Palestinians in crisis: the Arab solution
Arab mediation of internal Palestinian strife need not end up a circus if planned and executed well and backed by collective will, writes Samir Ghattas*
It is the regretful opinion of many that the internal Palestinian situation has hit a nadir unprecedented in the history of the Palestinian cause. Compounding their distress is that the Palestinian factions, themselves, are largely responsible for this new calamity that has afflicted the Palestinian people.
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A Palestinian stands at Jerusalem's Old City Damascus gate|
'In spite of the pessimism surrounding the Cairo-sponsored Palestinian dialogue, there remains a glimmer of hope of imposing an Arab solution that would supersede other proposed solutions and be binding on all sides'
The deepening internal fissure has gravely obstructed the Palestinian national project. To make matters worse, influential forces in the Palestinian factions have deliberately sabotaged all attempts to mend the rift that followed bloody internecine fighting and to restore a minimal level of national unity. Indeed, for reasons of their own, some of these factions or portions of these factions appear determined to entrench and perpetuate the current separation between Gaza and the West Bank and to hamper any initiative aspiring to realise inter- Palestinian reconciliation.
Keen to the danger the deepening internal Palestinian rift poses to Arab national security, Egypt has intervened to try to remedy the situation. While this is not Cairo's first attempt to intervene, some fear it could be its last if the very parties it is trying to help insist on undermining its efforts.
Twice before now Egypt has brought together all the Palestinian factions, including those with little political or grassroots weight. The first meeting, which took place in March 2004, produced few tangible results. But the second Egyptian- sponsored Palestinian national dialogue, which convened a year later, resulted in what the Palestinian historical lexicon refers to as the Cairo Declaration. The chief focus of the agreement was to reform the Palestinian Authority (PA) and to reactivate the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) as the legitimate representative body of all Palestinians and the organisational framework that can best safeguard Palestinian unity in the face of divisions that were already threatening to fracture it. Unfortunately, following the January 2006 legislative elections, those fractures broadened into a sharp and rapidly broadening fissure.
As the situation now stands, it is difficult if not impossible to imagine that Egypt's latest initiative will succeed. This, at least, was the opinion of 73 per cent of Palestinians polled by the Near East Consultancy Company. In its survey, the results of which were published 6 September, this large proportion of respondents believed that the West Bank and Gaza could not be reunified before the end of this year. Clearly, Palestinians are very acute to the depth of their internal political divisions and the difficulty of remedying them. Their pessimism over the chances of success of Egypt's latest attempt to rescue the Palestinian situation is, unfortunately, grounded in the realities of the current situation in all its internal, regional and international dimensions.
The internal dimension of the current Palestinian crisis must be examined in light of an accurate and realistic appreciation of the true dimensions and ramifications of the current rift. What we are dealing with in Palestine is not merely a dispute or even a power conflict between two factions. The problem is far more dangerous, because factional conflict has torn through the entire social fabric, vertically from the family base up to most respected social and political institutions, and horizontally across the various demographic sectors and age groups. The division was severely aggravated when Hamas leaders made it clear that they intended to cling to power in Gaza, which they regard as the platform for a global Islamist project. Contrary to the economic straits of the majority of the inhabitants of Gaza, Hamas rank and file are comfortably off and well provided with money, food and arms. With regard to Hamas it is also important to bear in mind the following:
- Within a week after the Mecca Agreement was concluded on 7 February 2007, Mahmoud Al-Zahhar, who effectively leads Hamas in Gaza now, told the Palestinian parliament that the agreement was not binding on Hamas. He then took over leadership of the most extremist wing of Hamas that unleashed and won the bloody military takeover in the Strip on 14 June 2007.
- Al-Zahhar personally engineered a purging of Hamas ranks in Gaza. Recently he has managed to oust all erstwhile Hamas leaders and to replace most of them with people who owe their allegiance to the new Hamas triumvirate: Al-Zahhar, Said Siam and Ahmed Al-Jaabari. The latter is the effective commander of the Qassam brigades. This leadership had previously dismissed prominent Hamas figures that had been described as moderates. Among these were Ghazi Hamad and Ahmed Youssef, Ismail Haniyeh's spokesman and political advisor respectively. These changes have shifted the internal power balances in Hamas away from the Damascus- based politburo headed by Khaled Meshaal and towards the Shura Council in Gaza headed by Al-Zahhar and Al-Jaabari. Is also clear that the Hamas leadership, especially in Gaza, is playing a waiting game until 9 January 2009, the end of Mahmoud Abbas's term as PA president, at which point it will proclaim the current deputy speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Ahmed Bahr, the interim president pending elections that will be next to impossible to hold. Therefore, for ideological reasons combined with motives that have very much to do with power, status and influence, the current Hamas leadership in Gaza is hardly likely to agree to an arrangement that would lead to Hamas's return to the PA and end the current fragmentation.
