By Osama Al Sharif
27 February 2018
Of all the admittedly limited options that are available to President Mahmoud Abbas to offset the repercussions of Donald Trump’s controversial proclamation on Jerusalem and his much-touted Middle East peace plan, ending inter-Palestinian schism is beyond doubt the most relevant and most effective. As much as it is important for him to plead with the international community to stand up against US and Israeli measures that have rolled back dozens of affirmative agreements and contravened reams of UN resolutions on Palestine and Israel, nothing can substitute building a united national front.
Toward that effort, both he and the Hamas leadership have failed miserably. Attempts to achieve reconciliation began as soon as Hamas carried out its military takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007, which ended with the dissolution of the national unity government. Both sides continue to blame each other for that bloody conflict, which resulted in a de facto division of the Palestinian territories. Agreements reached in Makkah in 2007, Cairo in 2011, Doha in 2012, Gaza in 2014 and most recently in Cairo last October have all failed to end the split and deliver much-needed presidential and legislative elections.
Between then and now, the besieged Gaza Strip — one of the most crowded areas on Earth, with almost two million inhabitants living in 365 square kilometers of land — has endured two major Israeli onslaughts and countless other military operations, resulting in thousands of civilian deaths, tens of thousands of injuries and massive damage to its infrastructure. The threat of yet another showdown with Israel hangs heavy over Gazans today.
The last legislative election to be held in the West Bank and Gaza was in 2006. Since then, the president and the crippled legislature have overextended their legal terms. Hamas’ control of Gaza is undoubtedly illegal and its actions there are extrajudicial. Abbas, 82, has been president since 2005 and is yet to embrace a process for a transition. This political impasse has impeded Palestinian reconciliation and the full empowerment of the Palestinian Authority over Gaza.
Overcoming the deadlock is precisely what the Egyptians have been trying to conclude for years. The latest attempt comes at a time when Egypt is trying to quell a stubborn extremist insurgency in northern Sinai. Stabilizing the situation in nearby Gaza is vital to ensuring Cairo’s success in destroying the militant groups on its side of the border.
Abbas and his Fatah movement want to regain full control of Gaza. That means not only taking over the border crossings — Rafah being the most important — and empowering the government, but also loosening Hamas’ and extremists’ grip over the strip. This raises the issue of the insurmountable problem of the fate of Hamas’ Al-Qassam Brigades and its stockpile of rockets. For Hamas and the extremists, handing over their weapons is not on the agenda. For the US, which last month put Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh on its terror list, and Israel no reconciliation agreement will be accepted without disarming Palestinian militant groups.
The final say on the future of the armed resistance, Palestine’s options on the fallout from Trump’s peace plan and Israel’s unilateral actions in the West Bank should revert to the Palestinian people. Gazans are undoubtedly fed up with the daily misery resulting from the decade-old economic blockade, which created a ticking humanitarian time bomb, according to UN aid agencies. The blame for their suffering is now shared equally between Hamas and Abbas; the latter has slashed the salaries of thousands of PA employees in Gaza and is refusing to pay for the fuel needed to keep the strip’s only electricity station running.
Fatah itself is also under pressure in the West Bank, as internal divisions widen and Abbas is challenged by ousted former official Mohammed Dahlan. Internal bickering and Abbas’ authoritarian style of governance have weakened Palestinian institutions such as the Palestine Central Council, whose resolutions are overruled by the leader. The Palestine Liberation Organization, which is the national umbrella for all Palestinian groups, remains sidelined and ineffective, as does the Palestine National Council, the all-inclusive Palestinian parliament.
Amid these troubling facts, the prospects of concluding a successful reconciliation deal remain dim. Both Abbas and Hamas need to realize that time is running out and that the status quo cannot be maintained for long. The Trump peace deal will attempt to weaken the PA further and isolate Hamas and other militant groups. Unless both overcome their differences, the probable scenario of an inescapable and irreversible separation between the Gaza Strip and West Bank will become increasingly likely. Responsibility for Gaza will revert to Egypt and the Palestinian population centres in the West Bank will be linked to Jordan. The rest of the West Bank will be annexed by Israel.
The incontrovertible fact besetting Palestinian unity in the face of an unprecedented onslaught is this: Abbas and Hamas, whose legitimacy must be questioned, are clinging to power no matter the cost. And, in this case, the cost could be the final dissolution of Palestine’s just cause.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.