Crisis of confidence
So long as each side distrusts the other, Palestinian reconciliation remains a distant dream, writes Saleh Al-Naami
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An Israeli soldier looks on as a Palestinian man tries to put out a fire during clashes between Israeli settlers and Palestinians near the Jewish settlement of Yitzhar, near Nablus, West Bank, Saturday
Suddenly the sound of laughter broke the silence on a bus transporting dozens of students from the centre of the Gaza Strip to the district where university campuses are located in southern Al-Rimal in Gaza City. One student had mentioned that delegates from Hamas and Fatah were in Cairo again to finalise details about a consensus government as stipulated in the Doha Declaration. The cynical banter among students about the Cairo meeting illustrated their belief that these talks and any resulting agreements would be nothing more than a waste of paper -- like many previous deals that were ignored by both groups.
Salem, an engineering student at the Islamic University in Gaza, stated sardonically: "It looks like Fatah and Hamas representatives are addicted to sitting in Cairo hotels, and whenever they miss the ambiance of these hotels, they proclaim their intent on ending divisions."
The satirical exchange on the bus reflects the despair and apathy on the Palestinian street in the West Bank and Gaza Strip about talks in Cairo. "Why should we believe that the outcome of talks this time will be any different from previous deals?" questioned Abdel-Rahman Al-Ouda, who works in retail. "Both sides are seeking power and are uninterested in reconciliation that will deny them the fruits of partial rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip."
Despondence and indifference about talks in Cairo are also demonstrated in the low turnout and modest response to calls by a youth group in the West Bank and Gaza for a sit-in and strike to demand that Hamas and Fatah representatives immediately implement previous agreements. The youth group called for sit-ins in public squares in Gaza and Ramallah and threatened an open hunger strike to pressure the leadership of both groups to end divisions. Another sign of dejection among the Palestinian elite that reconciliation is unattainable is that many independent figures have stopped their mediation efforts between the two sides, and some have even withdrawn from the Committee of Independent Figures that played a key role in efforts to bring the viewpoints of Hamas and Fatah closer.
While Palestinians felt discouraged about ending internal divisions, talks in Cairo on forming a national consensus government according to the Doha Declaration continued, and it would be headed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. According to Al-Ahram Weekly 's sources, there is agreement between the two groups that cabinet members will be chosen prior to final agreement, and Abbas would not be given a free hand to pick ministers by himself. The sources added, however, it is not yet clear if Hamas would only decide the criteria for choosing cabinet ministers to guide Abbas's choices, or if it will also insist on choosing names as well.
The source continued that although there is preliminary agreement that professional competence is one of the basic criteria to choose cabinet members, it is certain that both Hamas and Fatah will be keen on picking ministers that are at least closer to them. Sources tell the Weekly that Fatah will choose specific names for the new government, including ministers in the incumbent government of Salam Fayyad who are known to be close to Abbas. Informed sources revealed these include two sitting ministers, namely Foreign Affairs Minister Riad Al-Maliki and Finance Minister Nabil Qissees, who are deeply trusted by Abbas.
According to sources, Abbas will insist that key portfolios are given to figures that are accepted by the international community, to guarantee the legitimacy of the cabinet in the eyes of the world and continued funding to Palestinian Authority (PA) institutions. The sources added that Abbas will also insist that all ministers be technocrats who are non-partisan and don't belong to political movements so they can perform their duties.
Hamas sources, however, told the Weekly that it would not agree to technocrats who have already failed miserably in their duties. "After four years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, no rational person would re-appoint Al-Maliki to this post after he failed miserably in it," the sources said. The source noted that incompetence would not be tolerated just so as not to antagonise the West, adding that there are many distinguished national figures that do not provoke the West.
Neither do Hamas and Fatah see eye-to- eye on who will be deputy prime minister. Hamas spokesmen assert that there will be a deputy premier, Fatah denies the matter and argues that no agreement has been reached on appointing a deputy prime minister.
But disagreement on the composition of the cabinet is the least of worries about implementing the Doha Declaration; more challenging is the clause on how long the consensus government will remain in power. The last agreement between the two sides stated that the consensus government has a six-month deadline after which legislative and presidential elections will be held. At the same time, however, the deal left the door open to postponing elections if circumstances are not conducive.
Palestinian mediators warn that it is almost certain that security conditions and arrests by PA and Israeli security agencies of Hamas leaders and activists in the West Bank could be used as a pretext to postpone elections. This would mean that the next government could remain in power for an unlimited time. The sources also doubted that Israel would allow Palestinian factions to prepare for elections in the West Bank as Israeli troops storm towns and villages there on a daily basis.
Another pretext for delaying elections is the fact that legislative and presidential elections are linked to voting for the Palestinian National Council (PNC), and it is clear that some Arab states where Palestinian refugees are located will not allow elections there, while security conditions in other countries also prohibit balloting. The source said that Jordan, which is home to the largest number of Palestinian refugees, would never allow elections there to elect a new PNC.
Issues of contention that obstruct the implementation of previously agreed upon matters are disputes over the role of the interim leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), since there are clear differences between Fatah and Hamas. Fatah insists that this leadership should not play any real role in Palestinian decision-making, and should meet only based on Abbas's recommendation. On the other hand, Hamas and other factions believe that this leadership should play an influential role in Palestinian political decisions in order for elections to be held to decide the composition of the new PNC.
Meanwhile, Hamas warned against the influence of the US administration on reconciliation with Fatah, and is not optimistic about the upcoming visit by US envoy David Hale to the region. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum argued that Hale's visit primarily aims at undermining reconciliation and spoiling the Palestinian consensus reached after the Cairo Agreement was signed between Fatah and Hamas. Barhoum denounced the visit and added that US President Barack Obama wants to reinforce Palestinian divisions.
Palestinian writer Mohannad Abdel-Hamid believes that the obstacle in the way of implementing any deal between the two sides is the deep crisis of confidence that divides them. "Distrust and hostile posturing are the main reasons why previous and coming agreements will fail," Abdel-Hamid argued. "Reconciliation that improves the standing of this group or that and undermines democracy is pointless, so is reconciliation aiming at buying time and manipulating the feelings of citizens."
Deep suspicion and lack of trust on both sides, as well as pressure by foreign parties, are the biggest obstacles facing internal Palestinian reconciliation.