Tragic events are laying the groundwork for Palestinian national unity, but can it happen, asks Khaled Amayreh
The ongoing bloody nightmare in the Gaza Strip, including macabre darkness and the paralysis of life resulting from the embargo by Israel of vital fuel supplies to the already isolated coastal territory, is prodding Fatah and Hamas to recover Palestinian national unity. Deep-seated mistrust, however, as well as parochial political calculations pertaining to factional stature, is preventing a speedy rapprochement between the two sides.
The latest spate of killings by the Israeli occupation army last week, including the murder of Hossam Al-Zahar, son of Hamas leader Mahmoud Al-Zahar, briefly brought Hamas and Fatah closer together. Palestinian Authority (PA) and Fatah leaders called Al-Zahar, expressing their condolences on the death of his son. The bereaved Islamist leader lost another son, Khaled, during an Israeli assassination attempt on his life a few years ago when an Israeli F-16 warplane bombed and destroyed his home in downtown Gaza.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas spoke with Al-Zahar for five minutes and the two reportedly exchanged views on national unity and the "urgent need" to put up a united Palestinian front in the face of renewed Israeli aggression. Similarly, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad also called Al-Zahar, voicing his sympathies.
It is widely believed that veteran Fatah leader Jebril Rajoub was behind the plethora of condolence calls by Fatah and PA leaders to Al-Zahar. Unlike most other Fatah leaders in the West Bank, Rajoub has been adopting a more lenient stance on Hamas. Rajoub, who castigated former Gaza strongman Mohamed Dahlan's alleged ties with America and Israel, advocated less stringent conditions on the resumption of dialogue with Hamas.
Nonetheless, the glimmer of hope created by the "condolence episode" soon faded when Said Siyam, former interior minister in Gaza, announced earlier this week the uncovering of a plot, masterminded by veteran Fatah leader Al-Tayeb Abdul-Rahim, to assassinate Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of the Gaza- based government. Siyam disclosed the shocking details, including confessions by a would-be assassin who told interrogators that he had been instructed to blow himself up near Haniyeh during a Friday congregational prayer.
According to reported accounts, the young Fatah activist received an undisclosed sum of money and was promised that Fatah and the PA government would "secure the future" of his family after his death. Fatah, put on the defensive by the revelations, denied any involvement and accused Hamas of concocting lies and baseless rumours for the purpose of tarnishing Fatah's image.
Abdul-Rahim, who also holds the official position of secretary- general of the presidency, is well known for his near pathological hatred of Hamas. In the late 1990s, Hamas often referred to him as the movement's "Number 1 enemy". Abdul Rahim was conspicuous in his efforts to vilify and demonise the movement, including making tendentious suggestions that Hamas was collaborating with Israel against Fatah and late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Remarkably, the alleged assassination attempt on Haniyeh has not dealt a fatal blow to efforts to improve relations between Fatah and Hamas. On Monday, 21 January, Al-Zahar appeared on Hamas-affiliated Al-Aqsa TV, thanking Fatah leaders for their condolences. He mentioned by name "President" Mahmoud Abbas, Mohamed Hourani, Ahmed Hellis and Ibrahim Abul-Naja. Al-Zahar extended special thanks to Jebril Rajoub.
The suspension by Israel of all fuel supplies to the Gaza Strip, which plunged the vast bulk of the tormented enclave, with its 1.5 million inhabitants, into darkness, paralyzing vital services, including hospitals, provided further opportunity for Hamas and Fatah to patch up their differences -- if only for the sake of ordinary Palestinians who bear the brunt of Israeli brutality.
The crisis in Gaza brought tens of thousands of Palestinians into the streets in both Gaza and the West Bank. And for the first time since Hamas's takeover in Gaza nearly seven months ago, PA security agencies allowed thousands of Hamas supporters to take to the streets in Hebron to protest Israel's "attempted genocide" and show solidarity with their embattled brothers in Gaza.
Protesters shouted pro-Hamas slogans and called for national unity. Samira Al-Halayka, a Hamas member of the Palestinian Legislative Council (one of two Hamas lawmakers -- both women -- who has not been arrested by Israel), called on Arabs and Muslims all over the world to oppose proactively the "slow-motion genocide" in Gaza.
"Today is Gaza; tomorrow will be Ramallah. And then maybe Amman and Cairo and Beirut and Damascus will be next. I am not going to appeal to the leaders who are answerable to the Black House [the White House]. I am urging the masses to wake up because your own future and that of your children is at stake. Act now, because tomorrow may be too late," Al-Halayka said.
It is unclear if the unexpected decision to allow Hamas to rally in Hebron -- a traditional Hamas stronghold -- signals a change in the Ramallah regime's approach towards the Islamic movement. One Fatah leader in the city, Fawaz Kawasmi, told Al-Ahram Weekly that Fatah was still demanding that Hamas rescind "the coup" in Gaza and publicly apologise to the Palestinian people before a full reconciliation process can be conducted.
On the other hand, Kawasmi added: "But now our people is facing a real urgency as Israel is effectively trying to annihilate our people, to exterminate them by way of starving them and denying them vital services. So this is the time to display national unity and this is what we are doing."
Hamas, for its part, renewed its calls for "an immediate responsible national dialogue with the participation of all political factions in order to break the unjust siege on our people."
Ahmed Bahr, deputy speaker of the Palestinian parliament, called on President Abbas to sever contacts with Israel and stop "these futile talks," whether conducted in secret or recognised publicly. The Islamist leader asserted they were providing cover for Israeli atrocities against Palestinians.
Meanwhile, the PA leadership said this week, as part of ongoing efforts to end the hermetic Israeli siege of Gaza, it was ready and willing to assume control of all border-crossings between Gaza and the outside world. Palestinian Minister of Prisoner's Affairs Ashraf Ajrami said the PA was trying to convince the European Union and the US to accept this proposal. Fayyad, who began a tour of several European countries, is also expected to raise the issue in Europe.
So far, Israel flat refuses the proposal. "Opening the crossings with the agreement of Hamas means the group is granted legitimacy. This can only result in a weakening of Fayyad and a bolstering of Hamas," an Israeli government source was quoted as saying by Haaretz on 22 January.
Another Israeli concern is that handing over control of Gaza's crossings to the PA might make it impossible for Israel to use closure and other punitive sanctions as an effective tactic for blackmailing the Palestinian people.