Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s main motivation behind signing a reconciliation deal with Hamas and creating a unity government was to show the world that he represents not only the West Bank, but also the Gaza Strip.
For the past seven years, since Hamas wrested control over Gaza from Fatah in a bloody coup d’état, Abbas could be accused – and he often was – of being the ineffectual leader of at most half of the Palestinian people – those living in the West Bank. Further undermining his political legitimacy was the fact that Palestinians have held no presidential elections since 2006.
Abbas’s mandate to rule ran out in 2009. Signing the unity deal empowered him. He can now say that he and his new government represents the entire Palestinian people – except, of course, the millions of Palestinians living in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
Normally, responsibility comes with political power, but not in the case of Abbas. After a Kassam rocket fired from Gaza narrowly missed Highway 232, a major traffic artery, Israel rightly held Abbas and his new unity government responsible for the attack. But Abbas was quick to distance himself. His office said that the attack was against Palestinians’ interests because it gave Israel an “excuse to continue its aggression against the Gaza Strip.”
The Obama administration did not help matters much. After condemning the attack, US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters in Washington that “we would expect the PA would do everything in its power to prevent attacks, but we acknowledge the reality that Hamas controls Gaza.”
Wait a minute. If Hamas controls Gaza, in what sense is Abbas head of a unity government? Thousands of Gaza-based civil servants who previously received their salaries from an increasingly cashstrapped Hamas government are asking themselves the same question.
According to Hamas officials, Abbas promised that the PA would begin paying the salaries of these civil servants in Gaza. In fact, Hamas’s expectation that the reconciliation deal would shift the burden of the payroll to Fatah was one of, if not the, reason that for agreeing to the deal. Hamas’s argument was that by consenting to the appointment of Fatah member Rami Hamdallah as head of the unity government and by agreeing to dissolve the Hamas government, Fatah should be responsible for paying salaries to Hamas employees.
Last week, hundreds of angry Hamas-affiliated civil servants attacked a number of banks in Gaza after discovering that the unity government had failed to pay their salaries. They attacked PA civil servants who arrived to collect their salaries, which were transferred to their bank accounts by the unity government.
Abbas, meanwhile, has refrained from paying Hamas’s people, because he knows it would make it more difficult for him to raise money from Western donors.
Instead, he is cynically trying to reap whatever personal benefits he can from the unity government while avoiding any of the responsibilities. But his popularity and political strength are suffering as a result.
If or when Palestinians hold elections, Hamas will have a good chance of repeating its success of 2006.
Many in Israel are concerned about the ramifications of a Hamas victory. The Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement last week saying the government would oppose Hamas’s participation in any future presidential or parliamentary elections.
But perhaps a better strategy would be to allow free and open elections in Gaza and the West Bank, assuming Fatah and Hamas would agree to hold them, which is not at all clear. Israel should not be seen as obstructing a Palestinian democratic process. Perpetuating the present political limbo only increases apathy among Palestinians.
The only way to find out what Palestinians really want is by holding elections. If Palestinians choose Hamas, so be it. Israel and the world would then be forced to act accordingly and cut off diplomatic ties.
But at least elections would put an end to the current situation in which Abbas enjoys all the benefits of a unity government without any of the responsibilities.