Journal Essay

Indispensable but Elusive: Palestinian National Reunification

Hussein Ibish

Fall 2014, Volume XXI, Number 3

Dr. Ibish is senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine.

With the latest round of Israel-Hamas hostilities giving way to a tense truce and cease-fire negotiations in Cairo, the Palestinian national-unity agreement has suddenly, and unexpectedly, become central to the thinking of all major players. What had looked strongly like a pro forma and essentially failed political initiative may be salvaged and transformed by the Gaza war into a centerpiece of the post conflict scenario. It will not, in reality and in the short term, involve full Palestinian political reunification. That would require a merging of the security and armed forces of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas and, in effect, the disarming of Hamas's paramilitary wing, the Qassam Brigades. There is no chance Hamas would agree to this unless the organization were truly broken, and nothing in the foreseeable future appears likely to achieve that result. However, a degree of Palestinian political transformation now appears possible.

Why Hamas Signed the Unity Agreement

Since the split between Hamas's rule in Gaza and the PA's rule in the West Bank in 2007, nearly all Palestinians have regarded this national division as a political disaster. It has meant that much of what both parties do is defined by their competition rather than the cause of national liberation and the goal of ending Israel's occupation. Hamas, in particular, has been guided almost entirely by its determination to try to marginalize Fatah and either eliminate or take over the PA and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Much of what the Ramallah leadership does is also guided by the goal of fending off this challenge. However, both parties may now feel obliged to maintain the new unity government established on the basis of the agreement they reached on April 23, 2014.

Knowing that most Palestinians desperately wanted and indeed demanded an end to that division, Hamas and Fatah had made several earlier aborted attempts at reconciliation, most notably the agreements in Doha and Cairo. But in neither case were they implemented. None of the issues that destroyed the brief period of cohabitation in 2006-07 between a Hamas-led parliament and a Fatah-led presidency had been resolved. It was not possible to fit the square peg of Hamas's strategy of armed struggle to secure the liberation of all of historical Palestine into the round hole of the PA/PLO strategy of seeking to establish an independent Palestinian state in the occupied territories through diplomacy, nonviolence and, especially, an agreement with Israel. Moreover, the two parties had incompatible visions of the nature of their society, the role of religion in state and society, the status of women and religious minorities, and virtually everything else.

Hamas entered into the most recent agreement through a complex process of increasing desperation. It suffered a series of devastating blows over the past three years, which led it to completely rethink its strategy. Hamas had, incongruously, long been both a core Muslim Brotherhood party, and hence Sunni Islamists, yet at the same time a key member of the mainly Shiite pro-Iranian alliance. This political feat was accomplished through the mythology of an "axis of resistance" that seemed to transcend sectarian differences. However, as sectarianism became a dominant narrative in the region over the course of the so-called Arab Spring, the space for such a complex, and increasingly counterintuitive, position collapsed.

The Syrian rebellion, in particular, forced the issue. Because the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood was not only a core member of the opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but at the early stages of the uprising perhaps the most important political grouping opposed to the dictatorship, Hamas found itself in an untenable position. Hamas's dominant political bureau was headquartered in Damascus, and its primary funding, arms supplies and military training came from Iran. The Syrian situation forced Hamas to choose between its essential identity as a Muslim Brotherhood party and continuing good relations with its main patrons in Syria and Iran. Hamas could not but choose to maintain its core identity, and key Hamas leaders had to leave Syria (in the process abandoning large amounts of property and investment belonging to both the organization and its leaders). Funding from Iran also dried up, and Iran's attention in Gaza began to focus much more on Hamas's rival, Islamic Jihad.

All was not lost, however, despite this heavy blow. Hamas remained optimistic; like many others, it believed that post-dictatorship dynamics in an emerging new Arab world would bring Muslim Brotherhood parties to power in many Arab states, especially Egypt. Hamas's hopes were encouraged by the election of Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohamed Morsi in June 2012. Although Hamas did not gain any specific tangible benefits from having an ideologically sympathetic Egyptian leader during Morsi's actual presidency, nonetheless they could console themselves with the notion that, eventually, Morsi's policies would lead Egypt in a more friendly direction. They saw Morsi's election, along with the (also short-lived) triumph of the Brotherhood-oriented Ennahda party in Tunisia, as harbingers of a broad trend of political victories for the Brotherhood movement. They were confident they were part of the wave of the future.

Those hopes were dashed by the July 3, 2013, ouster of Morsi by a military-led coalition after an unprecedented public outcry against his rule. The new Egyptian government, under the guidance of the military, launched a massive crackdown against the Brotherhood, including the violent suppression of protesters involving hundreds of deaths, the jailing of most of its key leaders, and other harsh measures. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was accused of being a terrorist organization and of collaborating with established terrorist groups operating out of the Sinai Peninsula, especially Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (Supporters of Jerusalem), which had been openly conducting a terrorist campaign against the Egyptian military in Sinai.

