Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 June - 2 July 2008
Issue No. 903
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Taking a cue from Israel

Fatah's change of tune is better late than never, reports Khaled Amayreh in Ramallah

Despite continued blame-casting, Hamas and Fatah are getting themselves ready for Arab-mediated reconciliation talks aimed at restoring Palestinian national unity and ending the year-long rift between the two largest political factions in the occupied Palestinian territories.

No concrete date has been designated for the intensive talks, but reliable sources in the Gaza Strip have intimated that Egypt is about to extend the invitations to both Hamas and Fatah for the resumption of the inter-Palestinian dialogue. The sources said the commencement of the talks was only a matter of days or one week at the maximum.

Efforts to end the enduring crisis between Fatah and Hamas acquired a new momentum recently when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced his willingness to restart reconciliation talks with Hamas without any preconditions. Hamas welcomed the announcement, made on 6 June, saying it was willing and ready to sit down with Fatah any time and in any place to end the long-standing rift between the two sides.

Moreover, the recent Egyptian- brokered ceasefire agreement between Hamas and Israel in the Gaza Strip is having a positive impact on the prospects of restoring Palestinian national unity.

There have been some tangible signs indicating that the thick fog separating Gaza and Ramallah is beginning to dissipate, slowly but surely. Last week, a high-level Fatah delegation headed by former PA minister Hikmat Zeid visited the Gaza Strip and met with Fatah leaders and some low-level Hamas operatives. The delegation was welcomed by the authorities in Gaza and full security escorts were provided to facilitate its meetings and lodgings. And while the delegation didn't meet with the Hamas government Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh or any high-ranking official, the visit itself was viewed as a step in the right direction.

More to the point, the PA security agencies, apparently acting on orders from Abbas, released dozens of suspected Hamas sympathisers from jail. This coincided with a significant reduction in the number of Hamas sympathisers being detained in PA custody.

On Tuesday, a representative of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), which is making its own mediation efforts between Fatah and Hamas, said he had received a list of 54 Hamas detainees in PA jails in the West Bank and 44 Fatah detainees in Hamas custody in the Gaza Strip. The DFLP representative, Talal Abu Afifeh, said he would press both sides to release all political prisoners in the coming days or weeks and turn the page on a shameful episode of Palestinian history under the Israeli occupation. If the DFLP succeeds, it will have removed one of the most contentious problems generating ill-will between Gaza and Ramallah.

Concomitantly, there has been a noticeable de-escalation in the propaganda war between Hamas and Fatah, with the respective media of each side generally refraining from using harsh epithets to describe the other.

Furthermore, there are unconfirmed reports that Abbas will meet with the Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal. Abbas is slated to visit the Syrian capital next month. While the prospective meeting won't necessarily be a breakthrough in itself, it would be the strongest and clearest sign that the ice between the two erstwhile enemies was beginning to melt.

Moreover, PA officials in Ramallah confirmed that Abbas was planning to visit the Gaza Strip. Ahmed Abdul- Rahman, a senior Fatah spokesman, was quoted as saying that, "the visit might take place soon because the president is determined to put an end to the state of division in the Palestinian arena."

According to Hassan Khreishe, an independent lawmaker who heads the Popular Committee for National Reconciliation (PCNC), both Hamas and Fatah as well as a host of Arab mediators including the Arab League, Egypt and Qatar, have already accepted the general outlines of a prospective agreement between the two Palestinian factions.

Khreishe said the PCNC initiative consists of two parts; the first calls for ceasing mutual incitement and releasing all political detainees, followed by the formation of a transitional government made up of technocrats and independents, whose main task would be to prepare for the organisation of early presidential and legislative elections. The second part deals with the "hard files" including reforming and reconstructing the Palestinian political system, the security agencies and the PLO.

It is likely that any prospective agreement between Fatah and Hamas will be based on the National Reconciliation Accord reached between the two sides two years ago. The accord was based on a carefully-worded document prepared by the leaders of Palestinian political and resistance prisoners in Israeli jails. It calls, inter alia, for the creation of a Palestinian state on 100 per cent of the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel in 1967 with all of East Jerusalem as its capital as well as a just resolution of the refugee plight pursuant to UN Resolution 194. The agreement also called for the rebuilding of the Palestinian security forces on a national rather than factional basis.

The ceasefire agreement in Gaza, however fragile and uncertain it may be, is generally perceived to have enhanced the overall position of Hamas vis-à-vis Fatah. Many within the Fatah camp and its allies, especially the so-called eradicateurs wing, had hoped that Israel would eventually overrun the Gaza Strip, destroy Hamas and hand the coastal territory over to Fatah on a silver platter.

Now, the more pragmatic Fatah leadership, especially elements loyal to imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan Al-Barghouti, who advocates national unity with Hamas, seems to be resigned to the fact that Fatah has no choice but to talk to Hamas. The Gaza tahdia (calm) also seems to be changing minds within the erstwhile enemies of Hamas.

A member of the ultra- secular party, Feda, has privately accused the United States and Israel of betraying the Palestinian Authority. "They wanted us to be more American than the Americans by insisting that we boycott and fight Hamas. Well, if Israel could hold talks and reach a ceasefire agreement with it, why should the PLO continue to adopt a hostile attitude towards Hamas. We can't be more Israeli than the Israelis," said the man who asked that his name not be mentioned.

Such disappointment, observers suggest, is likely to be rife among many Fatah and PLO hawks who until recently adopted a gung-ho attitude towards Hamas.

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