From June 2007 onwards, the month Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip after staging a coup against the Palestinian Authority (PA), Egypt has been trying to end what is commonly known as the “division,” or, if you will, the “separation” between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip with their parallel governments.
Cairo has hosted many rounds of “national dialogue” between the Palestinian organisations with this end in mind, most importantly between the two main quarrelling factions, Fatah and Hamas. After 14 years, these rounds of dialogue have only achieved results on paper, however, despite the repeated calls on the part of the Palestinians to unify their ranks in the framework of a national partnership.
During this period, Hamas and Israel have also gone to war four times, the last time being last month. In each case, Egypt had to intervene to bring military operations to a close with either a truce or a ceasefire. The longest truce lasted seven years from 2014 until the outbreak of hostilities in Gaza in May, when neither the outgoing government of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor Hamas had an interest in prolonging the military showdown for more than 11 days.
Both sides proved once more that they are very good at instigating hostilities and destruction, but that they are incapable or unwilling, or both, to fight for peace and security. Egypt has remained the most-trusted “mediator,” if you will, not only between the Israelis and Hamas, but also among the Palestinians themselves.
After successfully mediating a ceasefire agreement in Gaza on 22 May, Egypt, with close coordination from the Biden administration, has been working on a more-permanent truce that will pave the way for Palestinian reconciliation on the one hand and the possible resumption of peace negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis on the other.
Working initially on the most urgent task of encouraging the Palestinians to speak with one voice, Cairo invited the PA, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other organisations for a new round of dialogue on 12-13 June. The objective from the Egyptian point of view was to push the Palestinians to carry out the previous reconciliation agreements that they had already reached over the past 14 years. The invitation came on the heels of a tour by director of the Egyptian Intelligence Services Abbas Kamel that included visits to Israel, Ramallah and Gaza.
However, the Egyptian government had to postpone the meetings. According to Palestinian sources, the decision aimed to provide the Palestinians with more time to work out their differences. It is understandable that the Egyptian authorities wanted the talks among the Palestinians in Cairo this month to be successful, but this desire hit the almost impenetrable wall of inter-Palestinian differences.
Representatives of Fatah, Hamas, other Palestinian organisations and spokesmen of the PA, without a single exception, have kept singing the praises of “national unity,” but they apparently lack the political will to turn this into reality.
The differences among the Palestinians revolve around which comes first, a unity government that would be responsible for the reconstruction of Gaza, with some Palestinian sources calling this the “government of reconstruction,” or further efforts on restructuring the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) to include Hamas and Islamic Jihad. It is interesting to note that the Palestinians themselves already agreed on such restructuring some years ago in Cairo.
The hairsplitting among the Palestinians that led Cairo to postpone a new round of dialogue probably reflects a lack of the political will necessary to bring an end to the division or separation referred to above, even though all the Palestinian organisations have committed themselves verbally to setting up a “unity government” that would include representatives of Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other smaller Palestinian factions.
The Palestinians are arguing among themselves which of the two processes should come first. Two opposing points of views are waiting to be resolved, and each has foreign interests involved. One proposes concentrating Palestinian efforts on reconstruction, prisoner-swaps with Israel and easing the Israeli siege of Gaza. The other wants to tackle the core questions that have been the subjects of previous agreements.
The representatives of Fatah who came to Cairo to take part in the Egyptian-sponsored dialogue left for Ramallah to discuss the way forward from the standpoint of the PA. Ramallah is in fact exercising a veto power on the whole process of reconciliation so that it can remain the final arbiter of Palestinian destiny. Hamas is playing the same game, feeling that it has come out of the latest military confrontation with Israel more powerful and more “representative” of the Palestinians after it proved its capabilities in targeting Israeli territory from Gaza despite the existence of the ongoing siege.
In the days ahead, Egypt will be the arbiter, so to speak, between these two opposing approaches. Its success will depend on how far the various Palestinian organisations, particularly Fatah and Hamas, are willing to go in reconciling their differences and reaching a compromise that will serve the Palestinian people and not their vested interests in maintaining the failed Palestinian status quo of “division” and separation.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly