussein Abu Kweik, whose wife and three children were killed by the Israeli army in 2002, "Fatah insists that any dialogue with Hamas be conditional on the handing over by Hamas of the security headquarters." He added that while "contacts" between Fatah and Hamas were established in the West Bank, it was too early to speak of any impending agreement.
Abu Kweik accused the PA leadership in Ramallah of evading and ignoring Hamas's demands for restructuring and reforming the security apparatus based on national and professional considerations. Today, the overwhelming majority of PA security cadres and officers are affiliated with the Fatah group; a condition Hamas says must be changed if national unity is to succeed.
An additional reason that may make Abbas unenthusiastic about moving towards Hamas is the realisation that such a step would cause him to lose the "breathing space" he acquired following the rift with Hamas. This is why it is likely that Abbas will insist that any new modus vivendi between Fatah and Hamas must give him a complete freedom to negotiate a possible peace agreement with Israel.
Hamas already agreed to entrust the "negotiation file" with the Palestine Liberation Organisation. However, the main problem lies with Israel's rejection of the main Palestinian demand: namely, ending the occupation that started in 1967 and resolving the refugee issue pursuant UN General Assembly Resolution 194.
If the deadlock with Israel continues, it may occur that Abbas will resign, in which case a less moderate Palestinian leadership would be elected. This is at least the prevailing impression in Ramallah and the rest of the occupied Palestinian territories. The other alternative would be the dismantling or collapse of the entire PA, which would return everything to point zero.