Palestinian reconciliation deal struck, with a lot of help from post-revolution Egypt

Ahmed Eleiba , Saturday 30 Apr 2011

A deal on Palestinian reconciliation has been struck between Fatah and Hamas with the direct mediation of Egypt, marking a new beginning for all sides if it holds

Palestinian reconciliation
Chief Fatah negotiator for the reconciliation talks Azzam Al-Ahmed (L) sits next to Hamas leaders Moussa Abu Marzoug (C) and Mahmoud Al Zahar (R) during a news conference in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday 27 April 2011. (AP)

The signing of a reconciliation agreement in Cairo between Fatah and Hamas after more than five years of disputes, strife and isolation took many by surprise, first and foremost the Palestinian people. Palestinians took to the streets en masse to express their jubilation when the media suddenly announced a breaking news report that reconciliation had been accomplished.

The surprise move left many observers and politicians suspicious, some arguing that the Cairo deal will go the same way as the Mecca Accords, which only lasted a few weeks, because it was rammed through too quickly. Informed sources, however, told Ahram Online after the signing that the tentative agreement signed by Fatah and Hamas is a coup for Egyptian diplomacy and national security. It is based on secret negotiations between the two sides in Cairo, Damascus and Gaza, and that Cairo would receive members from all sides to fine tune the details of the deal. All sides were urged to be cautious and secretive, not to speak to the media, in order not to impair the deal.

Initially, Mahmoud Al-Zahar told Ahram Online immediately after his first meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Al-Arabi three weeks ago that Cairo was exerting great efforts with all parties, “and the response will be positive within a few days”. Then, these statements sounded like the standard oft-repeated responses that followed many such meetings.

It did seem, however, that for the first time Egyptian diplomacy was genuinely addressing the Palestinian issue, to the extent that some parties were firmly censured for trying to undermine the effort. Everyone sat around the table with national security leaders, who are the same people who participated in dialogue during the previous era of former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, but this time there were no taboos during discussions.

After the two sides signed the agreement, Al-Zahar did not offer much in the way of a reaction. In a few brief words with Ahram Online on the sidelines of a news conference in Cairo, he said that Egypt will be the guarantor of the agreement. This is shored by the political will of the Palestinian parties who want to reconcile, although there are many challenges still ahead, according to Al-Zahar.

In previous interviews with Ahram Online, Al-Zahar was candid: “As a Palestinian citizen, and not a leader who seeks revenge from Israel and the Palestinian Authority [PA], one who lost the most precious thing for a father, his son, who was killed in the last war on the Gaza Strip, which the PA and Cairo under the previous regime collaborated on ... today, Palestinian interests will rise above revenge and blood; there is no fear ... Palestinian interests will overcome feelings of revenge towards our brothers.”

Committees will be formed during this year to reassure both sides on details verbally agreed upon and guaranteed by word of honour. There is still a concern, however, about what will happen once the PA rouses from its present state, marked by pressure from the street, which chanted when their leaders were in Cairo: “The people want to end division; the people want to end occupation!" 

Both Azzam Al-Ahmad, leader of the Fatah delegation to the dialogue, and Hamas delegate Ezzat Al-Reshq repeated in separate statements to Ahram Online that “the repercussions of Israeli occupation motivated an end to divisions,” in the words of Al-Reshq.

But Tareq Fahmi, an expert on Palestinian affairs at the National Centre for Middle East Studies, notes that, “Israeli occupation and its repercussions are nothing new.” Meanwhile, the director of Maqdis Centre for Palestinian Studies, Samir Ghattas, noted that “all opinion polls in recent months show that independents or 'the silent bloc' in Gaza and the West Bank is expanding at the expense of the factions, and that these political forces will lose politically at the first test at the next elections.”

Cairo quickly stole the limelight by concluding the deal and the Arabs welcomed the achievement; the Syrians were not surprised by the done deal. Hours after it was completed, diplomats at the Syrian embassy in Cairo welcomed the move and said that their role is not as influential as Cairo’s on the issue today out of fear that it would be hijacked by any other world power. Damascus is perhaps preoccupied with other issues — events on the streets of Deraa and Benyas have kept its hands full as a popular uprising unfolds there.

As for Iran, which — more than Syria — has been accused of being the biggest hurdle to achieving reconciliation in the past, it also welcomed Cairo’s success. “Iran did not play any role whatsoever in the deal that was struck by the Egyptian authorities,” stressed Al-Reshq. Al-Ahmad also underlined that Iran did not influence the deal one way or another, in deference to Cairo.

Hamas has been pressing the issue of opening the Rafah Crossing. It is satisfied that Cairo has committed to fully reopen the border at Rafah and that it will deal with the Israeli siege on the Gaza Strip according to what its Arab conscience and national security interests dictate. “The conduct of the previous regime towards Gaza was deplorable,” Al-Arabi told Al-Jazeera news channel.

Hamas is also interested in strengthening its relations with Cairo, especially that Egypt will supervise many aspects of the agreement and understandings. “Life and transactions will be above ground, not underground in tunnels beneath the Rafah border crossing,” Al-Zahar stated. “This will put both sides, the Egyptian and Palestinian, at ease.”

The devil is in the details: there were three issues that blocked reconciliation among the Palestinians — security, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and elections. These issues were settled, but another item that was apprehensively discussed, security cooperation between the PA and Israel, remains on the table, Al-Zahar describing it as a “great challenge facing Fatah”.

It as yet remains unclear what mechanisms will uphold the agreement in light of Israeli threats to the PA. Fears of attempts to push matters into the direction of renewed strife are real, and this is what some in the Israeli military are currently exploring, also with the aim to antagonise Cairo.

Al-Rashq opined that Israel has lost its best Arab ally, Mubarak and his regime, which is something Hamas tried to manipulate to override the US-Israeli veto hovering over the head of Abbas, who saw close up Mubarak’s fate. What is needed now are elections where international monitors are heavily present, according to Al-Zahar, and that the outcome should be honoured by everyone.

The government that Fatah and Hamas have agreed to form and will be announced within two weeks of the agreement. A primary demand is that incumbent Prime Minister Salam Fayyad would not in any way be included in the cabinet; neither should be any of the politicians close to any party. This government will not play a political role, according to the signed deal, but will be charged with reconstruction and restoring normal interactions between Gaza and the West Bank.

In optimistic statements, Al-Arabi said that next week Cairo will present an initiative, giving hope to four million Palestinians in Gaza as well as many in the West Bank. The plan will allow Hamas leaders to travel freely through Cairo and look into Hamas’s request to open an office in Cairo.

Fahmi noted, however, that the Palestinian factions should work to make this deal succeed out of appreciation to Cairo’s role, or else, he opined, the deal would detract from Egypt’s efforts to revive its regional role at such a critical time in its history.

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