Crossroad to nowhere

Palestinians have grown increasingly frustrated with fruitless peace negotiations, failed UN ventures and a divided leadership

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh (right) welcomes Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah to the Gaza Strip, October 9. (photo credit: IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA / REUTERS)
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh (right) welcomes Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah to the Gaza Strip, October 9.
 THOUSANDS OF Palestinians crowded Manara Square, in the center of the bustling West Bank city of Ramallah on October 3, on the eve of Eid al Adha, the Muslim feast of the sacrifice. People bustled around candy and fruit stands, and parents bought children colorful balloons, as cars blaring religious songs circled the busy streets.
Residents of the city say the holiday has offered a dose of much-needed relief after a long summer marked by violence and bloodshed.
“I think we are all thankful that the war in Gaza has finally ended so we can con - tinue to have a semblance of a normal life,” Ahmad Sharaf, 43, walking with his wife and two children told The Jerusalem Report.
“Now we brace ourselves for what will come next.”
On August 25, after 50 days of fighting between Israel and the Islamist group Hamas, a cease-fire was reached ending the third Gaza war in six years. It was the longest and deadliest of the three, and one that exacted a heavy human and economic toll on the already impoverished Strip.
According to Gaza’s Health Ministry most of their 2,100 fatalities were civilians.
However, Israel claims that around 1,000 of those killed in Gaza were combatants.
Israel lost 66 soldiers and six civilians in the seven weeks of fighting. Entire neighbourhoods in the Gaza Strip were reduced to rubble, leaving some 100,000 homeless and in need of urgent shelter.
The agreement, which was mediated under the auspices of Egypt’s intelligence services in Cairo, called for the Palestinian Authority (PA), led by President Mahmoud Abbas, to take over civil administration in Gaza from Hamas, to ensure that the billions of dollars in aid required to rebuild the Strip would be used for reconstruction, and not to arm Hamas and build its under - ground smuggling tunnels.
Palestinians are also demanding an end to the blockade on Gaza and the rebuilding of its air and sea ports, the release of Hamas prisoners and an end to punitive measures that have been imposed on the West Bank since June. Efforts to turn the cease-fire into a last - ing truce between Israel and Hamas will prove difficult, however, with the sides considerably apart in their positions and demands. But for the success of any deal or the securing of any demands, Palestinians will have to overcome their internal differences first.
The Gaza Strip, home to 1.8 million Palestinians has been under Israeli and Egyptian blockade since 2007, when Hamas seized control of the enclave from forces loyal to Abbas in a bloody coup. The “division” as Palestinians refer to it left the Gaza Strip and West Bank separate geographically and politically from each other and run by two separate governments.
With cease-fire talks expected to resume at the end of October, giving Palestinian factions little time to resolve their dis - agreements, analysts say the relationship and the fates of the two rival groups, both facing crises of their own, is at a cross - roads, though they may not be heading anywhere anytime soon.
“The two parties are currently caught in a new transitional phase that is not heading toward a solution,” Mahdi Abdel Hadi, chairman of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, tells The Report.
On October 9, PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and ministers of the new gov - ernment crossed into Gaza to convene the first meeting of the unity government.
Though Hamdallah described the event as “historic,” as it was the first such visit since 2007, analysts said the meeting was largely symbolic, meant to convey the message to the international community that the PA is capable of overseeing the re - construction of the battered enclave.
“I come here today representing President Mahmoud Abbas and, as head of the national consensus government, to assume our responsibilities, see your needs and launch a comprehensive workshop for the reconstruction of Gaza and to bring relief to our people here,” Hamdallah said from the Erez Crossing.
Despite the reconciliatory tone, Hamas and Fatah, however, remain caught in major disputes.
Hamas wants the PA to pay the salaries of its 40,000 employees who have not been paid in months, in addition to the 70,000 workers linked to Fatah. But the PA, which has been battling an economic crisis for years, says it cannot afford to pay the extra employees, and the European Union, which supports the budget, wants a thorough audit of workers and major cutbacks first.
FATAH ALSO accuses Hamas of refusing to relinquish power and running a “shadow government” in Gaza.
Appearing to resolve at least part of the problem, Hamdallah announced from Gaza that the salaries of Hamas’s “admin - istrative employees” would be paid before the end of October, pending foreign donation, while those of Hamas’s police force and military guard would be postponed to a later time.
Fatah and Hamas announced a unity deal back in April. The move came after seven years of previous failed reconciliation at - tempts. On June 2, a new transitional government of technocrats was sworn in and charged with integrating the governments of the West Bank and Gaza, and overseeing elections six months later.
Israel strongly condemned the move and urged Western powers to shun the new government. Though the US and other Western countries have pledged to work with the unity government despite Israeli objections, very little progress has been made so far on the ground.
On October 12, Egypt hosted a donors’ conference co-sponsored by Norway and in cooperation with the UN, the European Union and the Arab League. But the international community, concerned with funds going to Hamas’s military agenda, has said that it will only transfer aid money to the Strip through the PA with cooperation from the UN, putting pressure on Hamas.
According to Palestinian estimates, Gaza will need almost $8 billion to rebuild infrastructure, homes, and institutions de - stroyed during the war. The PA secured $5.4 billion in pledges at the donor conference, far in excess of the $4 billion it had set itself as a target.
