Hamas and Fatah are Palestinian rivals facing the same dilemma: how to justify their role as leaders of the Palestinian people while making little headway in achieving their national goals.
With elections overdue, questions over their legitimacy are only likely to increase unless they find a way to galvanize the Palestinians' struggle with Israel.
Hamas supporters still targeted by Fatah
Zahar: Abbas is not serious about reconciliation
The rivals, who fought a civil war in 2007 at the height of their hostility, have turned to each other in an effort to preserve their relevance, reviving talks aimed at ending the feud which has splintered the Palestinian national movement.
They are promising elections in May for the parliament and presidency. But analysts doubt voting will go ahead.
Barring a surprise, they do not expect major steps towards the reunification of Gaza, ruled by Hamas, and Ramallah, seat of the Palestinian Authority led by Fatah chief Mahmoud Abbas.
His presidential term having expired in 2009, Abbas today rules on the
basis of a decree from the Palestine Liberation Organization, which he
also leads. Legislative elections, last held in 2006 and won by Hamas,
are now some two years overdue.
Privately, both sides question whether the other is serious about steps
that would allow new elections. To analysts, the new unity talks appear
an attempt by both to buy time while they await the outcome of the
upheaval in the Middle East.
"It will be a period of wait and see," said George Giacaman, a political scientist at Birzeit University in the West Bank.
Both Fatah and Hamas believe democracy in the Arab world will be to the
Palestinians' advantage, bringing to power governments that reflect
popular sympathy with their cause. Hamas is heartened further still by
the gains made across North Africa by groups that share its Islamist
But in a region of fast change driven by people power, some believe
Fatah and Hamas, untested at the ballot box in six years, could be left
behind if they do not come up with new ideas for directing the struggle
"They have already become partially irrelevant. Neither has a plan of
action," said Sam Bahour, a business consultant and political
commentator based in Ramallah. "They look more like an old-style Arab
regime than a national liberation movement."
The groups struck a new tone at a Nov. 24 meeting in Cairo, where both
talked about "popular resistance", a term including protests, boycotts
and other non-military means of struggle.
But there has been no quick translation on the ground.
"The legitimacy of these national forces will be defined by their role
and participation," said Jamal Juma, an independent organizer of a
grassroots campaign against Israel's West Bank security fence and
"What is required is popular action, resisting on the ground," he said.
"They must take steps in this direction, or they will be left behind by
the Palestinian people."Legitimacy of both factions in doubt
Hamas and Fatah appear to be struggling to plot a path that doesn't
depend on the tools they have long employed in the struggle with Israel.
While Hamas rockets still fly into Israel from Gaza, the group these
days appears more interested in calm than conflict. It remains committed
to armed "resistance", but has clamped down on other groups seeking to
attack Israel to avoid reprisals.
Abbas, meanwhile, has called a halt to the peace talks around which he
built his career. He will not go back to the table until Israel halts
construction of Jewish settlements on the land where he seeks to found
the Palestinian state.
Israel has refused to accept pre-conditions to any talks.
"The absence of the peace process and the absence of resistance means
they (Hamas and Fatah) do not have political legitimacy," said Hany
al-Masri, a political commentator involved in efforts to foster
reconciliation between the two.
Loyalists defend their leaders from such criticism, arguing they are
doing the best they can in the face of Israeli power and US policy which
they believe is slanted against them.
Both administrations have won a degree of respect for their efforts in
government. Law and order is one area they have worked to improve,
though human rights activists say the result is Palestinian police
statelets in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, territories
separated from each other by Israel.
And both know good governance will not be enough to satisfy a people seeking independence.
That explains why Abbas asked the United Nations to recognize Palestine
as a state and Hamas concluded a prisoner swap that set free hundreds of
Palestinians in exchange for an Israeli soldier captured and held in
Gaza since 2006.
These actions generated support for both. But the momentum is fading and
having played those cards, the sides have turned to reconciliation, a
phrase now heard more often from Palestinian leaders than "resistance"
and "peace process".
Abbas and Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal exchanged upbeat remarks on
prospects for unity at their Nov. 24 meeting. They are due to meet again
later this month.
Ismail Haniyeh, head of the Hamas administration in Gaza, provided a
reality check in Dec. 13 remarks. He blamed slow progress on the
detentions of Hamas activists in the West Bank.
"The most they can agree on is a new cabinet, composed of independents.
But this is still difficult and I don't see much beyond that," said
The reasons are many and include the financial repercussions of unity on
the Palestinian Authority. The United States and Israel, which both
view Hamas as a terrorist group, would respond to a unity pact with
sanctions at the very least.
If the sides do reach a deal, Israel would also be able to torpedo it by blocking Palestinian elections in east Jerusalem.
The Palestinians last went to the polls in 2006, an election that gave
rise to the division. Hamas was propelled into government but would not
bow to Western demands that it renounce violence and recognize Israel.
Acrimony grew as Hamas accused Abbas of undermining its efforts to
govern in the face of a boycott by states whose financial support
remains vital to the Palestinian Authority.
Tayseer Khaled, a member of the Democratic Front for the Liberation Of
Palestine, spoke of "great efforts" to clear the way for unity. "We only
have only one option: going back to the ballot box, going back to the
Palestinian voter," he said.
Such talk, Giacaman said, was "pie in the sky".