Elusive Palestinian unity

As Gaza's Hamas grows in international stature, relations with Fatah remain strained.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh recieves royal welcome in Turkey (photo credit: Courtesy )
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh recieves royal welcome in Turkey
(photo credit: Courtesy )
On January 6, an embarrassing incident occurred at the Erez Crossing at the northern Gaza Strip.
This is the only crossing between Gaza and Israel where people cross from both sides. The other passages are used for trade. The majority of those crossing at Erez are Gaza residents coming into Israel for special needs, such as medical treatments and commerce. Traveling in the opposite direction, into Gaza, are diplomats, foreign journalists and staff members of international organizations.
The incident happened after authorities in Israel and the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah authorized the entry of a high-level delegation from Ramallah to Gaza through the crossing. The delegation comprised four members: Haj Ismail Jaber, who was head of the security services in the West Bank, and Fatah members Ruhi Fatuah, Sahar Basiso and Muhammad al-Madani. The purpose of their visit was to promote reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. The outcome was the opposite: a war of words erupted, which in the end, forced the cancellation of the Ramallah delegation's visit.
The four arrived at Hamas's police office at the border crossing, where the officers asked them to wait. They objected and said the visit was arranged in advance and there was no reason to delay them. The talking escalated to screaming and curses until the delegation members got up and returned to the Israeli side, going back to their homes in Ramallah.
The official announcement released in Ramallah said they returned because Hamas didn't let them enter Gaza. Hamas's announcement said they refused to wait a couple minutes to have their entrance arrangements clarified, and then they started screaming and left.
The incident picked up momentum over the following days. The Central Committee of Fatah in Ramallah demanded that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reassess the entire reconciliation plan in the wake of Hamas's behavior. On the other hand, Hamas published an arrest order for one of the delegation members, Basiso, for cursing and slandering Hamas.
The exchange of blame between Fatah and Hamas escalated to the point where the entire reconciliation issue and the formation of a unity government has been cast into doubt. “Gaza doesn't belong to anybody, and certainly not to those who took it by force,” read one statement from Ramallah, referring to Hamas's takeover of Gaza in the summer of 2007.
Similar to situations in the past, Palestinian politicians tried to mediate. Abbas and Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh also joined in. But the dissension and the lack of confidence between the two sides remains.
In the meantime, the reconciliation process has not moved forward at all. In Gaza, they're not freeing Fatah prisoners, and in Ramallah, they aren't freeing Hamas prisoners. There's no agreement on establishing a national unity government, and who will lead it. There's no agreement on an arranged election, due to take place this May, and Hamas is not agreeing to return to Gaza the hundreds of Fatah activists who fled the Strip after Hamas took control.
But the broader background is the important part. And that's the stable and permanent status that Hamas has in Gaza. It needs to be stated clearly: Hamas has succeeded in establishing a state of its own in Gaza, with a reasonably organized administration and an almost independent economy. An independent state has indeed sprouted in Gaza, displaying selfconfidence and political maturity.
In 2007, many doubted that a Hamas regime in Gaza would last. A full political and economic blockade was imposed, not only by Israel, but also by most countries worldwide. The regime was only helped by two countries, Iran and Syria.
In Gaza, there were shortages, unemployment and poverty, and journalists wrote that the population was on the verge of starvation. Israeli military actions, in the wake of rocket fire on Israel, caused great damage there as well.
Five years later, the situation in Gaza has changed completely. Support from Syria and Iran has largely stopped, but the Hamas regime has gradually attained legitimacy in the region and in the world.
At the end of December, for the first time, Haniyeh went on a tour of the region. In Ramallah, they call Haniyeh the “deposedprime minister.” But in Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave him an almost royal welcome. In Tunisia, thousands greeted him enthusiastically, and he received the same type of welcome at a conference in Khartoum. In other places that he visited in North Africa and the Gulf states, the public welcomed him the way they would a head of state, and not as if he were the head of a gang of terrorists, as the Israelis and many others see him.
The reason for this is that Hamas today – like its parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood – is not a marginal opposition grouping of radical Muslims, but a political movement that has succeeded in penetrating the heart of established governments in the Arab world. Hamas’s success in Egypt and Tunisia, and their growing popularity from Morocco in the west to Kuwait in the east – has forced the international community to treat them seriously. The change in attitude towards them is evident in the policies of the US and Europe, which seek to enter dialogues with them.
The rule of Hamas in Gaza has also revealed signs of maturity. It is true there are occasional rockets being launched at Israel, but relatively few – because Hamas has clamped down on rocket fire by its own people.
The easing of the Israeli closure on Gaza, and the stability of the regime, has brought an economic boom. What has helped greatly is the free passage of Egyptian goods via the hundreds of tunnels at the Rafah border. This has came about as a result of the change in the Egyptian regime and the weakening of its authority in the Sinai Peninsula.
A good example of the independent economy in Gaza that's been created of late is the fuel flowing through the tunnels. The price of gasoline in Egypt is very cheap, and Hamas members who control the tunnels have installed pipes transferring gasoline and diesel from Egypt. In Gaza, they have almost completely stopped buying gasoline from Israel, buying it instead from Egypt. In Israel, it costs $100 to fill a regular car's tank of gas, while in Gaza it costs only $40, which includes the taxes Hamas has imposed on the fuel.
And what's happening with fuel is happening with other products, as well, such as building materials. There has been an impressive building spurt in Gaza recently, despite the ban imposed by Israel on bringing in building materials – a ban derived from the fear that those materials will be used to build military fortifications. Acquaintances of mine from Gaza, with whom I spoke by telephone, relate that it's been years since they've seen so many multi-story buildings being built.
The ones who are having trouble accepting the changes that have made Hamas stable and legitimate in the eyes of many in the Arab world are first and foremost the Fatah activists in Ramallah. From their point of view, the Hamas regime was, and remains, an illegal rebel regime that has to be eradicated. And this is what causes incidents like the one at the Erez Crossing and shows there is still a long way to go before Palestinian unity is achieved.