Palestinian Unity Deal Could Lead to Change

When I finished my midterm on Tuesday morning, I switched on my phone and was surprised by the flood of emails, articles and messages: Fatah, with mediation by Cairo, had successively reached a reconciliation pact with Hamas. Was Palestinian unity achieved overnight?

Fatah, the secular Palestinian political faction currently leading the Western-backed Palestinian Authority (PA) and operating in the West Bank, had been in long-term dispute with their Islamist rivals, Hamas, who expelled the PA from Gaza, launching a bloody intra-Palestinian civil war. The PA and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), who accepted Israel’s right to exist in the 1990s adopting a stance of non-violence, have been at odds with Hamas, who utterly rejects Israel’s existence and carries strict anti-Semitic lines.

Mahmoud al-Zahar, co-founder of Hamas, said in 2010: “There is no place for Jews among us. And you have no future among the nations of the world. You are headed to annihilation.”

Like clockwork, the Israeli government had already released statement after statement condemning the agreement, naming any attempt at cooperation with Hamas — which is labeled a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States and the European Union — a “complete collapse of the peace process.” I expect the ever-hawkish Zionist Organization of America and “StandWithUs” to exploit this opportunity in order to raise money.

Further analysis, however, shows that the situation is not as cut-and-dry as many in the traditional pro-Israel community perceive it to be. Hamas, who has effective control of the Gaza strip, has been suffering a number of setbacks in the recent months. Vittorio Arrigoni, a member of the pro-Hamas International Solidarity Movement, was kidnapped and subsequently murdered by “Salafists” — an exceptionally radical Islamic sect that utterly rejects the “West” in any form.

Senior aids in the Palestinian Authority, who were not authorized to speak to the media, told the New York Times that Hamas had accepted the deal proposed by a joint Egyptian-Fatah team almost two years ago because of new realities in the region that found Hamas “in a position of weakness.” Hamas’ leadership, based in turmoil-ridden Syria, may no longer have a safe haven. Egypt, while more willing to working with Hamas than former President Hosni Mubarak, was not openly embracing an Islamist path. All of Hamas’ cards were being spent.

Of course, it’s clear that this deal is far from successful. Announcements by Hamas and Fatah leaders, even inside of their own respective parties, shows a clear disconnect over the goals behind an accord; this is particularly evident with the current security cooperation with Israel. A senior IDF official, speaking on anonymity for Haaretz, said that security cooperation between Israel and the PA is at an all-time high, and that the army views the accord as “no more than an agreement in principle … announced primarily to appease the Palestinian street.”

Many Hamas leaders pronounced the accord as a means to end the peace with Israel, but Mahmoud Abbas, the PA president, said that as chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), he remained “in charge of peace efforts with Israel” and that the future unity government, if formed, would have two functions: rebuilding Gaza and setting up elections within a year. Taher al-Nounou, a Hamas spokesman, said that Hamas would abide by any PLO negotiations.

Some Israelis managed to show a surprising degree of optimism. “I have always felt that divisions within Palestinian politics were not good for peace and [I] see this as a step forward,” said Tamar Hermann, the leader of public opinion polling at the Israel Democracy Institute. Efraim Halevy, former chief of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, agreed that without including Hamas there could be no serious progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Furthermore, in a Truman Institute survey from March 2011, 53 percent of Israelis supported negotiating with Hamas for a cease-fire — and that was before the forming of a Hamas-Fatah coalition; there is likely even higher support for negotiating permanent peace now.

I myself am embracing optimism as well. Hamas, it seems, is effectively giving up on the notion of a total Palestinian takeover, the infamous “one Islamist state” from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. It’s true that Hamas is not the ideal partner for peace, and we can’t be sure if the accord will even succeed past statements in the media. However, it was Israeli general Moshe Dayan who famously said, “If you want to make peace, you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies.” Hamas, who recently announced their “adamant opposition” to teaching about the Holocaust in schools, may be pressured to adopt the principles of the Middle Eastern Quartet (UN, US, EU and Russia), calling for the rejection of violence and recognition of Israel within the 1967 borders.

Salman Shaikh, director of the leading think-tank in the U.S., and Brookings, former UN Special Envoy to the Middle East, stated that a national unity government will strengthen the politicians of Hamas, not the militants, and “offer the best prospect of an extended period of calm in Israel.”

Conclusively a delegation of the Israeli “peace camp” visited Ramallah this week, including the daughter of Rabbi Obadia Yousef, who has called Palestinians “animals who should be swept from the earth.” When Abbas learned she was in the delegation, he turned to her and said, “tell your father that we are sincere about making peace.”

What really hit me, however, was not Mahmoud Abbas’ words, but an interview with former chief PLO negotiator, Saeb Erekat. Responding to Israeli media, he shrugged off a question about the implications of bringing Hamas and Fatah together to form a unified Palestinian government. “This is about peace, but also about democracy … We respect the democratic choices of [Israel], we ask Israel to respect ours.”

Matan Lurey is a fourth-year software engineering major. He can be reached at