Several weeks after the signing of the October 12, 2017 reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas, the euphoria that had initially been felt on the Palestinian street, and even more so in political circles, seems to be waning, and there are increasing doubts as to the possibility of reaching an understanding between the sides. The disagreements are over several issues: the weapons of the various Palestinian factions; the transfer of responsibilities, including for security, from Hamas to the Palestinian Authority (PA); control of the border crossings, in particular the Rafah crossing, and the future of Gaza civil servants. In the background are also Hamas's demands that the PA lift its sanctions on Gaza, stop the arrests of Hamas operatives in the West Bank, and halt the security coordination with Israel.
The tension and disputes between the PA and Hamas came to a head at the conference of Palestinian factions in Cairo on November 21, 2017, at which representatives of Egyptian intelligence were forced to wield all their influence to keep the talks from falling apart. The PA insisted that Hamas first of all meet the demand of tamkin (i.e., allow the PA's national consensus government, headed by Rami Hamdallah, to exercise full authority in Gaza), in all spheres, including security. Hamas's representatives claimed that this has already been done, and demanded to focus on other issues, such as the PLO reform and the holding of elections. As for Hamas's demand that the PA lift its sanctions on Gaza, the PA objected to the use of the term "sanctions". Eventually it was agreed that an Egyptian delegation would oversee the handover of authority. PLO Executive Committee member Ahmad Majdalani tried to bring up the issue of the weapons, but the factions rejected this out of hand and stopped the discussion.
The crisis between Fatah and Hamas was sharply reflected in an interview given by PA Civil Affairs Minister Hussein Al-Sheikh, who said: "So far Hamas has not allowed the [PA] government to govern [Gaza] on the administrative, financial or security [levels]. The scope of the PA's authority in Gaza is only about five percent." An editorial in the PA daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida likewise stated that Hamas merely wants the PA to extricate it from its economic and social crisis, and does not intend to grant it any genuine authority in Gaza. (For a translation of excerpts from the editorial, see the Appendix to this report).
The deputy head of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), Ahmad Bahar of Hamas, said: "The [PA] government will be able to exercise its authority in Gaza only after the siege on Gaza is lifted and the PA's security coordination with Israel stops. These conditions make the possibility of reconciliation even more remote.
The signing of the reconciliation agreement in Cairo (image: palinfo.com, October 13, 2017)
This report reviews the main disputes between Fatah/the PA and Hamas that are impeding the reconciliation.
The Main Point Of Contention: The Weapons Of The Palestinian Factions, In Particular Hamas's Military Wing
The issue of the weapons has been casting a shadow on the reconciliation process from the start, and highlights the scope of the disagreement between the two sides. Hamas firmly asserts that the issue is beyond debate, since its weapons are intended for use against Israel. For example, Hamas political bureau head Moussa Abu Marzouq said in an interview with the Turkish news agency Andolu: "Hamas will under no circumstances agree to negotiate with Fatah over the weapons of its military wing. This issue has never been discussed in the past and will not be discussed in the future. The weapons of the resistance are intended for the defense of the Palestinian people, and the resistance cannot conceivably cast down its weapons as long as its land is occupied and its people are living in exile."
As for the PA and Fatah, their position on this matter is more complex. Palestinian President Mahmoud 'Abbas has consistently stressed that there must be only one government, one law and one armed force. Other PA officials made contradictory statements, some opposing Hamas's disarmament and others advocating it. Among the former were Fatah official and former PA minister Ahmad Ghneim, who said: "The weapons of the resistance must be regarded as one of the assets of the Palestinian people in the struggle against the occupation, and they do not belong exclusively to one faction or another. Everyone zealously clings to these weapons and will never agree to surrender them or give them up." Fatah representative in Bethlehem 'Awni Al-Mashni said, in a similar vein: "The weapons of the government are not weapons of liberation, but are intended to protect the safety of society and are not in dispute. Conversely, the weapons of the factions are meant to be weapons of national liberation... Whoever surrenders his arms and then negotiates violates the most basic law of politics – that you talk about weapons, even if their impact is small, only at the final [stages of] negotiations, not at the beginning."
Among the advocates of disarmament, who are lately being heard more and more, were Fatah official 'Azzam Al-Ahmad, who said at the close of the talks between the two sides: "The Palestinian weapons must be one, regardless of various terms like 'weapons of the resistance,' etc." PA Civil Affairs Minister Hussein Al-Sheikh said in his interview: "There will no longer be such a thing as 'the weapons of the factions'... We will not allow any weapons apart from those of the single armed [force] of the [PA] authorities." The Al-Hayat Al-Jadida editorial took a similar line (see Appendix).