- In view of the foregoing, the Hamas leadership is obviously trying to turn the subject of the national dialogue to its own political advantage. This is apparent in its recent statements questioning Egypt's integrity as a mediator in this dialogue. One of Hamas's immediate objectives here is to pressure Egypt into opening the Rafah border, and as additional leverage it has been hinting that it may drop Egypt as a broker in negotiating a prisoner exchange with Israel for the captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and turn, instead, to German or Qatari mediation.
n the other side of the fissure, the Abbas faction exhibits diverse tendencies. There are, of course, those who sincerely believe that it is impossible to fulfil the national aspiration of establishing an independent Palestinian state under the conditions of current disunity and who, therefore, advocate an unconditional reunification of the West Bank and Gaza. But there are also those that want Gaza back minus Hamas as well as those that are no longer interested in Gaza with or without Hamas. These last two camps are also perfectly capable of undermining national dialogue and obstructing an agreement.
But there is a third party on the Palestinian political map. Consisting of all the factions apart from Hamas and Fatah, it has put its full weight behind the Egyptian drive to find a way out of the current crisis. This camp further insists on being a party to any dialogue and agreement so as to forestall the prospect of a shaky bilateral Fatah- Hamas power-sharing agreement that would undoubtedly collapse again to the even greater detriment of Palestinian unity.
Perhaps to this latter camp we should add the more than 40 per cent of the Palestinian public that supports neither Fatah nor Hamas, and perhaps none of the political factions at all. This important silent majority has absolutely no one to represent its concerns and interests that are generally neglected in all those endless dialogues.
The internal Palestinian situation is, indeed, extremely dire. With their major factions at each other's throats, their leaders are more vulnerable than ever to outside meddling, especially from other regional forces, some of which may have no interest whatsoever in seeing an agreement emerge from the inter-Palestinian dialogues. Sadly, it seems that Arafat took both his virtues and flaws to his final resting place -- and, perhaps too, the last vestiges of any autonomous Palestinian will. One can only conclude, therefore, that the internal dynamics are far from conducive to a constructive dialogue that could be crowned with an agreement that restores Palestinian unity.
The regional dimension, too, offers little hope, precisely because of the above-mentioned rise in outside meddling in Palestinian internal affairs on the part of parties that see it in their interest perpetuate the current situation and, hence, to obstruct Egyptian efforts to help the Palestinians out of their predicament.
Israel, of course, is the first and foremost power that would like to perpetuate the gulf between Fatah and Hamas so as to keep the latter isolated in Gaza, out of touch with the West Bank and under its control. In fact, this is precisely the situation that Sharon had begun to engineer with his unilateral disengagement from Gaza in September 2005, a move essentially aimed to forestall the creation of a truly viable, independent and geographically contiguous state. Then both Olmert and Barak followed through with their "isolate and deter" policy towards Gaza following the Hamas takeover there. One has to admit that Israeli strategy succeeded in compelling Hamas to sue for the truce agreement that took affect on 19 June. It met with an even greater success in compelling Hamas to clamp down on other factions and families in Gaza in order to bring the security situation under control and sustain the truce with Israel. Minister of Defence Ehud Barak expressed both his pleasure and surprise at Hamas's ability to halt the firing of missiles from Gaza into Israel. Not even a massive Israeli incursion could have guaranteed the total calm that Hamas is now preserving in Gaza, he said recently.
At the same time, Israel has been deftly playing the factions off against each other. While dangling a few carrots before Abbas, it continues to express its doubts that he has the necessary support to implement a political settlement. At the same time, Israel has been keeping up just enough pressure to forestall any solution to the Fatah standoff with Hamas.
Israel clearly has many means to intervene in order to hamper an agreement between the Palestinian factions. Moreover, Israel has an additional interest in perpetuating the current Palestinian rift in view of the incessant security- based, economic and political headache the situation in Gaza is causing Egypt. We can therefore expect that at the first sign of anything positive coming out of the Cairo sponsored inter- Palestinian dialogue Israel will step in immediately to douse the hope.
In spite of the cold war between them, Iran shares Israel's interest in forestalling a solution to the Palestinian rift. For Tehran, perpetuating Hamas's control in Gaza accomplishes numerous ends. The Hamas connection places Iran at the borders of both Israel and Egypt. The relationship with the Sunni organisation is useful to refute the claim that Iran is a bastion of Shia evangelism. Thirdly, the Hamas card is an asset in Tehran's negotiations with the US and the West in general as it jockeys to establish itself as a dominant power in the Middle East. For these reasons, at least, Iran has sent out messages cautioning that if it does not get a seat in the inter-Palestinian dialogue with Cairo and other parties that dialogue will lead nowhere.
Syria is a third major regional player that could adversely affect Egyptian mediation efforts. Like Iran, Syria's close relationship with Hamas gives it an important asset in the Syrian-Israeli negotiations that are currently being brokered by Ankara and in its bid to improve its relations with the US and the West, which had deteriorated greatly when Damascus came under suspicion of having masterminded the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri.
o the foregoing parties we can add Qatar, which has also been scrambling to reserve a seat alongside the major players around the Palestinian gaming table. Qatar bases its claim on the part it played in brokering a Lebanese agreement in Doha, on its excellent relations with all parties from Israel to Hamas, Iran and Syria, and on its considerable financial capacities. The summit in Damascus on 4 September between France, Turkey, Syria and Qatar left no doubt that the latter has elbowed its way in as a broker in a prisoner exchange deal between Hamas and Israel. This is another indicator of the Qatari desire to play a role in the Palestinian dialogue, although this role may not necessarily be positive if the objective is to turn the dialogue to the advantage of Doha or other parties.
The general international situation at present does not offer much cause for hope either because of the general climate of transition and suspense. Everyone is waiting to see the results of the Kadima Party elections and whether Olmert's successor will be able to keep the ruling coalition in Israel together. In addition, everyone in the Middle East, as elsewhere, is waiting to see whom the US presidential elections will bring in as Bush's successor. It is little wonder, therefore, that no one in the region is in a rush to get anything done and that whatever actions the various parties are taking at present are little more than tactical manoeuvres as they position themselves on the Middle East chessboard in anticipation of the outcome of the Israeli and US elections. This applies in particular to the Palestinian situation and the Egyptian initiative to promote a breakthrough that would lead to the restoration of Palestinian national unity.
owever, in view of the current interplay within and between the Palestinian, regional and international dimensions few are holding their breath for such a breakthrough -- at least one that would be sustainable and binding on all parties. Aggravating the scepticism is the speed with which the Saudi-brokered Mecca Agreement collapsed. Signed between Fatah and Hamas on 7 February 2007, it broke down within three months, sweeping the Palestinians towards an even more recalcitrant impasse.
Still, in spite of the pessimism surrounding the Cairo-sponsored Palestinian dialogue, there remains a glimmer of hope of imposing an Arab solution that would supersede other proposed solutions and be binding on all sides. Perhaps, therefore, it would be useful here to cast an analytical glance over the various initiatives for resolving the so far unsolvable Palestinian dilemma.
Topping the list is the Palestinian initiative launched recently by Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister in Ramallah. Fayyad proposes the immediate formation of a unified interim government without waiting for the results of the Cairo dialogues. The interim government would consist of prominent independent Palestinian figures that are unallied with and not indebted to any of the factions or parties and whose primary tasks would be to oversee the reunification of Gaza and the West Bank, reunify the institutions of government, and prepare for new parliamentary and presidential elections to be held at the soonest possible opportunity. The initiative also calls for the restructuring of Palestinian security agencies on a professional, non- partisan and institutionalised basis.