The accusations did not stop at the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. They were, in many cases, extended to cover Hamas as well. Shortly after the ouster of Morsi, the Egyptian military swept into northern Sinai in a massive crackdown against insurgents and rebel groups there. They claim that they discovered Hamas forces operating on the Egyptian side of the border in collaboration with bandits, terrorists, insurgents and others. Indeed, they claim to have killed some two dozen Hamas cadres in the initial operations. Hamas denied all of this, but to no avail. Egypt implemented a massive crackdown on Hamas, which it now treated as a hostile entity.

Egypt has always regarded the Gaza border area and the Rafah crossing as more of a domestic and national-security issue than a foreign-policy challenge. This sense was heightened by the perception that Gaza was governed by an entity, Hamas, that actively supported subversion and even terrorism inside Egypt itself. Following this logic, Egypt moved to shut down smuggling tunnels, make it much harder for anything or anyone to pass between Egypt and Gaza, and close the crossing except for humanitarian purposes or other special exceptions.

Gaza had never in its history been this cut off. The Egyptian blockade was, if anything, tighter than the Israeli blockade. And Egypt was in no way constrained, as Israel is, by the responsibilities accruing to the officially designated (by the UN Security Council) occupying power in Gaza. Israel has both the rights and the responsibilities of an occupying power in all of the Palestinian territories seized in 1967; Egypt's lawful prerogatives are much more elastic. Hamas soon found itself politically isolated, diplomatically squeezed and economically strangled at a whole new level, even considering that the blockade had existed since the 2007 split with the PA in the West Bank. Every survey, poll and other evidence suggested that, not only was Hamas itself now experiencing unprecedented woes, its popularity in Gaza was suffering a precipitate nosedive. Goods were unavailable, electricity and water were unprovided, and salaries were unpaid.

What Hamas Hoped to Achieve

This was the context under which Hamas agreed to the unity deal, signed in Gaza City on April 23, 2014, between its de facto "prime minister" in the Strip, Ismail Haniyeh, and a PLO delegation representing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. At first glance, the provisions of the agreement appear to be highly disadvantageous to Hamas. The government that was eventually formed under its provisions contained no Hamas members. It was led by Abbas as president and, more directly, the incumbent Abbas appointee, Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah. Most of the key ministers in the existing PA government in Ramallah were simply transferred into the new "unity" government.

Moreover, from the outset, Abbas pledged, and in practice the new government affirmed, that it would strictly abide by three conditions demanded by the United States and other key actors in the international community: recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence, and affirmation of the inviolability of existing Palestinian treaty commitments. These amount to the conditions laid down by the Middle East Quartet (United States, European Union, Russia and the UN Secretariat). Hamas had refused them. In other words, the new Palestinian government embraced the policies of the PLO towards both Israel and its approach towards Palestinian national liberation.

However, while the advantage in the arrangement seemed, at least at a superficial level, to be entirely with the PA and the PLO, Hamas had its own interpretations and its own intentions. It had secured Fatah, PA and PLO acceptance of the biggest single requirement from its own point of view: the issue of the Hamas Qassam Brigades was not raised or dealt with by the accord. Therefore, even in the context of the "unity" agreement and government, Hamas would retain its large, independent and powerful paramilitary force. Therefore, it would continue to be the dominant presence in Gaza, especially at crucial moments, and would continue to practice, in effect, its own security and foreign policies. Hamas had not compromised its trump card.

Moreover, ceding nominal authority over most aspects of governance in Gaza to the PA might have been humiliating, but it held certain key benefits for Hamas. It promised, for example, to potentially open the way for an influx of cash from Ramallah, and, via Ramallah, from Arab states and the international donor community. Hamas could leverage the international reputation and diplomatic standing of the PA and the PLO in order to resuscitate the Gazan economy and claim some credit for that in the process. Moreover, Hamas was never particularly interested in, and failed abysmally at, the workaday chores of local governance. The PA has a better, though mixed, record of governance in Area A of the West Bank, peaking with a heartening performance during Salam Fayyad's tenure as prime minister.

Hamas may have concluded that Gaza had become more of a political a trap than a useful base for them. Inside the narrow Strip, they were contained, indeed quarantined, by Israel and a now-hostile Egypt. In terms of governance, the territory was as much a burden as an asset. With 1.8 million people crammed into a tiny area and subjected to an unparalleled blockade — particularly regarding exports, which were almost entirely prohibited by its two neighbors — Gaza was proving ungovernable, nonviable and increasingly restive. The idea of handing governance and economic responsibility to somebody else must have had a certain appeal.

Furthermore, Hamas seems to have concluded that its long-term campaign to seize dominance within the Palestinian national movement, its primary goal since its founding, was simply not possible to accomplish using Gaza as a base. Hamas was not only diplomatically isolated and financially impoverished, it was far away from the Palestinian heartland in the West Bank, and the epicenter of Palestinian political life and aspirations: East Jerusalem. There is every reason to believe that Hamas leaders decided that giving up a degree of power and authority in Gaza would be worth it — if the agreement would allow them to operate more freely, openly and effectively in the West Bank.

