Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 July 2009
Issue No. 956
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Cementing the rift via dialogue

It is becoming apparent why the Palestinian national reconciliation dialogue process has failed: blocking its success is Fatah's way of having a chance to win the January 2010 elections, writes Saleh Al-Naami

Last Saturday afternoon, while an Egyptian security delegation was busy meeting with Palestinian faction representatives in a Ramallah hotel to push the faltering reconciliation process forwards, leading Fatah figure Mohamed Dahlan was speaking at an organisational meeting in Qalqilya in the northeast West Bank, demanding that Hamas be struck at with an iron fist. Such threats are not uncommon among Fatah representatives these days, and yet the major role that Dahlan is playing in the media campaign waged against Hamas is still noteworthy.

As is well known, Fatah leaders in the West Bank have been highly inimical towards Dahlan and placed responsibility on him for the Gaza Strip falling into the hands of Hamas. For over a year they barred him from travelling in the West Bank and meeting with Fatah activists there. As such, many observers hold that Dahlan's growing role in the media campaign against Hamas -- with the blessing of the Fatah leadership in the West Bank -- is a sign that Fatah does not ultimately intend to create the conditions necessary for the national dialogue's success.

In light of this, it's no surprise that representatives of all Palestinian factions stress that the Egyptian delegation has failed to bring the two sides' points of views closer to one another, despite the shuttle runs that it has made between Ramallah and Damascus. Al-Ahram Weekly has learnt that the Egyptian delegation has asked for another meeting between Hamas and Fatah in Cairo next Saturday to discuss closing the file on political detentions and make available the list of detainees that the two sides refuse to release, as well as their reasons for doing so. An informed Palestinian source says that Fatah has refused to commit to ending political detentions. Hamas has demanded that it stop the torture and humiliation of detainees, the imprisonment of women and university professors, the seizure of private funds, and the closure of charitable organisations.

The same source says that the Egyptians have pressured the Ramallah Palestinian Authority (PA) and Fatah to release political detainees and to create an atmosphere that enables reconciliation prior to 25 July, which is the date of the next- scheduled dialogue session. The reason is that the Egyptians have come to realise that the major obstacle threatening an agreement is the issue of political detainees.

This source also says that during the Ramallah meetings the Egyptians proposed three alternative formulations for resolving the points of difference between the two sides, especially those related to the joint committee responsible for overseeing Gaza's reconstruction and preparing for elections. Leaders of Palestinian factions in Damascus previously rejected the Egyptian formulations.

Yet while the representatives of Fatah and Hamas agree on the failure of the Egyptian delegation's mission, they differ over the reasons for this failure. Head of the Fatah bloc in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), Azzam Al-Ahmed, says that the main points of dispute that arose while the Egyptian security delegation was in Ramallah are related to the reconciliation committee that was agreed to be formed during the fifth dialogue round in Cairo. Fatah insists that President Mahmoud Abbas be the authority for this committee, and Hamas objects. Al-Ahmed says that Hamas is striving to cement the rift by insisting that a separation between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip remain in place, but that Fatah cannot accept the existence of two entities answering to two separate governments. He adds that the two sides have failed until now to reach an agreement on the election system, for Fatah still insists that 75 per cent of PLC representatives be elected via the proportional system and 25 per cent through the district system, while Hamas insists that 60 per cent be elected through the proportional system and 40 per cent through the district system.

Al-Ahmed says the two sides have also failed to agree on the issue of the joint security force intended to be stationed in the Gaza Strip until national elections. Hamas insists that the joint force be stationed at the border crossings, while Fatah holds that they should be granted full security powers in Gaza. According to the Gaza crossings agreement signed in 2005, border crossings cannot be reopened except in the presence of Mahmoud Abbas's special guards.

All notwithstanding, leading Hamas figure Ayman Taha says that the Egyptians failed in their mission because they failed to convince Abbas and the Fatah leadership to end political arrests. Taha has doubts over the possibility of holding a dialogue session between Fatah and Hamas in Cairo on 25 July, as was agreed upon in the last session, as long as an agreement isn't reached on putting an end to the issue of political arrests. He adds that Fatah aims to postpone progress on points of dispute between the dialogue's parties until 25 January, when PLC elections are scheduled.

"In Fatah they believe that not reaching an agreement that puts an end to the domestic rift will sustain the siege placed on the Gaza Strip and in turn strengthen Fatah's chances of winning, while decrease Hamas's chances," Taha says. "The Fatah leadership assumes that holding elections under the siege and the deteriorating economic conditions will decrease the chances of Hamas gaining strong results in the elections." Taha also says that Hamas firmly rejects holding legislative elections if conditions don't allow for them, and that Hamas simply can't agree to the holding of elections while security agencies are continuing to oppress Hamas activists in the West Bank.

Islamic Jihad spokesperson Dawoud Shihab stresses that the political detentions carried out by the security forces of the Salam Fayyad government in the West Bank have been coordinated with Israel, and that they bear absolutely no relation whatsoever to the Palestinian domestic rift. In a statement to the Weekly, Shihab said that the detainees are severely tortured and that some have spent over a year in prison. He believes that political detention is the primary obstacle preventing an agreement that would end the domestic rift. Shihab accuses the Fayyad government's security agencies of waging a "mad war" against resistance forces in the West Bank that aims to uproot the resistance.

Political analyst Talal Okal warns that the dialogue has become a tool for cementing the rift, and that many regional and international parties want a settlement to be reached between Fatah and Hamas so as to create the conditions necessary for launching a US-sponsored negotiations process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

"The efforts currently being expended are aimed at convincing Hamas to join the political process in one form or another, even at the expense of catering to its conditions for dealing with the Palestinian situation. This would include lightening up on international stipulations that it recognise Israel and abandon what is called 'violence', and only hold to the stipulation that it commit to prior agreements," he says. "Even in America they realise that Hamas is needed in Palestinian preparations for the serious political negotiations that the Obama administration is aiming for, so that the negotiation process does not come across strong and obstructive Palestinian opposition.

Okal expects that the US will pressure for the siege to be lifted and will respond to Hamas's demands so that the movement will remain silent during negotiations with Israel. "This means that the rift will persist for a long time," he says. Whether the particulars of Okal's vision are accurate or not, his conclusion that the dialogue has become a tool for cementing the rift certainly seems correct.

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