Preparing to fail
Ahead of talks in Cairo aimed at national reconciliation, Palestinian factions are doing everything possible to weather the worst, writes Saleh Al-Naami
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Members of Palestinian Hamas delegation to Egypt, sitting from left: Faraje Ghoul, Mahmoud Al-Zahar, Siyad Siam and Khalil Al-Haya hold a press conference before crossing into Egypt through the Rafah terminal, southern Gaza Strip on Tuesday
As the procession of Hamas leaders headed down Salaheddin highway on their way to the Rafah crossing, two other cars were speeding ahead carrying the team who would advise the leaders during their meetings with Egyptian officials. Although Hamas leaders had announced that their delegation would include an advisory team, they refused to reveal the identities of its members and kept them out of contact with the press. There is no doubt that Hamas is heading to Cairo ready to take crucial decisions. Al-Ahram Weekly has learned that among the advisors are Ahmed Abu Shamaa and Nazal Awadallah, whom Hamas leaders routinely consult before taking any major decision. So what margin of manoeuvrability will the Hamas delegation have?
An official Hamas source confided to the Weekly that Hamas leaders have a clear idea of what Egyptian officials intend to propose and, hence, a clear perception of the principles that should underline an Egyptian-sponsored formula for a solution to the internal Palestinian rift. According to the source, Hamas will insist upon the following.
First, it will reject a "government of professionals," which it believes is little more than a surreptitious way to remove Hamas from power in Gaza. According to the Hamas source, Hamas leaders are aware of how enthusiastic Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian officials are for such a government, but Hamas's position on the matter is absolute and final. On the other hand, he said that Hamas leaders could agree to a "national reconciliation" government consisting of representatives of the factions and independent national figures. After all, they are aware that differences over the nature of the government will pale next to the differences over the political programme of that government. In this regard, Hamas insists that the programme must be grounded on the Mecca Agreement signed between Hamas and Fatah in February 2007 and not the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) formula that Abbas now advocates. According to the Weekly 's source, Hamas could be flexible over the premiership but not the government's political programme.
Second, Hamas opposes any extension to Abbas's term as president outside of the framework of the agreement between Fatah and Hamas. The Hamas delegation intends to make it clear to Egyptian officials that as of 8 January 2009, when Palestinian presidential elections are scheduled, Hamas will regard Abbas as solely the leader of Fatah, not as the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Hamas also opposes early legislative elections, which it insists should be held at their appointed time in January 2010. On the other hand, it could agree to an extension of Abbas's term if an agreement could be reached over a package of solutions to other pending points of contention.
Third, Hamas insists that any restructuring of the security apparatus must extend beyond Gaza to the West Bank as well, which Abbas and Fatah oppose. Hamas leaders will point to the flagrant collusion between Abbas's security forces and the Israeli occupation army against Palestinian resistance groups in the West Bank and will demand that all security forces be subject to clearly stated frameworks of national and legal principles so as to ensure that they serve the national interests of the Palestinian people. The Hamas delegation will also raise the matter of the campaign of arrest and attacks against Hamas activists in the West Bank, which it takes as an indication of Abbas's lack of sincerity towards the forthcoming talks.
Fourth, Hamas opposes the idea of an Arab peacekeeping force in Gaza, although it is willing to agree to a mission of Arab experts to help restructure Palestinian security agencies. In this regard, Hamas leader Mahmoud Al-Zahar denied recent reports to the effect that Hamas demanded that former Palestinian National Security Adviser Jebril Al-Rajoub be put in charge of the restructuring of security forces. "Hamas could not possibly have adopted such a position," he said.
Finally, Hamas will raise the question of the future of civil servant positions in the PA. The Ismail Haniyeh government had to absorb thousands of individuals in its institutions in Gaza when the Fayyad government stopped paying salaries to civil servants in Gaza after the Hamas takeover there.
Khalil Al-Haya, a member of the Hamas leadership, told the Weekly that Hamas hopes to reach an agreement that resolves all outstanding differences so as to leave no points pending that might cause problems in the future. A member of the Hamas delegation on its way to Cairo, Al-Haya said that the best proof of Hamas's resolve to bring the Cairo talks a successful conclusion is the high level of representation in its delegation and the presence of an advisory body to help it take the appropriate decisions when the time comes. He believes that the factions have to reach an agreement over the full gamut of outstanding issues between them, especially those pertaining to partnership in government, the restructuring of the PLO, the restructuring of the security agencies, and the establishment of proper governing structures.
Al-Haya added that he finds the practices that the Fayyad government in Ramallah is taking against Hamas leaders and activists in the West Bank, and the escalatory tone of statements issued by some officials in Ramallah, disturbing. He also expressed his concern over Israeli and US influence over the Palestinian president through whom Tel Aviv and Washington would exercise their "veto" which would jeopardise the Cairo talks. On the remarks by Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa to the effect that the League would blame the inter- Palestinian rift on that party that obstructs an agreement, Al-Haya said that his movement urged Arab leaders to propel all Palestinian factions and political forces towards an agreement, as they did in Lebanon, without showing preference for one side over another. "This would not be in the Arabs' interests," he said, adding: "What we expect is for them to help resolve the crisis, not to complicate it further."
In contrast to the Hamas position, Abbas appears to be operating from the standpoint that the Cairo meetings are doomed to failure due to the enormous gap between Fatah and Hamas, the principle parties in the conflict. He is therefore preparing for this eventuality by building an alliance between Fatah, the left-wing Palestinian factions and, perhaps, the Islamic Jihad. Towards this end, the Weekly has learned, Abbas is planning a meeting of all Palestinian factions with the exception of Hamas in Damascus. The meeting is supposed to take place on the fringes of the Palestinian president's meeting with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and Syrian Vice- President Farouk Al-Sharaa. Since the Islamic Jihad is the only other major Islamist faction in the field, Abbas has been keen to solicit the support of that faction or at least to persuade it to remain neutral. Towards this end, he promised the Islamic Jihad leadership that he would consider releasing all the movement's detainees in the West Bank.
According to Islamic Jihad officials, PA security forces have detained and tortured a large number of their activists. Abbas will also try to convince the Syrian president to pressure Hamas into accepting his position. In addition, an informed Palestinian source told the Weekly that Abbas hopes that the Arab League will issue a resolution holding Hamas responsible for the failure of reconciliation efforts. He, therefore, plans to call on countries such as Sudan, Yemen and Qatar, which he believes might have reservations against such a resolution, in order to convince leaders there of Hamas's insincerity towards the talks.
In short, both Hamas and Fatah are devoting considerable energies to rallying support, warding off potential charges and taking whatever other precautions are necessary against the prospect of failed talks in Cairo. The intensity of such activity does not bode well for Egypt or the Palestinian people.