Why the PA/PLO Signed the Unity Agreement

The leadership in Ramallah was also naturally disinclined to implement any real power-sharing agreement with their rivals. At least two other major unity agreements had been signed but not enforced, in April 2011 in Cairo and in February 2012 in Doha. The terms of both of these earlier agreements were similar to the 2014 accord. Both parties had thereby proven their sensitivity to public pressure, but also their profound reluctance to actualize these agreements. However, unlike the two earlier false starts, the 2014 agreement did, in fact, lead to the creation of a new government.

As Hamas was facing an unprecedented meltdown in Gaza during 2013-14, the Ramallah leadership was also in a severe, albeit less extreme, crisis of its own. Like Hamas, its leaders lacked a popular mandate; no elections had been held since early 2006. Its policy of negotiating with Israel had not produced any tangible benefits in years, but had occasioned significant frustration. Its controversial policy of security coordination with Israel helped to secure law and order and stability, but in the absence of diplomatic progress, it often was painted as simply providing calm for the occupier. The sense of patriotic duty and national purpose was being weakened both within the security services, and, especially, in the public perception of their role.

Abbas and the PLO had faced down the West and Israel twice at the United Nations, first in a failed 2011 attempt at the Security Council to gain full UN membership. This produced a series of punitive measures, including a reduction in aid, but because the attempt failed, the backlash was manageable. A year later, in 2012, however, the PLO was able to successfully upgrade its UN status, via the General Assembly, from "Observer Mission" to "Non-Member Observer State." This did not change Palestine's prerogatives or responsibilities in the General Assembly much, but it demonstrated the PLO's willingness to use its very solid majority in any global body that conducts its business on the basis of one state, one vote. This development is also significant because every entity that has attained the status of UN Non-Member Observer State has eventually become a full UN member, either on its own or as part of a larger national entity. The sole exception is Vatican City, which does not wish to be a UN member state.

In addition to signaling a PLO willingness to defy Israel, the United States and some European states, and to "internationalize" diplomacy on the issue, the second, successful, UN initiative also hinted at further potential Palestinian measures to join other multilateral organizations and treaties based on the same international majority. Israel was particularly alarmed at the prospect of Palestinians acceding to the Statute of Rome and thereby joining the Assembly of Parties at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Through such means, Palestine could potentially not only be a party to the statute, but invoke its provisions in complaints against Israel, providing that the Palestinian non-member UN observer state was ruled to be sovereign in the territory in question, most notably Gaza (Israel is not a signatory to the statute). This prospect potentially threatened Israeli officials and military officers with war crimes investigations, and possibly prosecutions, over the long run.

The United States, while also opposed to a Palestinian ICC initiative, faced potential concerns of its own. Still binding, although profoundly anachronistic, American legislation mandates that the United States defund any international agency that recognizes or admits Palestine as a member. The validity of this law was already tested in the case of UNESCO, which Palestine joined in 2011, and seems to be as applicable as when it was passed in the 1990s. The United States withdrew all funding from UNESCO in 2011 and in November 2013 was stripped of its voting rights in the organization. Americans worried that they could be forced out of key multilateral agencies such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, the centerpiece of global nonproliferation initiatives (currently focused on Iran), and the World Intellectual Property Organization, through which the United States protects the copyrights, patents and trademarks held by Microsoft, Apple, Disney and other U.S. companies, particularly in the information-technology and entertainment fields.

For all these reasons, the backlash against the 2012 Palestinian UN initiative was intense and had profound and extremely negative consequences. American aid was, in effect, cut by three quarters, while European aid was similarly reduced. Israel withheld the Palestinian tax revenues it collects on imports and exports and is bound, under the Paris Protocol, to hand over to the PA. These alone constitute at least 50 percent of a typical monthly PA budget, and often much more. Most of that budget is used to pay public-sector employees. As a consequence of this economic backlash, the PA experienced its own fiscal meltdown and found itself unable to pay salaries or fund programs. Fayyad's institution-building program, which had been so promising and had exceeded all expectations, was virtually halted. The prime minister himself came under an unprecedented barrage of personal and vitriolic attacks, particularly by angry Fatah cadres, on the pretext of the economic situation. Ironically, Fayyad was the only prominent Palestinian official on record about the cost-benefit ratio of the UN initiative, pointedly asking Abbas and others what they were going to do about the potential budget shortfall. They, of course, had no answer. When that inevitable shortfall began to severely undermine the PA fiscal status and the economic conditions in the West Bank, Fayyad took the blame.

