Still can't agree
Despite the damage done by internal discord to the Palestinian negotiating position with Israel, Hamas and Fatah are still fighting a war of words, writes Saleh Al-Naami in Gaza
Ghazi Hamad, head of the Border Authority in the Hamas Gaza government, jokes during his near daily calls to Azzam Al-Ahmed, leader of the Fatah bloc in parliament and member of the group's Central Committee. The two are trying to reach an acceptable formula to bridge the gap between the two sides on the eve of the second round of talks scheduled in Damascus on 20 October. Although his post keeps him busy, Hamad does his bit for inter- Palestinian dialogue -- he is well connected with Fatah leaders, which places him in a position to take a lead in conciliation efforts behind the scenes. His strong ties with several Egyptian officials have also helped keep open channels between Gaza and Cairo, even during tense moments in relations between Hamas and Egypt.
"Since the next round will discuss security issues, which are the most controversial between the two groups, representatives from both sides are working on compromises to pave the way for comprehensive national conciliation," Hamad told Al-Ahram Weekly. One proposal is to arrive at a loose tentative agreement on security issues to prevent differences from undermining a possible settlement. Another sticking point is restructuring the security apparatus in the West Bank.
On principle, Fatah rejects any overhaul of security forces there that allows Hamas members to joining their ranks. Meanwhile, Fatah insists that the security apparatus in Gaza is revamped, which Hamas objects to. Hamad added that the US and Israeli positions rejecting Hamas's participation in security forces in the West Bank cannot be ignored. "Disagreement over the authority of the security forces and how to restructure them are major issues of dispute," he explained. "They require creative ideas capable of overcoming differences."
Hamad's optimism is being met with caution by prominent figures in both Hamas and Fatah, as well as independent Palestinian figures that are mediating between the two groups. An independent Palestinian source that requested anonymity admitted that disagreements on security issues are grave. "It is not only about what Hamas or Fatah want; there are international and regional players influencing the dialogue," he told the Weekly. "Especially on security matters."
Ousted Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh has demanded that security cooperation should entail equal quotas of Fatah and Hamas members in the security forces in the West Bank, but the source says this is unrealistic. He stated that more than anyone, Haniyeh knows that even if Fatah agreed to this arrangement, Israel would reject it and obstruct the work of the security apparatus in the West Bank. "Hamas leaders should show more wisdom and realise the domestic, regional and international political realities," he advised.
The source added that all other topics on the table, namely government, elections, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), do not pose any threat to reaching a comprehensive agreement to end current internal divisions. The source indicated that if both sides agree to a security formula, this would pave the way to signing the Egyptian conciliation proposal. The two groups would draft bilateral understandings in a separate document that would be appended to the Egyptian plan.
The source continued that the breakthrough on the national dialogue track occurred after Cairo urged Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to be more flexible and send his representatives to Damascus to discuss conciliation. He reported that the meeting between Hamas Politburo Chief Khaled Meshaal and Egyptian General Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman was also influential in jumpstarting dialogue meetings. Suleiman told Meshaal that Egypt does not object to any bilateral agreement between Hamas and Fatah. The source added that senior Egyptian intelligence officers have been in contact with Hamas in Gaza about restarting national dialogue.
The source said that Hamas leaders overseas are much more flexible about dialogue issues than the Hamas leadership in Gaza. "It's unfortunate, but some Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip are more interested in continued divisions because this serves their narrow and personal interests."
Regardless of hopeful signs, a war of words erupted between the two sides after Israel assassinated two leading figures of Al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, in the southern region of the West Bank. Hamas believes the operation was the result of close security coordination between Israel and the government of Salam Fayyad. Many Hamas leaders believe that Fayyad is not interested in conciliation, but is in fact working to undermine it by escalating security operations against Hamas in the West Bank, while flirting with the Israelis.
Sources in Hamas point out several actions by Fayyad's security forces that demonstrate a policy of undermining trust between Fatah and Hamas. Fayyad's security apparatus has officially invited Israeli Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi to visit Bethlehem. Spokesmen for the security forces described it as a "leisure" trip with no security or political agenda. However, the spokesman for the Israeli army embarrassed the Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership by announcing that the trip aims to explore "the depth of security coordination between PA security apparatus and the Israeli army in their joint war on terrorist organisations".
"One does not need to be a genius to know that the terrorist organisations which the Israelis are talking about are resistance movements, most prominently Hamas, which is a partner with Fatah in the national dialogue," stated the Hamas source. Fayyad's actions embarrassed the Fatah leadership, triggering a reaction from the group's office in Bethlehem that issued a strongly worded statement criticising those who invited Ashkenazi.
Observers believe the episode is clear evidence that there is no hope that talks in Damascus will result in a breakthrough. But these are not the only ominous signs. Others include Abbas's security forces hosting for an entire day the head of Israel's Domestic Intelligence Agency, Yuval Diskin, who is known as the architect behind the assassination of resistance elements in Jenin. It was publicised as a visit to inspect PA security efforts to pursue resistance fighters. Meanwhile, the leadership of Abbas's Presidential Guard invited General Avi Mizrahi, the leader of the Israeli Army's Central Command, to attend their military manoeuvres in Ramallah.
According to observers, another gloomy indicator is PA military courts handing down stiff jail sentences against the leaders and members of the Ezzeddin Al-Qassam Brigades. Also, Haniyeh's security apparatus continues to arrest and interrogate Fatah members in the Gaza Strip.
Observers believe that Israel's objection to any form of security representation by Hamas in the West Bank is not only based on its fear of the group, but also because Tel Aviv rejects Palestinian national conciliation because it would represent a loss for Israel. A vital gain for Israel from Palestinian division is preventing political unity of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Divisions also give Israel more manoeuvrability and allow it to rebuff any progress in direct negotiations with the PA.
Indeed, Netanyahu can always claim he cannot reach agreement with Abbas because the latter does not represent all Palestinians, since Gaza is under the control of Hamas. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman went even further when he demanded, as soon as talks began, that Abbas regain control of Gaza. This demand's main intention was to thwart Abbas, deflect attention away from Israeli intransigence, and place the ball back in the court of the PA. Meanwhile, without a domestic accord, the internal Palestinian scene remains as volatile as ever.