Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 September 2009
Issue No. 965
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Devil in the details

In Gaza, Saleh Al-Naami finds the latest ideas coming out of Cairo for Palestinian reconciliation miss the core problems

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An elderly Palestinian woman speaks with an Israeli soldier while heading to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem's old city to perform the third Friday prayers of Ramadan amid tight Israeli security

Perhaps the common denominator in the special night prayers at West Bank mosques during Ramadan is a plea for Palestinian unity and an end to internal divisions that constitute a national crisis. It appears that the Palestinians must remain patient for some time longer before present factional fractures become a thing of the past. They are constantly told that every new proposal to reconcile Fatah and Hamas is the "last chance", to the extent that the phrase has become meaningless. When the said proposals fail, it is but a manifestation of how deep the fissures are that run between the two sides.

By all appearances, the fate of the plan presented recently by Cairo to end this standoff -- which Egyptian officials hastily described as the "last chance" -- will be similar to its predecessors. The document, of which Al-Ahram Weekly has received a copy, deals with two topics. First, it contains all the points of agreement reached by Fatah and Hamas in previous talks. Second, it proposes reconciliatory formulas to resolve issues of outstanding contention between the two sides. These include creating a factional committee to include all the factions, and that would be responsible for the administration of the Gaza Strip until elections are held. It also contains suggestions about the conditions in which elections should be held, security issues, political detainees, establishing a reconciliation committee, and where the factions stand on all matters.

Regarding the disparity between the movements' positions on the political agenda of the proposed national unity government, Cairo recommends the creation of a joint committee bringing together representatives from all the Palestinian factions in Gaza to implement the agreement. This committee will play the role of a governing body, and will be responsible for improving the political environment ahead of elections for the presidency, legislature and Palestinian National Council (PNC). It would also oversee the implementation of inter-Palestinian reconciliation, reconstruction in the Gaza Strip, and end bickering by the two factions regarding elections.

The Egyptians want to see agreement on presidential, legislative and PNC elections in the first half of 2010, and that all parties commit to it. Also, that the elections for the PNC should be based on representation both inside and outside Palestine. Meanwhile, legislative elections should be based on a mixed electoral system, where 75 per cent of members are elected on lists, and 25 per cent according to districts, with a two per cent margin as the requirement for victory. Cairo's ideas also include dividing the West Bank and Gaza Strip into 16 electoral districts where elections are overseen by Arab and international monitors.

As for the wrangle over the security format in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Egypt is suggesting that President Mahmoud Abbas issue a decree creating a Supreme Security Committee comprised of professional security officers by agreement. It would carry out its duties under Egyptian and Arab supervision and follow up on the implementation of what is agreed in Cairo. At the same time, Palestinian security forces would be re-established with the help of Egypt and Arab countries.

In what appears to be an accommodation to Hamas's demands, the restructuring of the security apparatus would include both the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The plan recommends some 3,000 members of the police, national security and civil defence forces in the Gaza Strip as soon as an agreement is signed. This number will gradually increase according to an agreed mechanism until legislative elections are held. All materials required for these forces will be provided by Egypt and other Arab countries.

The proposal further suggests that the security apparatus will be categorised as national security forces, internal security forces, as well as intelligence forces. Accordingly, any existing or future forces would be integrated into one of the three categories.

A proposed national reconciliation committee would be responsible for drafting a "Charter of Honour" that would prohibit a return to armed infighting. The committee would also decide on the mechanism and means of applying what is agreed upon. On the very sensitive issue of political detainees, the Egyptian scheme proposes that both Fatah and Hamas put together lists of detainees based on the most recent figures. After verification, copies of the lists would be submitted to Egypt and a human rights group, chosen by agreement, by a set date. Each side would in principle release all prisoners before the implementation of the reconciliation agreement.

In response to Fatah's request, the plan states that after the detainees are released each side would present Egypt with a list of detainees who will not be set free and the reason for this decision. These reports would also be submitted to the leaderships of Fatah and Hamas. After the reconciliation agreement is signed, efforts would continue, with the participation of Egypt, to reach a final settlement on the issue of detainees.

While Palestinian factions welcomed the Egypt proposal in general, they voiced cautioned objections. At first, Fatah disagreed with the omission of 25 January 2010 as the date for presidential and legislative elections. Later, however, it recanted and agreed to hold elections in the first six months of next year. Fatah also remains critical of the creation of a committee to administer the Gaza Strip, because this would legitimise the Hamas government. Fatah also opposes suggestions pertaining to security, because that too would give credibility to the security apparatus created by Hamas after it took control of the Gaza Strip.

On the other side, Hamas refuses to postpone the issue of political detainees held in Palestinian Authority prisons until an agreement is signed, because it believes the issue is a top priority. The movement also rejects the idea of a committee charged with implementing the reconciliation agreement, but is willing to hear more details about the nature of the committee, how it will be formed, and its framework.

As for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), it asserts that the proposal to hold elections according to a mixed electoral system contradicts an agreement reached in Cairo in March 2009. The group also warns against dealing with the proposed factional committee to administer the Gaza Strip, because it would institutionalise divisions. It is also critical of the proposed security forces in the Strip. Meanwhile, the Islamic Jihad movement asserted that some ideas in the Egyptian proposal leave the door open for both sides to find loopholes and continue bickering.

Palestinian writer Talal Okal believes the most recent ideas from Cairo are similar to previous suggestions, all ignoring to reconcile the political differences between Fatah and Hamas. "The initiative is void of any thoughts on the core political differences that exist," Okal argued. Hamas, Okal continued, will only accept a political agenda based on "respecting" agreements signed by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). Fatah rejects this in favour of a clause stipulating "commitment" to these agreements.

Ignoring this crucial issue of contention, asserts Okal, is a major oversight in the Egyptian proposal. "For a long time now, we have not heard about discussions on this issue," he said. "It is not possible to reunite the Palestinians without reaching a common political vision, especially in light of serious US and international efforts to revive the settlement process." Okal is sceptical that the international community seeks to reconcile deeply divided Palestinians, because division leave the Palestinians more vulnerable to pressure and compromise.

"Division will benefit the US because it would make it easy for Washington to propose ideas that benefit Israel." In a pessimistic tone, Okal noted that in order to implement the Egyptian framework other agreements would need to be struck, along with specific mechanisms for implementation. "Otherwise, the Egyptian proposal only constitutes an attempt at saving face, or a warning to the parties that Israel might pre- empt with an act of aggression that would dash any hope of dialogue," opined Okal.

While everyone ignores the Israeli position and its influence on the fate of Palestinian reconciliation, Israel's vice premier and minister of regional cooperation, Silvan Shalom, told Israeli Radio Sunday that the Israeli government believes that achieving Palestinian national unity "is proof that [Abbas] has abandoned reaching a settlement". Shalom added: "restoring national unity will give credibility to Hamas's role as an influential political player. And if so, it would not be possible to reach a political settlement that guarantees Israel's interests."

In sum, all signs indicate that occasional mediation efforts and proposals will not succeed in ending severe internal Palestinian fractures, not only because of the gravity of differences between Fatah and Hamas, but more importantly because of outside meddling.

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