On April 13, 2013, Fayyad had enough. He resigned, refusing to reconsider even under enormous pressure from many quarters, especially U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. But the damage had been done. When properly supported politically and funded internationally, the Fayyad-led state and institution-building initiatives had indeed served, as they were supposed to, as an invaluable bottom-up support structure for top-down negotiations. But without its leader in the premiership, and without much interest in the program from other Palestinian leaders, Israel or the United States, the project began to atrophy. Some of its achievements, particularly regarding reform and governance, were even somewhat reversed. The idea that improving conditions for Palestinian daily life was important to the overall project of achieving a two-state solution, buttressing diplomacy and creating conditions for successful statehood had, at least temporarily, been abandoned. The conditions of daily life not only stopped improving; they began to deteriorate.

The most recent American-led peace initiative, operating under a nine-month deadline established by Kerry, held out some hope for diplomatic progress, although almost everyone except the secretary of state appeared highly skeptical. Even President Barack Obama was on record expressing doubts. Israelis and Palestinians at every level were dubious. Nonetheless, no American diplomatic initiative can be casually dismissed, and as long as the talks continued, PLO diplomacy remained a politically viable proposition.

By March 2014, however, it was becoming increasingly clear that Kerry was getting nowhere. He was being stonewalled by Israel, which was pressing forward aggressively with settlements in a manner that seemed intended to humiliate the U.S. government in general, and Kerry in particular. Palestinians were even more exasperated. For the PA, the prospect of another looming collapse of diplomacy with Israel and the United States was profoundly alarming. For years, its approach had been dealt repeated blows because of the apparent inability to achieve progress with Israel on core final-status issues or towards Palestinian national liberation. Public confidence in not only PLO diplomacy, but PA governance and, even more alarmingly, the viability of a two-state solution with Israel, was being severely undermined.

This formed the essential backdrop to the PA/PLO interest in another agreement with Hamas, which this time seemed to have a better chance of being implemented. While most of the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring demanded regime change or government reform, this was not the case among Palestinians. The popular protests that erupted in both the West Bank and Gaza in the aftermath of the downfall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak instead called for national unity and reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. One of the reasons for this is that the worst governance failure, in the perception of many Palestinians, was the 2007 split between the two major parties and between the two major parts of Palestine — far more serious misrule than the lack of accountability, arbitrary abuses, corruption and one-party rule that drove protests in many other Arab societies. Another often overlooked, but vitally important, reason was that the reforms being pursued by the PA under Fayyad-led state-building initiatives actually anticipated many of the demands of the Arab Spring. They had certainly not been completed, but had they continued, the reforms might have constituted a model for other Arab societies.

However, when the most recent American peace initiative collapsed, the leadership in Ramallah faced few attractive options. It could intensify diplomatic efforts to secure greater recognition in multilateral agencies and UN bodies, but that did not actually change realities on the ground. While it might produce a brief spike in popularity, the costs were potentially significant in terms of aid and cooperation from Western states, as well as Israel's potential retaliation. The PLO was also not receiving the encouragement of Arab states to take this route, or promises that Arab support would replace Western shortfalls (pledges that had been made in the past but often not fully implemented). Promoting another intifada has been ruled out by the PA for the entire Abbas era, and a solid majority of Palestinians in the West Bank do not appear to want anything to do with the repetition of a bitter experience. Boycott campaigns aimed at Israel in general appear to do as much harm as good, and while European efforts to target the occupation were welcome and helpful, they were easily absorbed by the Israelis as an affront and a nuisance.

Yet something had to be done to regain the initiative and to move beyond the impasse with Israel. Therefore, an agreement with Hamas, despite deep reservations and significant costs, became much more attractive to Abbas and other Ramallah-based leaders. At the very least, they were hoping to shore up their legitimacy and popularity by once again demonstrating they were more sincere about national reunification than Hamas was, and by taking bold steps to prove it. In the past, Fatah has expressed much more serious interest in elections, for example, than Hamas has (the Hamas position being that unification had to precede elections, an excuse that distracts no one from their generally abysmal poll numbers). Moreover, the PA was obviously interested in an agreement that might give it more of a foothold back in Gaza than it had had since 2007. The goal of both parties, ultimately, is to marginalize each other in their respective areas of control. The PA and PLO seek to consolidate their longstanding but threatened control over the mainstream of the Palestinian national movement, while Hamas seeks to gain control of it.

PA/PLO interest in the agreement was obviously intensified by the perception that Hamas was negotiating from a position of weakness and was likely to agree to, and perhaps even implement, terms advantageous to Ramallah. In the event, that is what happened, particularly given that the PA never expected Hamas to discuss, let alone agree to, anything regarding the Qassam Brigades. But an understanding in which Abbas could remain president and be authorized as PLO chairman to conduct negotiations with Israel; retain his prime minister and most of his serving, and all of his key, ministers; and in which the new government would adopt the longstanding PLO positions of recognizing Israel, renouncing violence and upholding existing Palestinian obligations, proved very appealing.

