Without any prior notice, it was announced on Wednesday 27 April that the representatives of Fatah and Hamas had signed a national reconciliation document or “the Egyptian proposal.” On 4 May, the document was finalized and signed by Palestinian factions, led by Fatah and Hamas. As soon as the announcement was made, celebrations began in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to mark the occasion; it was a day of celebration unlike any other in Gaza for many years. As Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), and the chief of Hamas’ Political Bureau were directly and indirectly exchanging messages reiterating their determination to continue on the path of reconciliation and its commitments, the scene in Tel Aviv was the polar opposite.
The situation is tense and threats are mounting from members of the Israeli government towards Abbas and the Palestinian Authority (PA), which is being told to choose between reconciliation with Hamas or peace with Israel with all its implications in terms of a truce, tax revenues and threats to stop international funds. It is clear that Abbas has chosen to continue on the path of reconciliation without any regard to these threats.
There are many unanswered questions, such as why was the Egyptian proposal was signed so easily, whether reconciliation will stand the test of time, whether there are guarantees to keep it in place and what it means for the future of the Palestinian cause.
It is clear that the Egyptian Revolution was the gateway to all the developments on this matter, having reactivated Egypt’s regional role. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry drafted policies like a regional heavyweight and moved to disperse forces, expanding their presence in the region back to their own borders. As a result, Israel became apprehensive and tensions towards Egypt escalated, causing relations to enter a new, “cold” phase.
Egypt has begun to regain its traditional role even though it is still recovering in the domains of security and economy. Egyptian foreign policy has shed the formula adopted by the Mubarak regime towards Washington and Tel Aviv since the second Palestinian elections in January 2006, when Hamas won the majority of seats in the Palestinian Parliament. Mubarak convinced Washington and Tel Aviv that the people in the region were not ready for democracy and that any free and fair elections in any state in the region will bring Islamists to power. In return for being left to rule, Mubarak did America’s bidding in the region regarding Gaza, Lebanon, Iran and other issues.
As part of this formula, Washington would not oppose the succession plan in Egypt, as reported by some of the regime’s inner circle who said that the next Egyptian president must gain the approval of Washington and Tel Aviv. Revolutionary Egypt scrapped this formula and it no longer needs to sell out its regional role. The signing of a reconciliation agreement was a top priority, bringing the winds of the Egyptian Revolution to Gaza and Ramallah, to proclaim that the people overthrew an authoritarian oppressive regime. On the streets of Gaza and Ramallah, people were heard chanting slogans similar to those shouted in Tahrir Square, such as “The people want to end divisions.” The message was that continuing the power struggle between Fatah and Hamas could result in the Palestinian people imposing their will on the regime, either by forcing it to meet their demands or by taking to the streets to demand change by calling for “the overthrow of the regime.”
Once the winds of revolution reached Syria, their influence was felt on Hamas, whose Political Bureau is based in Damascus. The Syrian regime, irrespective of the extent of change which may occur there, will become impartial and no longer a refuge for resistance movements. The message from Tehran praising the change in Egypt’s attitude to Iran may have also played a role in pushing Hamas to alter its position.
At the same time, Abbas, the PA and Fatah have come to realise that settlement is not viable, and perhaps even Washington approves of reconciliation as a pragmatic step in response to Hamas’s movement towards political realism and as an affront to Israeli intransigence for rejecting the mere suggestion by President Obama to extend the freeze on settlements. There are other similar steps by Britain and the US to “slap Israel back to reality” out of concern for Israel’s interests, and for the benefit of all parties.
The reconciliation deal was welcomed by many, including Paris, Berlin and London, while Washington was more cautious. It said it will study the reconciliation deal closely before announcing its position – which is more than the US’s usual position of adopting the perspective of Israel, right or wrong.
Progress on the reconciliation issues cannot be explained by looking at only one factor. There are many elements which came together and caused Egypt to make a move, and for the Palestinians to respond positively, the Europeans to welcome the progress and the US to be cautious. Certainly the amendments made to the document to render it acceptable leapt over issues of contention. These were postponed or surpassed (such as maintaining the security status quo in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Hamas remaining in control in Gaza and the PA in the West Bank). They agreed to form a non-factional technocrat government to serve for one year until presidential and parliamentary elections are held, dividing the duties during the interim period.
Nonetheless, the question remains: are there guarantees that this agreement is sustainable? Regional and international pressure means it will be, as does the reality of an agreement in place. But most importantly it is sustainable because the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza are willing to march against the authorities and even overthrow them if divisions resurface.
The winds of change which swept across Tunisia to Egypt, travelling from Tahrir Square to the streets of Gaza and Ramallah, simply declare that imposing the will of the ruler is no longer a possibility after the ouster of Mubarak and Ben Ali before him. The exaggerated rejoicing on the streets of Gaza sent a message from the people to the powers that be that there are many squares in Gaza and Ramallah, and one of them could become a “Palestinian Tahrir Square” to topple the regime.
Israel will seek a reason to attack Gaza and dissolve the reconciliation deal, but hopefully none of the Palestinian factions will provide it with a pretext. What is needed is to uphold the agreement and respect it until September, when the UN General Assembly will meet to discuss the proposal to recognise an independent Palestinian state. It is most likely to approve the motion with a majority of more than 90 per cent of member states, where every state has a vote and no one has the right of veto.
If we arrive at this point, the entire equation will change. Negotiations will no longer be between an occupying state and an authority representing a people under occupation, but talks will be between two states; one of whom occupies the land of the other. Also, recognition of a Palestinian state by the majority of the global community will represent compelling ethical and political obligations for the US, which may in the end surrender to the notion of an independent Palestinian state.
But will the reconciliation accord survive after next September?