A rift too deep

Hamas is not really losing out in the ongoing crisis with Fatah and needs better incentives to reconcile.

Abbas Haniyeh 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Abbas Haniyeh 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
The failure to convene the Palestinian reconciliation dialogue, scheduled for November 10 in Cairo, between rival Palestinian factions is an illustration of two important realities. First, it shows the depth of the domestic Palestinian crisis, particularly between Hamas and Fatah. Second, it illustrates the weakness of Egypt in its influence on major Arab-Arab issues. Egypt is still working to reschedule the talks and hasn't given up yet. Nevertheless, the fact that Hamas felt able at the last moment to turn down the Egyptian invitation indicates that Cairo is struggling with the issue. One immediate reaction to Hamas' move was to blame Syria, which, according to some analysts, wanted to exact a price for the recent US raid inside Syria. However, the failure of the talks seems to indicate other and more serious causes. First, Hamas is not really losing out in this ongoing crisis with Fatah and needs better incentives to reconcile. In other words, there can be successful mediation only if Egypt can find and present a win-win formula. Fatah will gain automatically from the unification of the West Bank and Gaza under the leadership of Mahmoud Abbas. What Hamas gains is less clear. THE ISLAMIST movement is under the strong and correct impression that time is on its side. There are many reasons for this. First, the ceasefire that was successful for five months and has only been interrupted recently (and which will likely be renewed) gave Hamas the opportunity to consolidate its control over Gaza. Hamas was helped in this regard by the boycott and siege that Israel and the international community imposed on Gaza. The siege is only weakening the private sector, the backbone of the social support for Fatah and the peace camp in Gaza. Meanwhile, unable to trade in any traditional manner, some 100-200 tunnels have been dug under the border to Egypt. These are under the direct or indirect control of Hamas, which not only operates its own tunnels but decides who can operate others and taxes them to boot. The siege, with its consequences, is shifting the balance of power among Gazans decisively in favor of Hamas. In addition, Hamas has not forgotten that even with a Saudi guarantee, the unity government that was agreed in Mecca did not succeed in ending the siege or even in securing a minimum of trade and normal economic life in Gaza. It is almost impossible for Hamas to concede on any point without a guarantee that the siege will end, something Egypt is unable to provide. Any deal for reconciliation will need to ensure some kind of power-sharing agreement that would include control over the security forces. Fatah would thus gain a foothold in Gaza. But would Israel, currently very much in control of the West Bank, allow Hamas to gain the same in the West Bank? Hamas believes not, certainly not in the security sphere. In fact, recent structural developments within the Palestinian security organizations in the West Bank have generated an integral role for chasing and containing elements from Hamas and its allies, not only as far as their possible military activities are concerned, but also in the social and economic arenas. From the other side, the only card the PA is gambling on is continued peace negotiations in the context of the Annapolis process. Abbas and Fateh hope these negotiations will empower them enough to regain the initiative in domestic Palestinian politics. Hamas, and probably everybody else, has realized that this tactic is backfiring. In other words, the continued failure of the peace process accompanied by the ongoing consolidation of the occupation in parallel with holding negotiations only favor Hamas. Thus, the rift between Fateh and Hamas and the consequent division of the Palestinian territories into the West Bank and Gaza are probably beyond the ability of Egypt to heal, especially since the factors responsible for the rift are still, and will remain, in effect. Bridging the gap between Hamas and Fateh will require that regional and international players, not least Israel and the US, play a supportive role. The writer is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president of Bir Zeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning. bitterlemons.org