Israel's Reasons for Opposing the Unity Agreement

The response from the Palestinians' key interlocutors was mixed. The United States laid down its core positions reflecting the Quartet principles, and, when they were met, Washington announced it was prepared to work with the new Palestinian government. Israel took a much harder line. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others insisted that they would never recognize or negotiate with any Palestinian government approved by Hamas. The general Israeli government line was that, by concluding an agreement with Hamas, the PA and the PLO had "chosen terrorism over peace," and that Palestinian nationalists could either negotiate with Israel or cooperate with Hamas, but not both.

This extreme stance seems to reflect a general lack of interest on the part of the Netanyahu government to seriously negotiate, let alone reach an agreement, with the PLO on core final-status issues. The Israeli prime minister has a long history of opposing a two-state solution in theory, as well as in principle. However, in his June 2009 speech at Bar Ilan University, Netanyahu declared himself a supporter of a two-state solution, at least in theory. Since then, there has been a widespread debate about his sincerity in this stance, which was essential for maintaining good relations with the United States. These doubts persisted throughout the negotiating process, reinforced by each impasse, whether fairly or unfairly. However, Netanyahu's undisguised commitment to the settlement project spurred Palestinian fears about his intentions at every stage. And his July 14, 2014, comments, as hostilities with Hamas were intensifying, that Israel could never give up security control in the occupied West Bank seemed to solidify the idea that Netanyahu would never agree to a fully-realized two-state solution with the Palestinians.

Some in the Israeli government at the time of Hamas's founding clearly hoped that dividing the Palestinian national movement between competing nationalist and Islamist camps would weaken the other side and strengthen Israel's hand. Indeed, this may still be a strong feature of the strategic thinking in some Israeli circles. It would reflect an attitude that fundamentally does not distinguish between the nationalists in the PA/PLO who have been pursuing a strategy of nonviolent diplomatic efforts to secure Palestinian independence and end the occupation — even extending to security coordination with Israeli occupation forces in the West Bank — and Hamas, which continues to both preach and practice the doctrine of armed resistance and rejects in principle recognizing Israel in a two-state solution. Such a conflation almost certainly arises only in the context of the rejection of a two-state solution as either undesirable or unattainable, or both, on the part of those Israelis who share this perspective.

Therefore, Israeli attitudes towards Hamas are frequently shaped by underlying attitudes towards a two-state solution and the acceptability of Palestinian statehood. Those who are fundamentally opposed to Palestinian statehood as a security threat to Israel and/or incompatible with a long-term Greater Israel agenda tend not to distinguish between Hamas and the PA. And, where there are such distinctions, the impulse is to erase them at the slightest provocation. The instinct is to see all Palestinians as fundamentally part of the enemy camp and therefore as suspect and probably hostile. The same is true in reverse for Palestinians. Those who are committed to a two-state solution tend to recognize the significant differences that exist in the Israeli political spectrum. Those who do not believe such a solution is either attainable or acceptable dismiss these distinctions and view all Israelis as simply the occupiers.

Many members of Netanyahu's governing coalition openly oppose a two-state solution and give every appearance of reflecting the thinking outlined above. Although the political center and left in Israel did better in the last parliamentary elections than anticipated, this was probably a consequence of the focus during the campaign on economic and other domestic political issues to the exclusion of national security, the Palestinians or the occupation.

Given these political realities and the ascendance of Israel's territorially aggressive political right, it's not surprising that the Israeli response to the Palestinian national-unity agreement of 2014 was so hostile. Those Israelis who are genuinely fixated on security saw the threat of Hamas's potential greater reach into the West Bank, using the same logic Hamas leaders did. Those who are committed to the settlement project, eventual annexation or even simply the indefinite extension of the status quo, often value the political division between Palestinians as a form of "divide and rule." The split between Hamas and Fatah or the West Bank and Gaza or, indeed, any major division within the Palestinian ranks in this zero-sum logic automatically accrues to the benefit of Israel and to the detriment of the Palestinians. Israel, after all, can — and indeed often does — question the logic of diplomacy when there is a national division on the Palestinian side. "Why should we talk with Abbas," the argument goes, "when he cannot deliver the whole Palestinian people?"

The Palestinian political division also allows Israel to enhance its longstanding policy of creating a multiplicity of legal and political statuses for Palestinians living under Israeli jurisdiction, another form of divide and rule. The split between Gaza and the West Bank adds yet another distinction on top of the already vast array of differences in Israel's relationship with Palestinians, including those who are citizens of Israel; residents of occupied East Jerusalem; and those living in Areas A, B or C of the occupied West Bank, all of whom are distinguished from each other. There are a minimum of six distinct legal categories defining the relationship of the approximately six million Palestinians who live under Israeli rule. On the other hand, even the most lawless and renegade West Bank settlers face no legal distinctions or discrimination by the Israeli government.

