Gilad Schalit on phone to parents 311.
(photo credit: IDF Spokesman's Office)
Pundits are painting news of Gilad Schalit’s dramatic release as a blow to
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who watched from the sidelines,
and a win for the rival Hamas faction, which negotiated the release of more than
1,000 Palestinians in exchange for just one captured soldier.
than stoking inter-Palestinian rivalries, Schalit’s freedom could pave the road
for an elusive unity deal between Hamas and Abbas’s Fatah faction, and
ultimately force Washington to reconsider its diplomacy and aid package to a
Palestinian government constituted in part by an unrepentant terrorist
The man to watch is Mazen Sinokrot, the Palestinian Authority (PA)
minister of economy from 2005 to 2006, and an ideological chameleon. Sinokrot
appeals to secular and moderate forces because he is the brain behind the
success of Sinokrot Global Group, an economic juggernaut operating in the West
Bank and Gaza, working with both Palestinians and Israelis.
also appeals to rejectionists and jihadists because Israel arrested him in 1998
for operating Beit al-Mal, an investment company that the U.S. Treasury
designated in 2001 for financing Hamas.
Though Sinokrot is not a Hamas
member, the terrorist group’s leaders have indicated they would be satisfied if
he were named prime minister.
Abbas has reportedly indicated that
Sinokrot would work for him, too.
Whether the factions can publicly
settle on a government under Sinokrot remains to be seen.
meantime, Hamas and Fatah can agree on what they don’t want: current Palestinian
Authority prime minister Salaam Fayyad. Abbas and Fayyad are barely on speaking
terms, owing to a long-standing feud over efforts to make the Palestinian
Authority more transparent and accountable – which Fayyad wants, and Abbas
doesn’t. Hamas dislikes Fayyad simply because he’s not committed to the
destruction of Israel.
DISTASTE FOR Fayyad, along with antipathy for
Israel, may be the only two areas of common ground for these factions in recent
years. Indeed, Hamas and Fatah have technically been in a state of war since
they failed to form a government after the 2006 elections, in which Hamas routed
Fatah. The following year, Hamas took the Gaza Strip in a brutal civil war,
leading to a geographic and political division that has endured.
remains the de facto authority in Gaza, while the Fatah-backed PA controls the
But in May, out of the blue, the two sides announced plans to
join hands ahead of Abbas’ unilateral declaration of independence at the UN in
However, the two sides have since failed to agree on the
make-up of a technocratic government that would preside over a transition to new
elections that could lead to a reunification of the West Bank and
Fatah’s calculus has been complicated by the fact that Washington
and many European states view Hamas as a terrorist organization. A marriage
between the factions, Washington has warned, would trigger US sanctions, along
with punitive measures from a host of other international donor
Some European countries expressed specific concerns about a
Palestinian unity government, because it would become responsible for Schalit,
whom Hamas barred international observers from visiting, constituting a clear
violation of international law.
But now, in the eyes of some Western
nations, unloading Shalit now makes Hamas less toxic. Last week, the WAFA news
agency reported that Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal would meet Abbas emissary Azzam
al- Ahmed in Cairo.
Al-Ahmed confirmed that many Western countries had
lobbied Abbas against reconciling with Hamas because of Schalit, and noted that
with the soldier’s release, that was no longer an issue.
IN ADDITION, the
ideological boundaries of the two largest Palestinian factions continue to blur.
An Israeli mediator told Maan News Agency last week that Hamas has become more
pragmatic, while Fatah Central Committee member Tawfik Tirawi said recently that
Fatah has never abandoned armed struggle against Israel. Could it be that Hamas
and Fatah are beginning to find common ground? While the Schalit prisoner swap
may pave the way toward a Palestinian unity government, significant differences
still remain. Much of this hinges of Abbas, who is gambling with the security of
the West Bank and economic aid from the US and Europe by pushing for political
recognition at the United Nations. A unity government, inasmuch as it supports
the notion of a unified Palestinian people, could help Abbas make a stronger
case for statehood at the United Nations.
Shalit's long-awaited release
may yet make matters worse between Hamas and Fatah. But for now, it provides a
window for unity that could complicate US policy in a region where there are
already complications aplenty.The writer is vice president for research
at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and author of
Hamas vs Fatah: The
Struggle for Palestine (Palgrave Macmillan).