Saturday,21 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1208, (7 - 13 August 2014)
Saturday,21 October, 2017
Issue 1208, (7 - 13 August 2014)

Ahram Weekly

‘Era of Oslo is over’

A diverse Palestinian delegation withstood irreconcilable differences to push for a ceasefire in Gaza as new internal dynamics came into play. Amira Howeidy reports

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The abrupt arrival of a Palestinian delegation in Cairo a day after the collapse of a UN brokered ceasefire agreement this weekend (August 2-3) appeared to be an odd development in the apocalyptic scenes emerging out of the complicated Gaza crisis. After announcing the end of the short lived truce, Israel said it was boycotting negotiations mediated by Egypt and was mulling the idea of a unilateral ceasefire as it began redeploying its ground forces in Gaza.

With seemingly nothing to negotiate about in Cairo in light of Israel’s position and absence, Palestinian Authority (PA) Chairman Mahmoud Abbas announced that a delegation would fly to Egypt anyway, regardless of developments on the ground. As Palestinian delegates landed in Cairo Saturday and Sunday the question posed itself: What are they going to negotiate about when the door has been shut by Tel Aviv?

Scepticism reigned supreme. The Palestinian delegation appointed by Abbas is already heterogeneous with the two main Islamic resistance movements Hamas and Islamic Jihad (whose raison d’etre is fighting Israeli occupation with arms and categorically oppose the conditions of the peace talks) )on the one side and on the other, Azzam Al-Ahmad, Central Committee member of the rival Fatah movement (which leads the PA and now frozen peace talks with Israel), in addition to the Abbas appointed intelligence chief Majed Faraj, who is accused by resistance groups of arresting their fighters in the West Bank, as per the PA’s security commitments with Israel. Delegates from the left-leaning Popular and Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PLFP, DLFP) and the Abbas-allied small socialist Al-Shaab Party, with little influence on the ground, were included to convey an image of a unified all-encompassing Palestinian accord.

Observers had little faith in the kind of outcome this delegation would bring given their conflicting agendas . But they were in for a surprise when, following a lengthy meeting Sunday, the delegation finally agreed to a unified paper of six demands for a ceasefire agreement. Its main points included: an immediate truce and withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza; opening all border crossings to allow free movement of individuals and merchandise and ending the eight year old blockade — including economic and financial — imposed on the Strip; the release of all Palestinians detained by Israel since 12 June in the West Bank; and immediate action for Gaza’s reconstruction and the provision of humanitarian assistance.

According to Cairo-based Palestinian expert Abdel-Qader Yassin, the “Abbas camp” pressured Hamas and the Islamic Jihad to avoid the issue of the Egypt-controlled Rafah border crossing in order not to antagonise the Egyptians. “That was a concession on part of Hamas and Jihad on the premise that the logistics of all border crossings will be discussed in a later stage,” he said. The general wording of “all border crossings” which was also stipulated in the 2012 ceasefire agreement brokered under the Mohamed Morsi regime, and accepted by both sides, was thus endorsed.

But this appears to be a minor concession in light of the fact that both Hamas and their ally, Jihad, had already drafted the same six demands after turning down an Egyptian proposal for a ceasefire mid-July. Back then Egypt had a ceasefire initiative that was rejected by Hamas because it made the opening of border crossings conditional upon an improvement in the security situation and proposed a truce first to be followed by negotiations. But more importantly, Hamas took issue with the fact that it wasn’t consulted about the proposal before it was announced through the media, while Israel and the PA -who supported the proposal- were notified of its contents in advance. 

While practically demanding nothing from Cairo, the current joint Palestinian demands were met positively by the Egyptian Intelligence, which continues to supervise the Palestinian file since the time of ousted president Hosni Mubarak.

The Palestinian delegation submitted its paper to a team of senior intelligence officers on Sunday in a “friendly” atmosphere. The following day the same demands were discussed in a three-hour meeting with Intelligence chief Mohamed Farid Al-Tohami who was similarly supportive.