Therefore, the Israeli government's hostile response to the Palestinian unity agreement met little resistance in the cabinet or Knesset. Few noted that, had the Israeli government been more forthcoming in peace talks or even less aggressive about new settlement activity — if not towards the Palestinians, at least towards the United States — the PA might not have felt compelled to enter into the agreement with Hamas. In Israel and even the United States, internal Palestinian political dynamics are rarely considered seriously, even as demands are made on Palestinian political leaders to take bold and politically risky steps in pursuit of peace and to accommodate Israeli security concerns. When it was first promulgated, the Palestinian unity agreement was declared a non-starter by Israel; it was, in effect, an excuse to reject the prospect of any further negotiations with the Palestinians until they abandoned the popular and widely supported initiative.

The Future of the Unity Agreement

The calculations of all parties regarding the unity agreement were reshaped by the hostilities in Gaza, the subject of an uneasy truce and uncertain negotiations. Indeed, the Hamas-Israel war appeared to breathe new life into an arrangement that once seemed, in effect, to have reached the limits of its potential with the establishment of the new government led by Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah (already serving that function for the PA before the agreement). Hamas, in particular, appeared profoundly disappointed in the early lack of results of the "reunification" process. At the very least they had expected the PA to begin to pay the salaries of approximately 40,000 public employees hired by Hamas since 2007, who had been unpaid for several months (in addition to the approximately 70,000 civil servants in Gaza who have been continuously paid by the PA treasury in Ramallah). Such payments were not forthcoming in a timely or sufficient manner from Hamas's point of view; their hires continue to remain largely unpaid.

Moreover, Hamas did not experience an opening up of space to operate more freely in the West Bank, although little time had passed in order to test that. They might have been willing to be patient, but either they decided that they could not afford to wait, or their hand was forced by internal factions or rogue elements. On June 12, 2014, three Israeli teenagers at an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank were kidnapped. The Israeli government told the public they were being searched for, although it was later revealed that a phone call to the police from one of the kidnapped youths left little doubt about their fate. On a recorded call, one of the youths is heard telling police he had been kidnapped, followed by gunshots and other unmistakable indications that the teenagers were killed during the call. The Israeli government used the purported search to break up Hamas cells in the West Bank and arrest hundreds of Palestinians suspected of being connected with Hamas. Those arrested included 55 Hamas cadres who had been released in the October 2011 prisoner swap for the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. So, whatever progress Hamas might have made in the West Bank during the brief life of the unity agreement was more than reversed.

Israel's heavy-handed response in the West Bank, and the July 2 kidnapping and burning alive of a 16-year-old Palestinian teen in occupied East Jerusalem by Israeli extremists, led to widespread protests in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The unrest even spread to Palestinian areas of Israel. There was more tension between Palestinian citizens and Israeli authorities than at any time since early in the second intifada when, in October 2000, 13 unarmed Palestinian citizens of Israel were killed by Israeli police during a protest. Worse, all of this was taking place during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Despite repeated Hamas calls for "days of rage" and similar efforts to stoke the flames by Israeli and Palestinian hard-liners, another uprising did not explode. Most Palestinians, it seemed, did not wish to repeat the devastating experience of the second intifada. And swift action by PA security forces helped to cool the anger at certain key moments, apparently allowing the public to more carefully consider the best course of action.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of this dynamic occurred on July 24, during a protest of the Israeli offensive in Gaza, on the eve of Laylat al Qadr (Night of Power), one of the holiest days in the Islamic calendar. An estimated 10,000 Palestinians marched on the Qalandia checkpoint near occupied East Jerusalem. In the confrontation with Israeli occupation forces, at least two Palestinian protesters were killed and an estimated 100 injured. PA security forces prevented some large groups of Palestinians from Area A joining the march to Qalandia, helping to contain the incident. Although many rushed to announce the outbreak of a third intifada, since this was by far the largest demonstration in the occupied West Bank since the second Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule, that did not occur. Hamas and its allies, and other groups in the West Bank, attempted to maintain the momentum by calling for and attempting to organize additional protests in subsequent days, but they met with little popular enthusiasm.

Although this most dramatic of incidents happened after tensions had already shifted from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, where they had begun, to Gaza, it illustrated several key points. First, the ongoing volatility of the situation in the West Bank and Gaza. Second, the fact that another Palestinian intifada, if one occurs, will almost certainly start in the West Bank, and even more probably in East Jerusalem, but not in Gaza. Third, that the biggest barrier to the eruption of a third intifada is the lack of popular enthusiasm. Fourth, that such an uprising will be violent, particularly since the Israeli occupation relies entirely on force to subdue the disempowered Palestinians living under its control. Fifth, that PA security forces continue to be an effective barrier between Palestinian passions and better judgment. And sixth, that Hamas and other groups seeking to shape the future of the Palestinian national movement can only do so effectively on the ground in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, not from Gaza.