The Dispute Over Authorities, Including Security Control
The dispute between Fatah and Hamas deepened even further over the issue of security control. PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah clarified that the PA could not govern Gaza if it was not given charge of security: "The border crossings in the [Gaza] Strip will not be able to function without [the PA being in charge of] security... The government cannot continue [functioning in Gaza] without clear solutions for the security issue."
Hamas officials said in response that Hamdallah's remarks, and the PA's failure to lift the sanctions on Gaza, indicated an unwillingness on the part of the PA to implement the reconciliation. The Hamas Interior Ministry expressed puzzlement over PA officials' statements about the border crossings, saying that they were attempting to "circumvent the mechanism for implementing the reconciliation process."
Nor did the transfer of other authorities go smoothly. PA and Fatah officials complained that some Hamas ministries and bodies refused to hand over control to the PA. The Ministry of the Environment, for example, delayed the process, and the Land Registration Bureau was not handed over at all due to the refusal of its head to give up his authorities in Gaza.
The PA Al-Hayat Al-Jadida daily reported that the Hamas authorities had damaged the Tel Al-Sakan archeological site by destroying the fence that had been built around it to protect it and leveling the area, and had barred the PA archeological team from entering the site and threatened its members – although a Gaza court had issued a restraining order to halt operations at the site following protests about damage caused to it.
In the meantime, Fatah and Hamas have agreed, with Egyptian sponsorship, to postpone the deadline for the full transfer of authorities from December 1, the date specified in the reconciliation agreement, to December 10.
Hamas Opposes The Firing Of Civil Servants It Has Appointed Since 2007
The reconciliation agreement states that the PA government would, by February 1, 2018, establish a judicial administrative committee to draw up solutions for the problem of Gaza civil servants. The issue at hand is the payment of salaries to civil servants who were appointed by Hamas over the past decade, and at the same time bringing back in the PA employees who left their positions after the Hamas coup in Gaza. Against this backdrop, senior Hamas official Rohi Mushtaha expressed the movement's objections to the replacement of civil servants appointed by Hamas with those appointed by the PA, and declared that the Hamas employees "will not be removed and will not be fired." It should be noted that at this point the PA is unable to pay the salaries of some 40,000 civil servants appointed by Hamas after its takeover of Gaza.
The Dispute Over The Border Crossings
A serious PA-Hamas dispute also emerged regarding the Rafah border crossing. Fatah members argued that the crossing would be operated according to the crossings agreement of 2005, under which European observers would be stationed at the crossings. According to senior Fatah official 'Azzam Al-Ahmad, it was agreed with Hamas that the crossing would be opened as per the 2005 agreement, but Hamas then retracted its consent. Senior Hamas official Khalil Al-Hayya said in response: "We rejected the 2005 Rafah border crossing agreement in the past. This was concluded with the PA two years ago in Lebanon, and this is documented in the summaries of Hamas's meetings with PA representatives 'Azzam Al-Ahmad, Hussein Al-Sheikh, and Majed Faraj." It should be noted that the Rafah crossing is currently closed, although according to the reconciliation agreement it was to have been opened on November 15.
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The transfer of the administration of the crossings to the PA was about to fall apart because PA representatives insisted that Hamas members, both civilian and military, not remain at the crossings, while according to Hamas this constituted a violation of the agreement. In light of threats by PA border crossing administrator Nizmi Mihana to quit, the Egyptian mediators persuaded Hamas official Ghazi Hamad, who is in charge of the border crossings in Gaza, to comply with the PA's demand and to hand the crossings over no matter what. In response, the Hamas security apparatus departed from the Rafah crossing and from the roadblocks near the Erez and the Kerem Shalom crossings, leaving them in the hands of PA representatives who came with limited manpower – only 70 personnel to administer three border crossings. As a result, security chaos reigned, with some of the residents taking advantage of the situation to steal equipment and vehicles.
In reaction to these events, senior Hamas official Moussa Abu Marzouq said that the PA was not interested in cooperating with Hamas, but only in gaining exclusive control over Gaza, and noted: "The handover of the Rafah crossing was carried out improperly, not as agreed. Any agreement that is unjust and does not honor what was agreed will not succeed."
Cartoon in Hamas daily Al-Risalah: PA President 'Abbas relaxes at the closed Rafah crossing (Alresalah.ps, November 16, 2017).
The Effect Of Inter-Arab And International Rivalries
The chances of the reconciliation's success are also impacted by the struggles among the Arab countries, as well as by international rivalries. The PA is considered part of the Arab world's moderate axis, along with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the UAE, while Hamas is currently revitalizing its relations with the Shi'ite-Alawite resistance axis, led by Iran, relations that had been close but gradually frayed after the Arab Spring. At one point, Hamas drew closer to Turkey and Qatar, seeing them as a source of support, until this relationship too became shaky. The lesson learned by the Hamas leaders was not to pick a single axis to align themselves with, but to leave themselves room to maneuver. Today, Hamas belongs to no axis, and has good relations with both Iran/Hizbullah and with Egypt. There have also been reports that it may be improving its relations with Syria; however, tension between it and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states remain.
