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Friday, May 6, 2011
Hard Work Ahead For Palestinian Unity
By Tom Perry from Ramallah
This commentary was published in The Gulf Times on 06/05/2011
The Palestinians’ path to unity is strewn with obstacles that have thwarted past efforts at reconciliation between rival groups Hamas and Fatah and could do so again.
Whether the groups can overcome the challenges this time will likely depend on the course of regional upheaval that brought them this far, leading to what one analyst said was a deal forged out of “necessity rather than conviction”.
The deal endorsed in Cairo on Wednesday presents a united front as the Palestinians seek UN recognition as an independent state in September. But it offers no clear solutions to some of the toughest problems faced by Fatah and Hamas.
Their conflict has resulted in rival administrations governing the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and has set back the Palestinians’ quest for statehood.
Early signs do not bode well. Hamas says PA security forces that have suppressed its activists in the West Bank have detained six sympathisers since its leader Khalid Mishal met Fatah chief and PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Egypt.
Managing security in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is seen as one of the potential pitfalls in “the understandings” reached under the mediation of Egypt’s new military rulers who took power from Hosni Mubarak in February.
Security will not be on the agenda of a new, technocratic government envisioned under the agreement. Its main tasks will be Gaza reconstruction and holding elections within a year.
For now, the sides appear to have shelved the question of exactly how internal security forces operated by the rival administrations can be united. De facto, that means Hamas will continue to control the Gaza Strip.
“You will have a government governing two different situations,” said Hani al-Masri, a Palestinian political commentator closely involved in the reconciliation efforts.
“This landmine will mean the new government will manage rather than end the division,” he said.
The sides have agreed to the formation of a “supreme security council”, though the Cairo understandings do not state what it will do.
With the help of its Western allies, the Palestinian Authority has built new security forces trained to keep law and order in West Bank cities and prevent any repeat of what happened in Gaza in 2007, when Hamas seized control there.
Hamas, in turn, has developed its own security forces in Gaza, while also maintaining a military wing designed for armed conflict with Israel - an objective openly opposed by Abbas who believes in negotiations over combat.
The Cairo agreement does not indicate how the rivals will reconcile that fundamental difference in approach to Israel that lies at the heart of their division, though Masri said the deal indicated Hamas had de facto decided to a ceasefire for now.
The understandings are also not clear on the role of a new Palestinian leadership body designed to run affairs until the reform of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) - another issue that has long thwarted attempts to forge unity.
The PLO is the umbrella organisation led by Abbas which has led negotiations with Israel over the past two decades. Hamas is not a member. The Cairo agreement talks of a temporary leadership body whose decisions “cannot be obstructed”. Hamas will be part of it, but it is not clear what power it will have. It could take months for the rivals to agree on the make-up of the technocratic government of independents outlined in the deal, though this is seen as doable.
By keeping Hamas out of the government and keeping it out of politics, the Palestinians hope to avoid a repeat of the Western boycott faced by the Palestinian Authority when Hamas won legislative elections in 2006. It may not be that simple.
The PA’s Western donors, including the US, have said the new government must commit to conditions including recognition of Israel and the renunciation of violence - terms Hamas will not accept.
Israel, which has described the unity deal as a blow to peace, has already taken action, freezing transfers of tax revenues it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority.
Bassem Zubaidi, a Palestinian political commentator, said “external obstacles” erected by Israel or the PA’s donors could pose another major challenge to the unity agreement.
To forge real agreement on the issues at the heart of the division, including a common political agenda, would take years, he added. “These matters are big and very complicated and will not be implemented overnight,” he said.
“But they can start with small steps, such as forming the government and holding elections.”