But all of these lessons had been understood by Hamas before the Qalandia incident on Laylat al Qadr. Its efforts to encourage a popular uprising against Israeli occupation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem had decisively failed by the time hostilities with Israel boiled over into full-fledged conflict on July 8, 2014. For its part, Israel had appeared satisfied with its crackdown on Palestinians in general, and Hamas in particular, in the occupied West Bank during the purported hunt for the kidnapped (and murdered) Israeli teenagers. Hamas, on the contrary, could not allow the situation to continue as it was. They remained trapped, isolated and impoverished in Gaza, dissatisfied with the results of the unity agreement with the PA, and severely degraded in the West Bank by Israel. The situation was apparently perceived to be intolerable.

During the fighting, Hamas and its allies launched a sustained barrage of rocket attacks not only on their traditional targets in southern Israel, but on most of the country and even parts of the occupied West Bank. These attacks were largely ineffective in causing deaths and destruction (although three Israeli civilians, one of them an Arab, were killed), both because the rockets are relatively primitive and unguided and because Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile system is apparently capable of shooting down a percentage of rockets that would otherwise hit an identifiable target. The Israeli response was predictably harsh and punitive. Almost 2,000 Palestinians, most of them civilians and many of them children, according to the United Nations, had been killed at the time of drafting this paper, and something approximating a quarter of the population of the Gaza Strip had been displaced. Numerous incidents involving significant civilian casualties that could not be rationally explained by Israel, including seven attacks on six UN schools being used as housing for displaced Palestinians, seared the conscience of the world. The seventh attack on a UN school even drew heavy condemnation and criticism from senior American officials and the State Department.

At the time of writing, both parties appear to have reached the point of diminishing returns, at least in the short term. As the parties began looking beyond the immediate exigencies of what amounted to the third, and in many ways the largest, Gaza-Israel war, which may in fact not yet be over, the Palestinian unity deal began to take on a different shape in all of their perceptions.

Hamas continued to see the unity agreement as a potential back door into the West Bank and East Jerusalem. More important, they needed the unity agreement and the "new" (although extremely familiar-looking) PA government to secure diplomatic concessions in the cease-fire negotiations from Israel, or from Egypt. Although Fatah-Hamas tensions continue to run very high, the PA and the Gaza factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, formed a joint delegation to negotiate directly with the Egyptians and, indirectly, with the Israelis. Palestinians agreed that their main aim must be easing the blockade of Gaza in some significant manner.

Given the Egyptian national-security concerns outlined above and Israel's profound reluctance to allow Hamas anything that could be spun as a "victory" and an explanation for why the group persisted in fighting despite numerous Egyptian cease-fire proposals, Palestinians could not expect the other parties to agree to simply open the crossings without fundamentally changing the underlying realities. Palestinians are demanding the creation and maintenance of a port in Gaza. More realistically, they are also demanding the opening of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, along with the extension of fishing rights off the coast of Gaza. In the case of both the port, and, more immediately, the Rafah crossing, the Palestinian unity agreement becomes crucial as a vehicle for a potential agreement that all parties could live with.

It has long been proposed, and long ignored, that the Rafah crossing be reopened, but with PA security forces instead of Hamas fighters on the Palestinian side of the border, along with international monitors and inspectors. In the past, this has appeared to be something of a pipe dream. However, the 2014 Gaza hostilities have made Egyptian and Israeli acquiescence to such an agreement far more imaginable. Unnamed Israeli officials hinted as much when they reportedly said that Rafah was a matter between the PA and Egypt. This was repeated by Fatah officials, with the apparent tacit agreement of Egypt. Such an arrangement could also be applied to a potential Gaza port, and, indeed, to reconstruction efforts generally.

To Palestinians, this has appeal for both sides. Hamas could bear the humiliation of ceding control of a crucial part of the territory under their de facto rule since 2007 to their rivals as part of a broader plan that already seemed to anticipate downgrading its control in Gaza in order to upgrade its presence in the West Bank. If, in the process, the Gaza economy could be revived and the Hamas coffers restored, all the better. For the PA, such an arrangement would reconfirm its centrality as the diplomatic representative of the Palestinian people and give it a new foothold in a part of Palestine from which it has been almost entirely excluded for the past seven years.

Israel, too, could find such an arrangement a useful means of decoupling its policies towards Hamas, which have been and are likely to remain fundamentally hostile, and its harsh and counterproductive policies towards Gaza and its innocent population. These policies have provoked sustained and strong international condemnation and, apparently, only strengthened Hamas's control of the area by intensifying public dependency on the group. Israel's repeated demands that any adjustment of the blockade regime be developed in the context of the "demilitarization" of Hamas and other groups in Gaza are probably not expected to be literally realized, assuming they are not simply designed as a demand that can never be satisfied. Israel, like the PA in the national-unity negotiations with Hamas, surely realizes the group will not give up its trump card, the paramilitary Qassam Brigades. However, Israeli leaders may be using the rhetoric of "demilitarization" as code for an intensified regime of very strict inspection and monitoring of all "dual use" imports into Gaza. Duality, in this context, and especially in light of the extensive Hamas tunnel networks discovered and destroyed during the course of the 2014 Gaza war, can refer to such a vast range of commodities that it includes all the basic materials for reconstruction, including cement, and all forms of metal and other basics.