By Monday, both the Palestinians and Tel Aviv agreed to another 72-hour ceasefire deal mediated by Egypt to allow for negotiations with the Israelis who sent a delegation to Cairo Tuesday.

In the mayhem of the Israeli offensive on Gaza, the inter-Palestinian dynamics that contributed to this moment are mostly overlooked despite their importance.

Egypt has been hosting meetings with the Palestinian factions since 2002 in efforts to unify their leadership. Much has changed on the Palestinian side since, including the death of Yasser Arafat, Hamas’s electoral victory in both Gaza and the West Bank in 2006, the subsequent bitter confrontation with Fatah, which led to Hamas’s seizure of Gaza in 2007, and Israel’s land, sea and air blockade of the Strip ever since. This also affected the Rafah border crossing shared with Egypt after European Union monitors and PA officials left it following Hamas’s take over of Gaza. Egypt, which sided with the PA in Ramallah against Hamas, has since imposed severe restrictions on border movement, thus earning criticism for contributing to Gaza’s suffering.

Years of inter-Palestinian animosity, mainly between the leaders of Gaza and Ramallah, would only end when the two leaderships — separately weakened and facing serious threats to their existence: Hamas facing growing discontent in Gaza because of blockade and the PA snubbed by Israel and rendered irrelevant — found salvation in a national unity government that was sworn in two months ago which Israel refused to recognise.

The reconciliation deal between Hamas and Fatah under a transitional national unity government for both Gaza and the West Bank was to be followed by elections in six months. The agreement also stipulated the revival and restructuring of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) based on two important communiqués signed by the factions in Cairo in 2011 and 2005.

Neither Hamas nor the Islamic Jihad is member of the PLO, which was founded in 1964, decades before they came into existence.

The PLO was generally accepted as the “sole legal representative” of the Palestinian people and was controlled by Fatah since the movement’s rise under Yasser Arafat’s leadership in 1968. However, the organisation remained a frozen structure since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. The Palestinian National Council (PNC), the PLO’s legislative body, has not convened since 1998 when it annulled those parts of the PLO’s charter that denied Israel’s right to exist.

The Palestinian Authority — now chaired by Mahmoud Abbas — itself was born out of the PLO’s talks with Israel. As such, the PA was negotiating with Israel on behalf of the PLO. Reforming the PLO to represent the Palestinian people’s factions, such as Hamas, is therefore no small matter. If Hamas and the Islamic Jihad are included in the PLO, they could constitute a majority if elected to the PNC, enabling them to change many things, including the PLO’s charter.

Recalling the PLO in the height of the weak Palestinian leadership’s efforts to unite was met with indifference by a Palestinian public, weary of their leaders unfulfilled promises, including a viable state — the whole point of Oslo.

But forced to support the Palestinian resistance’s demands for a ceasefire almost three weeks into the Israeli offensive on Gaza, amid a rising death toll and following massive demonstrations in the West Bank described as a third Intifada, the seemingly marginalised PA issued a statement on 24 July, not in its name, but as the more credible PLO.

“The Palestinians know that Israel wants to thwart this unity government by launching its war on Gaza,” said the DFLP’s Abu Laila, “which is what we resisted by agreeing on unified demands.”

The current Palestinian representatives in Cairo, said Abu Laila, “are a PLO delegation. We are not here because of the PA."

This is a new language that might be indicative of a turning point in Palestinian politics, post-Gaza. It remains to be seen how the ouctome of this war will impact the Palestinians, but there's a growing realisation that whatever happens, things can't go back to where they were before July 8 when Israel began its offensive.

“The era of Oslo and negotiations are over,” proclaimed prominent Palestinian politician Mustafa Al-Barghouti from Ramallah recently. There are new realities, he said, and it is through “struggles” that a change in the balance of power is achieved, “not through solutions with Israel”.

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