Signs of rapprochement
Leaders within Fatah are waking up to the dangers of the present course charted by Abbas, writes Khaled Amayreh in the West Bank
With the US and Israel telling Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas that keeping away from Hamas is a sine qua non for the continuation of the "peace process," many in Fatah are now realising that Israel and its US guardian-ally are only utilising Palestinian national disunity to further weaken the Palestinian negotiating position.
Observers in the occupied Palestinian territories cite a number of recent signs indicating that a certain thaw in the Hamas-Fatah showdown is taking place.
Last week, a debate took place between Fakhri Hammad, head of the Hamas-affiliated Gaza-based Al-Aqsa satellite television, and Basem Abu Sumayya, head of the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Radio and Television Corporation. The encounter, the first since Hamas ousted Fatah forces from Gaza last year, occurred during a three-day conference on the role of Palestinian media in bolstering tension between Fatah and Hamas.
Scores of journalists and media operatives meeting in the West Bank town of Jericho linked up via video- conference with their colleagues in Gaza to discuss the "dismal state of affairs facing the Palestinian media". Abu Sumayya and Hammad were questioned on the role of their respective TV stations, especially with regard to vilification and incitement by each side against the other.
Hammad vowed to put an end to all forms of incitement against Fatah and the PA, provided reciprocity from the Fatah side. For his part, Abu Sumayya said he was "willing and ready to open the doors of our radio and television to the representatives of Hamas". He added, "we are cutting back on some of the vilifying epithets we use in reference to Hamas."
Many participants hoped the encounter, which was more polite than cordial, would help bring some sanity into the generally convulsive discourse championed by both Hamas and Fatah with regard to each other. The Jericho-Gaza conference, sponsored by the Ramallah- based independent AMIN Media Network, urged both the Fatah government in the West Bank and the Hamas government in Gaza to refrain from incitement and allow "all Palestinian media" to operate freely.
The conference also called for the formation of two committees made up of professional journalists, one in the West Bank and the other in Gaza, which would meet with political leaders at the highest level to urge them to guarantee press freedoms, release detained journalists and refrain from detaining media operatives for voicing non-conformist views.
Other recommendations included an immediate cessation of epithets such as calling the Gaza government "coup- mongers" or "Hamas's gangs", and calling the PA regime in Ramallah "American stooges".
A few days earlier, Hamas authorities in Gaza allowed one of the leading Palestinian newspapers, Al-Ayyam, to resume publication and distribution in the Strip. The paper was banned several months ago following the publication of articles and reports that Hamas officials deemed far beyond the pale of what is acceptable.
Hamas officials in Gaza told Al-Ahram Weekly that they hoped that Ramallah would reciprocate by allowing Al- Aqsa TV correspondents to operate unhindered, as well as allowing the redistribution of the Hamas-affiliated daily newspaper, Falastin, and the weekly Al-Risala in the West Bank.
Efforts to encourage good will and foster a positive atmosphere are likely to continue as both Hamas and Fatah realise that the party that appears to be hindering national unity will lose respect in the eyes of the Palestinian masses. A recent opinion poll showed that a growing number of Palestinians are shunning both Fatah and Hamas due to their enduring schism. Khalil Shekaki, who conducted the poll, says the trend is likely to endure if meaningful steps are not taken to end the crisis.
Apart from the public mood, there are certain political calculations prompting both sides to reconsider their entrenched positions. Many influential people within Fatah are becoming convinced that any prospective peace deal with Israel would be far below Palestinian expectations -- let alone aspirations -- absent rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas.
Firas Yaghi is the former executive director of the Palestinian Elections Committee. He argues that a genuine peace process with Israel hinges on internal Palestinian harmony. "Without national unity, we can't reach peace with Israel, and our people will not be able to attain their goals, and we will eventually be overwhelmed by national melancholy," he said.
However, it is unlikely that US President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Olmert -- the latter eager to display toughness in talks with the Palestinians in order to divert attention from his latest corruption scandal that may signal an early end to his political career -- will tolerate the restoration of Palestinian national unity. The reason is clear. Solid rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas would strengthen the Palestinian negotiation position and make it harder for Israel and the US to blackmail and bully Abbas, a man of weaker calibre compared to late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
With Hamas sitting next to the Fatah driver, or even in the back seat, many Palestinians believe that Palestinian negotiators would be in a better position to wrest from Israel most if not all of their demanded rights covered by UN resolutions 242 and 338. This includes the total Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967, including all of East Jerusalem, as well as a just settlement for Palestinian refugees pursuant UN Resolution 194.
Abbas, at least ostensibly, doesn't object to these "constants". However, his commitment to them appears significantly less than that of Hamas and even the vast bulk of Fatah leaders, especially at the grassroots and intermediate levels. Hence, US-Israeli insistence on keeping the Hamas- Fatah rift intact, at least as long as it takes to get Abbas to accept a final peace settlement in line with Israeli-US preferences, namely a deformed and truncated entity, without East Jerusalem, without territorial contiguity, and certainly without honouring the right of return of refugees.
Israel and the US, rightly or wrongly, believe that the Hamas factor, despite all efforts to neutralise it, is preventing Abbas from accepting such a settlement. This is likely what Israeli President Shimon Peres meant when he claimed this week that, "had it not been for Hamas, the Palestinians would have had an independent state a long time ago."
Most Palestinians scoff at such remarks given the fact that Israeli settlement expansion, which is continuing unabated despite peace talks and constant European protest, has been and continues to be the central factor impeding the creation of a viable Palestinian state.
Now, with peace talks going nowhere despite dubious leaks suggesting progress, some Fatah leaders who follow the so-called "Arafat line" are warning that Fatah stands to lose both the battle of peace with Israel and its standing with the Palestinian public. Hence, the willingness of many Fatah leaders to seek rapprochement with Hamas before it is too late.
One of the main expressions of current anxieties among Fatah leaders is their shunning of Abbas in favour of Marwan Barghouti, the imprisoned Fatah leader who reportedly favours speedy reconciliation with Hamas. This trend, reliable Fatah sources argue, is likely to grow, especially if current talks with Israel prove fruitless as expected.