Despite The Disagreements, Both Hamas And Fatah Are Committed To Reconciliation
Despite all the disagreements, tensions, and mutual accusations between Fatah and Hamas, spokesmen for both movements are careful to state that there is no turning back from the reconciliation, so that they will not be accused of thwarting it. Senior Fatah official 'Azzam Al-Ahmad said after the November 21 Cairo dialogue that the sides had agreed that all obstacles to implementing the reconciliation would be removed by election time. He said: "The Palestinian schism is the handiwork of several international elements, but faced with our will, no power on earth will divide the Palestinian people." Yahya Sinwar, head of the Hamas political bureau in the Gaza Strip, said: "The schism is in the interest of the occupation, and we, as Palestinian, patriots, and Muslims, must not permit this situation to continue."
Appendix: November 27, 2017 Al-Hayat Al-Jadida Editorial
"What is the connection between, on the one hand, giving the national reconciliation government the possibility of exercising its authority and functioning fully in the southern districts, and on the other hand the weapons of the resistance – which Hamas spokesman [Sami] Abu Zuhri claims in the media are the weapons of the militias of his movement, the ['Izz Al-Din] Al-Qassam Brigades? How does allowing [the government to exercise its authority] become an 'attempt to subordinate' the weapons of the resistance, if they do indeed exist, when allowing this is aimed only at establishing security and order in the southern districts and letting the government continue its activity as it does in the northern districts? Likewise, as noted, the weapons of the Al-Qassam [Brigades] are not the weapons of the resistance, but are the weapons of a particular faction. These weapons are, to some extent, a manifestation of the loss of security control; specifically, these weapons were used against the legitimate rule in Gaza [in the anti-PA coup that concluded, in June 2007, with the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip], and they killed more [PA] members than they harmed soldiers of the Israeli occupation!!!...
"Abu Zuhri knows that there is no connection between these [two] things, but he is clinging to his movement's worn-out slogans so as to avoid the day when the obligations for the reconciliation must be met, and in order to circumvent the agreement in this matter. Thus, Abu Zuhri reveals that his movement's attitude to the reconciliation agreement is for show and for media purposes [only] – and thus he proves, unknowingly and unwillingly of course – the truth and rightness of the words of Fatah leader Mahmoud Al-'Aloul and, later, of Fatah Central Committee member Hussein Al-Sheikh – that the government's ability [to exercise its authority in the Gaza Strip] is still token, and not genuine, and its scope is no greater than 5%.
"'Aloul and Al-Sheikh did not talk about 'weapons of the resistance' but about strengthening the government, and about the issue of security, where not even a minimum of progress has been achieved... Strengthening the government according to the reconciliation agreement means, simply, that the government will receive [responsibility for] all ministries, institutions, and departments in the southern districts, in order to establish a single ruling authority and a single law – a law that will protect security and stability and will not, ultimately, allow the weapons of the militias to violate any decision made by this single law – because the single law cannot coexist with the weapons of the militias, and is in no way compatible with them.
"But it appears that all Hamas wants is for the reconciliation government to extricate it from its economic and social crisis and, in the best case scenario, for it to run the affairs of the municipalities – nothing more and nothing less!!! In fact, it seems clear that Hamas is not interested at all in leaving power – as Isma'il Haniya said three years ago: 'We have left the government and have not left power.' This is the situation today [as well], in light of [Hamas's] policy, which turned the matter of strengthening the government into something token, not genuine at all.
"There are many examples proving this reality, and perhaps one of them, now, is the misleading declarations by Abu Zuhri that contradict reality and are even stated in the loathsome language of schism, blame, and tension.
"But the national reconciliation is the responsibility of the national echelon, which will not back down from executing it as required, because it is meant to remove the suffering from the shoulders of our people in the southern districts, so that they can honorably restore the health of their daily lives. The national reconciliation is not aimed at takeover, nor at sectarian division, but at securing the national future by rebuilding national unity on the strongest of foundations. [This is] so that we will continue the path to freedom, until the actualization of all the just goals of our people, and until the restoration of all its rights by overcoming the occupation, actualizing independence in the State of Palestine whose capital is East Jerusalem, and by means of a permanent and just solution to the issue of the refugees.
"There is no way back from the reconciliation, and there is no bargaining over its lofty goals. The last word is in the hands of the patroness [of the reconciliation] – sister Egypt."
*C. Jacob is a research fellow at MEMRI.
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