Hamas rejected the Fayyad initiative, while most other factions, notably the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the People's Party and the National Initiative, proposed a very similar initiative to that of Fayyad, with the major difference being that its proponents prefer that it emanates from a consensus among all the factions taking part in the Cairo dialogues. These factions want the electoral law revised to provide for a system based on proportional representation. They also insist that the West Bank and Gaza should constitute a single electoral zone. These measures, they argue, will produce more equitable results and prevent the intensive polarisation between Hamas and Fatah. They also urge the implementation of the Cairo Declaration with regards to the rehabilitation and reactivation of the PLO and appeal to all parties and factions to abide by the National Concord document that was signed by all factions on 27 June 2006.
Hamas stands alone in rejecting any initiative that calls for new and early general elections.
There have also been Israeli initiatives to remedy the Palestinian situation, from the perspective of Israeli strategic objectives of course. The Israeli list of options includes in order of precedence:
1. Prolonging the separation and isolation of Gaza from the West Bank and feeding the factors conducive to perpetuating this situation and forestalling the establishment of a viable, geographically contiguous independent state.
There has also been talk in Israel recently of the creation of "three states for two peoples". These are, in addition to Israel, a Hamas state in Gaza and a second Palestinian state on the other side of the separation wall in the West Bank. This "proposal" was aired recently by at least two prominent Israeli figures: director of the Moshe Dayan Centre for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Professor Eyal Zisser, on 1 August, and the columnist Avi Bakharov in Haaretz on 27 July.
The so-called "regional solution" has also been receiving considerable play recently. According to this scheme, Egypt would resume indirect control over Gaza, overseeing the security, economic and political situation there while Jordan and Israel would work out a division of labour in the management of the situation in the West Bank.
To the foregoing initiatives we should also add the proposal to internationalise the Palestinian question. This proposal calls for placing the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967 under a UN mandate for a set period in accordance with a Security Council resolution that would create an international board of guardians that would oversee the phased withdrawal of Israeli forces, the construction of Palestinian governing institutions and the establishment of a viable independent state alongside Israel.
So far there has been no official initiative to this effect. However, there have been important attempts to flesh out its central points, the most important being that by former US ambassador Martin Indyk. I, too, have written on the subject. Between the Israelis and Palestinians the idea of partial internationalisation has been tossed about. However, this focuses almost exclusively on the security dimension and does not begin to approach the comprehensiveness of the international mandate project.
Apart from such ideas and projects, there remains the opportunity for an Egyptian-Arab solution to the Palestinian internal crisis. Work towards this solution began when Egypt adopted the appeal by Abbas on 4 June calling for a comprehensive national dialogue aiming to restore Palestinian national unity. In order to get the ball rolling, Cairo put several fundamental questions to all factions. It then held preparatory meetings for which it insisted that the factions be represented at the highest level so as to ensure a minimum degree of commitment and to close off some avenues to wriggling out of the commitment. On the basis of what comes out of these meetings, Cairo will probably then prepare a draft national unity agreement that would then be put before an expanded conference attended by representatives of all Palestinian factions following the Eid Al-Fitr holiday.
t is also expected that, at a relatively advanced stage, the Arab League will lend its full backing to the Palestinian dialogue in order to ensure the broadest possible support and the greatest possible chances of success. In order for this dialogue to succeed, the following conditions have to be met:
1. Egypt's preliminary talks will at least have to establish the existence of Palestinian unanimity over the principles of a solution.
2. The Arab League General Secretariat will need to have formulated a clear and detailed perception of the role the Arab League will play in this process.
3. The members of the Arab League will have to reach consensus over the draft solution and the Arab League's role in it.
4. They will simultaneously need to forestall the emergence of parallel forums or channels intended to circumvent the Arab consensus, and they must also neutralise bids by non-Arab regional powers to meddle in the internal Palestinian dispute and to undermine the Arab project.
5. It will also be important to rally as much international support as possible behind this Arab drive.
6. Finally, the Arab solution will need to be linked to the creation of two important mechanisms. The first is a higher Arab committee in charge of overseeing the implementation of the agreement, compelling the various parties to meet their obligations, and publicising every breach of the agreement. The second mechanism is an Arab list of specifically defined political and economic sanctions that would be strictly and resolutely imposed on any Palestinian party that violates the agreement or otherwise obstructs its implementation or that fails to live up to its commitments.
In view of the circumstances that currently prevail in the region and given certain customary modes of Arab behaviour, meeting these conditions will certainly be an uphill drive. However, if they are not met, the Arab solution will end up a total circus while internal Palestinian dissension continues to blaze.
* The writer is director of the Middle East forum.