Palestinian Reconciliation Raises Tough Questions

Lia Tarachansky and Shir Hever discuss the unity agreement between the two major Palestinian parties Fatah and Hamas.

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LIA TARACHANSKY, ISRAEL-PALESTINE CORRESPONDENT: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Lia Tarachansky in Tel Aviv.

SHIR HEVER, POLITICAL ECONOMIST AND ANALYST: And I’m Shir Hever in Germany.

TARACHANSKY: So we’re just at the very end of a very dramatic week where the two main political parties of the Palestinians have announced unity. Shir, do you want to walk us through a very brief history of this?

HEVER: Hamas party is actually the newest form of–the newest party in the Palestinian political sphere. They were formed in 1987. And they still believe in the military struggle against Israeli occupation, despite overwhelming military odds. But now they’re seeming to change their opinion a little bit and maybe have more faith in diplomatic chances as well.

The Fatah party, which is quite an old Palestinian party and one of the main parties or the most influential party within the PLO, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, they call for diplomatic efforts. They have abandoned the military struggle.

TARACHANSKY: So the very beginning of the last week, we saw that the PA was threatening to actually dissolve, through various officials and leaking information, that they’re considering that if the negotiations with Israel would not succeed, they would actually take apart the Palestinian Authority. And then, in the beginning of last week, they started to backtrack, sort of saying that that’s not exactly what they meant, entering marathon negotiations with Hamas. These marathon negotiations ended three o’clock in the morning on Wednesday, announcing reconciliation. The agreement was announced in the home of Israel today and Gaza, and this is of course because Hamas officials are not allowed to travel in the West Bank. Immediately after the announcement is made, Israelis respond, saying the PA can either choose peace or Hamas.

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BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: Instead of moving into peace with Israel, he’s moving into peace with Hamas. And he has to choose. Does he want peace with Hamas or peace with Israel? You can have one but not the other. I hope he chooses peace. So far, he hasn’t done so.

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TARACHANSKY: Afterwards, Israel cancels a planned session of negotiations. Then Israel attacked the northern Gaza Strip. Usually when these unity talks are announced, Israel rushes to attack the Gaza Strip, sort of to remind the two territories that it still has the power and will not accept any unity between the two. But while the attack actually wounds 12 civilians, it doesn’t kill anybody. And the PA responds by continuing its security coordination with the Israeli army. And on Friday, the U.S. president, Barack Obama, said that both sides are not exactly ready and that hard decisions need to be made, but does not actually call for the end or the death of the peace process. Then Saturday and Sunday the PLO Central committee holds two-day talks where the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, makes a very strong statement in honor of the Israeli Holocaust Day, saying that the Holocaust is the biggest tragedy in modern history.

HEVER: It has now, one after the other, managed to draw cards out of his sleeve and to outmaneuver politically Israel, and even the United States. First, with the negotiations, he was steadfast with his demands. Then he appeals to the international conventions as soon as Israel breaks the agreement on their sides and, actually, rather than punishing Israel, which is doubtful if he even can, he instead takes on more responsibility for the Palestinian Authority as a state. And that puts Israel in a very uncomfortable position, because they’re criticizing him for signing international conventions for human rights. Now, with the reconciliation agreement, he is exposing Israeli hypocrisy, because Israel has often made the statement that because Palestinians are divided between the West Bank and Gaza, how can we negotiate with only one half? What would anyone paper that we sign be even worth? But what’s even more impressive, in my opinion, is how Abbas has managed for the first time, as far as I can recall, create a little gap between the Israeli position in the U.S. position.

Let’s hear from Faiz Abbas. He’s a senior editor at WAFA, the official media channel of the Palestinian Authority.

FAIZ ABBAS, SENIOR EDITOR, WAFA NEWS AGENCY (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): For the PA, for Fatah, the net gain is that Abu Mazen [Abbas] succeeded to reunite the West Bank with Gaza. This is his biggest achievement in at least five years, and if he really succeeds, he’ll be remembered as the one who reunited Palestine.

And the other winning party here is Hamas. Hamas will become a political movement inside the Palestinian Authority in the state of Palestine and will be recognized by the world, and they will benefit from this unity agreement.

HEVER: There is a very wide consensus, a very wide majority of Palestinians supporting the reconciliation of the two parties, because what almost all Palestinians agree on is that any kind of internal conflict among Palestinians under occupation is serving the occupier rather than the needs of the Palestinians.

TARACHANSKY: And I’m glad you brought that up, because I just want to read off a little bit of the most recent poll that we have about Palestinian public opinion from the end of March, points here that if there were parliamentary elections made–and this is, of course, before the unity talks–Fatah would receive 43 percent of the vote, while Hamas would receive 28. Also, 56 percent of Palestinians would be in favor of any agreement that the PA would sign with Israel, but only a tiny fraction believes that it can actually happen within the next five years.

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ABBAS: There have already been a few unity unity agreements that led to nothing, and the Palestinian people were very disappointed. But today everyone’s hoping this time it’ll succeed, and it looks like it will. But the Palestinian street is still very suspicious, and there’s a lot of wariness about its chances.

INTERVIEWER (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): What are you basing your assumption that this time it’ll succeed?

