The Middle East Could Still Explode
The Middle East Could Still Explode
Briefing / Middle East & North Africa 4 minutes

Palestine Divided

The current reconciliation process between the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) and Palestinian National Liberation Movement (Fatah) is a continuation of their struggle through other means.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

I. Overview

The current reconciliation process between the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) and Palestinian National Liberation Movement (Fatah) is a continuation of their struggle through other means. The goals pursued by the two movements are domestic and regional legitimacy, together with consolidation of territorial control – not national unity. This is understandable. At this stage, both parties see greater cost than reward in a compromise that would entail loss of Gaza for one and an uncomfortable partnership coupled with an Islamist foothold in the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) for the other. Regionally, Syria – still under pressure from Washington and others in the Arab world – has little incentive today to press Hamas to compromise, while Egypt and Saudi Arabia are tilting more pointedly toward Fatah. It will take significant shifts in domestic, regional and international attitudes for this to change. Palestine’s political-territorial division, now over a year old, is set to endure.

The irony is that the division between the West Bank and Gaza is hardening just as a growing number of international actors acknowledge that without Palestinian unity a genuine peace process, let alone a genuine peace, is unattainable. Changing the dynamics that have convinced both Fatah and Hamas that time is on their side and compromise against their interests will be daunting. At a minimum, it will require both a change in the regional landscape (through U.S. engagement with Syria and Iran) and a clear signal from the U.S. and European Union (EU) that, this time around, they would judge a Palestinian unity arrangement on its conduct rather than automatically torpedo it. Ultimately, the responsibility to put their affairs in order must fall on Palestinian shoulders. But the division of the national movement, which came about at least in part because of what outsiders did, will not be undone without outsiders’ help.

At bottom, the two movements seek fundamentally different outcomes from the process. For Fatah, it is potentially a means of reversing Hamas’s Gaza takeover; at a minimum a method to legitimise extension of Mahmoud Abbas’s presidency; and, in the event of failure, a way to assign blame to the Islamist movement. Hamas, by contrast, is looking to gain recognition and legitimacy, pry open the PLO and lessen pressure against the movement in the West Bank. Loath to concede control of Gaza, it is resolutely opposed to doing so without a guaranteed strategic quid pro quo.

The gap between the two movements has increased over time. What was possible two years or even one year ago has become far more difficult today. In January 2006 President Abbas evinced some flexibility. That quality is now in significantly shorter supply. Fatah’s humiliating defeat in Gaza and Hamas’s bloody tactics have hardened the president’s and Fatah’s stance; moreover, despite slower than hoped for progress in the West Bank and inconclusive political negotiations with Israel, the president and his colleagues believe their situation is improving. They are convinced that they are gaining politically in the West Bank; the newly trained and better equipped security forces are establishing order and waging a wholesale crackdown on Hamas; Israel has loosened some restrictions; and there are signs of economic growth. Abbas enjoys strong regional and international backing, and he hopes U.S. engagement will intensify with the incoming administration.

The cost-benefit analysis is clear: reconciliation could mean the end of Fatah’s administrative and security monopoly in the West Bank and de facto hegemony over the PLO, while partnership with Hamas might jeopardise negotiations with Israel, international backing and financial support to the PA. In exchange for all this, the movement would gain little more than shared control over Gaza, where Ramallah’s influence had shrunk even before the takeover.

For now, Hamas, too, sees time as its ally and reconciliation as a trap. Islamist leaders who, during the 2006 parliamentary elections, had wagered on the political process and sought integration into the Palestinian Authority (PA) are losing influence. Then, the movement’s goals were the ability to govern and a measure of international recognition. With Gaza firmly in hand, Hamas’s price for inclusion in the political system has risen. The Gaza model – withstanding the siege, maintaining core ideological principles and achieving a ceasefire with Israel – may not be all that Hamas desires, but it is as successful as it need be. Gazans are suffering from an acute economic and social crisis, but the Islamic movement is internally secure, new elites more dependent on the movement are emerging, and basic government functions appear sustainable.

From the outset sceptical about Abbas’s negotiations with Israeli Prime Minister Olmert, Hamas leaders are persuaded chances for a diplomatic breakthrough will be dealt an even greater setback if, as expected, Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu forms the next Israeli government. In the West Bank, they are persuaded that cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security forces is viewed by a growing number of Palestinians as tantamount to collaboration with the occupier. Finally, as they see it, Abbas’s domestic legitimacy will be crucially undermined when his presidential term expires on 9 January 2009. To a growing portion of Hamas’s political leadership, together with the movement’s increasingly influential military wing, reconciliation looks like a ploy designed to deprive them of control over Gaza without commensurate gain.

Ramallah/Gaza/Brussels, 17 December 2008

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.