“Donors need a legitimate government to oversee the reconstruction of Gaza,” Fatah spokesman Ahmad Assaf informs The Report. “We hope that there is enough willingness on the part of Hamas so we can implement what we have agreed upon as soon as possible,” he adds.
Ordinary Palestinians are extremely critical of the Hamas-Fatah schism, saying it has weakened them politically and has further compromised their prospects of statehood. And though Hamdallah’s visit to Gaza restored some hope among resi - dents, very few Palestinians believe that the two sides will be able to overcome their deep-rooted enmity.
Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, has been under Israeli and Egyp - tian blockade for seven years, and has been growing increasingly anxious since losing its ally in neighboring Egypt, after Mohammad Morsi was ousted from power last year.
The Islamist group, which came under international criticism for the thousands of rockets it launched across the border at Israel, is considered by most world powers as a terrorist group because it refuses to renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist. It is likely to grow even more isolated as world powers currently fight the radical Islamic State movement in Iraq and Syria.
Further adding to its list of woes, Hamas faces a crippling financial crisis as its former source of lucrative business, its smuggling tunnels, are either blocked or destroyed.
Abbas’s Fatah movement, a moderate and secular Western-backed party that dominates the PA, recognizes Israel and renounced violence in favor of peace talks.
But it has been facing a legitimacy crisis of its own, after more than two decades of ne - gotiations with Israel that have failed to de - liver on promises of an independent state.
As a result, Palestinians increasingly view the PA as weak, resent its security coordination with Israel and its inability to protect residents from routine Israeli army incursions, arrests and operations in the West Bank.
Abdel Sattar Qassem, a political science professor at al Najah University in Nablus said the two sides are deeply divided by not only their irreconcilable differences that are based on their different ideologies, but by a completely separate set of interests.
“Each is a master of his territory and reconciliation will negatively impact their interests,” Qassem tells The Report. “But each side wants to send a message to the Palestinian people that they want reconciliation while blaming the other side for their failure.”
While the recent Gaza war appeared to boost Hamas’s popularity in Gaza and in the West Bank, analysts say it was in fact fueled more by sympathy rather than real political support and is ultimately short- lived.
“The two sides need each other,” Adel Samara, a Palestinian writer and researcher points out to The Report. “They both have realized that there is no way out of a reconciliation deal, but they are still trying to prevent it from succeeding,” Samara says.
AN OPINION poll by the Palestinian Cen - ter for Policy and Survey, conducted immediately after the cease-fire was reached in August, showed a spike in the popularity of Hamas and a major decline in the popularity of Fatah. Forty-six percent of re - spondents said they would vote for Hamas if there were elections and 31 percent said they would vote for Fatah. The level of satisfaction with Abbas dropped to 39 percent, down from 50 percent a month prior.
But a more recent poll, conducted a month after the war, showed a significant drop in Hamas’s popularity, with 39 percent saying they would vote for Hamas and 36 percent saying they would vote for Fatah if elections were being held. Satisfaction with Abbas remained at 39 percent.
Observers concluded that not only was the surge in Hamas’s popularity tempo - rary, it was also unsubstantial, as it did not alter the leadership or the political forces on the ground.
Samir Awad, a political science professor at Birzeit University in the West Bank, says that for Hamas, reconciliation is par ticularly crucial, as it cannot continue to survive under blockade, especially given the region’s changes. Its situation is further complicated in the wake of the war as people in Gaza realize that, in fact, no political gains have been made during the prolonged war, and the blockade will re - main in place.
“During the war, Hamas briefly felt strong, certainly stronger than Fatah, ca - pable of making demands and setting con - ditions,” Awad tells the Report. “But all of that ended the moment the cease-fire was reached,” Awad notes.
Mahdi Abdel Hadi suggests that the war’s end has given Abbas a renewed prominence in the political arena on which he is now trying to build momentum for a new diplomatic initiative in the UN to de mand a three-year deadline to end Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.
“The war revealed the inherent weakness in Abbas’s government and in a sense imposed on it to deal with Israel differently,” Abdel Hadi said.
In his speech to the UN General Assembly in New York on August 26, Abbas called on the Security Council to support the resolution and accused Israel of com - mitting war crimes against the Palestinian people. “We will not forget and we will not forgive, and we will not allow war crimi - nals to escape punishment,” Abbas said.
In an unprecedentedly incisive speech, he declared the peace process dead. “It is impossible – and I repeat, it is impossible – to return to the whirlwind cycle of negotiations that failed to deal with the substance of the matter and the fundamental ques - tion,” he said.
Israel quickly condemned the speech as “diplomatic terrorism” and the US also denounced it. “Such provocative statements are counterproductive and undermine efforts to create a positive atmosphere and restore trust between the parties,” State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
Palestinian officials say Abbas’s resolu - tion is likely to get support from the nine council members necessary for it to pass, with three countries expected to abstain, but the US is guaranteed to use its veto power.
In downtown Ramallah, throngs of peo - ple dressed in brand-new clothes walked in the noisy, well-lit streets taking in the warm, autumn breeze. Residents say they have grown increasingly frustrated with fruitless peace negotiations, failed UN ventures and a divided leadership, intent on focusing more on their minor internal squabbles than the bigger issues.
“We are paying the ultimate price for each side’s discords and political interests,” Mustafa Shama, 29, taking a deep drag on his cigarette, says. “And I’m not sure how much more of it we can take.”