ABBAS: I’m not basing it on facts, but on the declarations of the leaders. Basically, today Hamas is desperate. It’s isolated. There is one Arab country willing to host its leaders, not even Qatar or Sudan. In the Arab world and internationally they’re isolated. That’s why I think they didn’t have a choice. So if Hamas wanted to save itself and save its leadership, it has to follow through on the deal it signed. And I think the PA will return to rule Gaza shortly.

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TARACHANSKY: We saw at the beginning of the Syrian conflict that Hamas was one of the first political bodies to go out very publicly against Bashar al-Assad when they moved their headquarters from Damascus to Cairo.

Then, when the Muslim Brotherhood was elected in Egypt, they were in a very strong position. But the Muslim Brotherhood actually came out very strongly against some of Hamas’s practices, such as storing their weapons in the Sinai desert and digging tunnels with the Egyptian territory of Sinai. When the Muslim Brotherhood was deposed by the current military regime, we saw that this military regime in Egypt has been even worse by shutting down more than 1,500 different tunnels, which are essential for the Gazan economy to succeed.

At the same time, much of Hamas has actually left the party, because Hamas itself as a political body has been moving closer closer towards the Palestinian Authority, every once in a while releasing a little bit of information saying that they will accept the ’67 borders. So in the last escalation with Israel, we saw 90 rockets fired from inside the Gaza Strip, mostly by the Islamic Jihad, and this escalation, which was responded to by Israel very violently, as usual, we saw the Egyptians once again mediate a ceasefire, except that this time, instead of Hamas sort of saying, don’t worry, we will control the forces inside the Gaza Strip as the last escalations, the Islamic Jihad actually negotiated with Egypt directly, sort of saying, we are responsible for this, we are the stronger party here, and we don’t need Hamas, which is the official government of the Gaza Strip, to approve whether or not we will negotiate a ceasefire with Israel.

HEVER: Fatah is also in a weak position, because they’ve been promising the Palestinians that negotiations will lead to independence, and I think everyone is very clear that Israel will not allow that to happen.

TARACHANSKY: No, I think that the coming months are going to be very interesting, because the unity government agreement says that a technocratic government, not of political leadership but actually of just the bureaucrats that govern the territories, will be formed in the next five weeks and that elections are going to take place in six months.

But even for this technocratic interim government, there are some very important questions that are being raised. We saw that over the last seven years, that the two different governments of the two different territories have been making laws that are governing their own territories. Is the new unity government going to then sit and reopen a lot of these laws? Some of them are not even just political but specific policy laws that dictate how the two different governments are governing in their respective territories. Also, we’ve seen that every time that there’s been a unity government, Israel has been very quick to arrest and repress the Hamas members and not so much the Fatah members. What is Fatah going to do this time? Are they going to sit by idly and enjoy some of the–and enjoy the political gain from that, or are they actually going to come out in support of their colleagues in the Hamas party?

HEVER: And this is exactly the greatest vulnerability of the unity government. The government that was appointed in 2007 after the split between Fatah and Hamas after the West Bank and Gaza split was also a technocratic government. That’s how it was presented, headed by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. And this government was supposed to just rule for a short time until new elections can be organized or until some kind of political solution can be found. In the end, this government ended up running for quite a long time and making very crucial decisions with very long-term implications for the Palestinian people, even though this government was not democratically elected. And that’s exactly the problem, because the technocratic government tends to be composed of people who are experts in their fields, and that often means lawyers and economists.

TARACHANSKY: Economists usually trained and neoliberal schools, which has been one of the major problems, at least in the West Bank, which over the last six years has instituted a lot of neoliberal laws.

HEVER: If the elections are really going to take place as scheduled, then the technocratic government can say, well, we’re not making any long-term decisions, these are all kind of ad hoc decisions to keep things running until the elections. But what if Israel doesn’t allow the elections, free elections to take place? In the last elections, Israel has went so far as to go and tear down posters of Hamas Party from walls in an attempt to influence the result of the elections. So this could lead, actually, to an extension ad infinitum of the technocratic government, and that’s something that’s basically continuing the status quo that we have today.

TARACHANSKY: And as Israeli journalist Amira Hass points out, there’s very practical problems, such as Israel has been separating the West Bank and Gaza Strip for more than seven years now–and, in fact, you can argue, for decades, but very concretely for seven years now. And so how is the new technocratic government going to operate when the half the parties can’t travel at all? Will they meet only in Jordan?

We’re also looking at a lot of political pressures. If the U.S. and Europe cut off aid when Hamas joins the government, how is this new aid-dependent government going to survive? Despite all of this political maneuvering, etc., the security coordination between the PA and Israel never stopped. Will Hamas be able to be in a government that coordinates with Israel’s army?

HEVER: And will the Israeli army agree to continue to coordinate with the Palestinian Authority, knowing that there also Hamas members there, even though the Israeli army is actually very dependent on that kind of coordination and has dismantled many of the Israeli military institutions that have been used to repress Palestinians and control them before the establishment of Palestinian Authority?

TARACHANSKY: Thank you so much for watching The Real News. I’m Lia Tarachansky in Tel Aviv.

HEVER: And I’m Shir Hever in Germany.

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