Egypt, too, might find such an accommodation acceptable. It could allow Egypt also to decouple its policies towards Hamas on the one hand and the population of Gaza on the other, and to begin to ease the blockade without incurring, from its perspective, unacceptable national-security risks. This would be highly popular with the Egyptian public and in the Arab world generally. It could be presented as a triumph of Egyptian diplomacy and strategic vision and a clear boon to the Gaza population after years of Egyptian policy stagnation under prior regimes in Cairo. Moreover, since it would give Egypt's allies in the PA a strong foothold in Gaza, and a day-to-day working relationship with Egyptian forces in the border region, it could be seen as greatly enhancing Egypt's security stance in northern Sinai and promoting greater stability in that volatile area. There is no doubt that the Egyptian government and public would be much more comfortable with people and goods going to and from Gaza via a normal, regulated and secure border rather than surreptitiously through an unknown and shadowy network of underground tunnels. Like Israel, Egypt, too, would probably want a stricter inspection and monitoring regime for imports into Gaza, and this commonality of purpose could serve as another reassurance to Israel not to try to derail such an understanding.

An arrangement along these lines, should it prove to be the key, in the short or medium term, to ending this round of hostilities between Israel and Hamas, would fundamentally change the basic arrangements that define, not just the triangular relations between Gaza City, Ramallah and Tel Aviv, but also more broadly between Israelis and Palestinians, and, indeed, even among Palestinians themselves. There are many other potential scenarios for ending the current spasm of violence between Gaza and Israel. Almost all of them — except the distinctly possible eventuality of a return to the status quo ante — involve deploying the Palestinian unity agreement as a practical and formal vehicle to facilitate cooperation between Hamas and the PA. Simply put, Israel and, especially, Egypt are going to insist on continuing to work primarily with the PA and will not enter into arrangements that depend on Hamas's sincerity or enhance its diplomatic status, particularly at the expense of the PLO. And Cairo has been diligent in maintaining that the PLO remains the diplomatic address for all of Palestine and the Palestinians, including the territory and population of Gaza. Israel and Egypt, and their allies, have an interest in doing their best to prevent Hamas from emerging from the hostilities in a strong position to argue that it has won a "victory" and that its strategy of armed struggle has, once again, proven its efficacy, particularly in contrast to the PA/PLO commitment to nonviolent strategies like international diplomacy and negotiations with Israel.

Any such agreement or analogous arrangement would, in effect, determine the political outcome of the 2014 Gaza war by structuring the perception among the Palestinian public of its cost-benefit ratio. If Palestinians, especially in Gaza, perceive Hamas to have gained for them an acceptable benefit, which could be symbolic or tangible, deliverable or a matter of national morale, then Hamas's political position and standing will undoubtedly be substantially enhanced. If, however, most Palestinians conclude, as the dust settles and costs and benefits are calculated, that Hamas recklessly gambled with lives and property in Gaza without achieving anything significant, the political damage to the organization could be enormous.

The PA, too, faces a dangerous situation. During the months of fighting so far, it has appeared largely marginal and ineffective, as Hamas's rocket attacks and other armed actions defined the Palestinian side of the conflict for all practical purposes. Hamas did not succeed in forcing other parties to treat it as if it were the diplomatic representatives of, and address for, Palestinians in Gaza. Egypt's policies ensured that the PLO remained the primary Palestinian interlocutor. However, the PA/PLO face the prospect of Hamas's policies being perceived by many Palestinians as dynamic and proactive, albeit dangerous or even reckless. The Palestinian public is one that, given the reality of seemingly unending occupation, can sometimes be moved by arguments involving an implicit message of "nothing left to lose."

If such an agreement about Rafah or an analogous arrangement regarding reconstruction is achieved, the PA and Hamas would both find themselves in unenviable circumstances, but with a case to make. The PA and PLO could assert, without danger of contradiction, that without its strong relations with Egypt, track record of security coordination with Israel, widely respected security forces, and international diplomatic legitimacy, this breakthrough regarding the blockade could not have happened. Hamas could retort, all of that notwithstanding, the PA and PLO had been demanding an easing of the blockade for many years without result. It could point out that until its 2014 conflict with Israel — which demonstrated a significantly enhanced military capability, including the ability to target, however imprecisely, almost all parts of Israel, and the use of ambushes and improvised explosive devices to kill considerably more Israeli troops than they had in the last major ground confrontation in 2008-09 — no one was seriously talking about changing the blockade regime. Both Palestinian factions would face the potential for roughly equal amounts of credit and blame from the Palestinian public, and neither can be confident about what public perceptions will, ultimately, conclude.

The only obvious scenario for the end of the 2014 Israel-Hamas conflict in which the Palestinian unity agreement is not, at least temporarily, strengthened and enhanced, is a return to the status quo ante, with no agreement whatsoever. Even then, both Palestinian parties would have significant practical and political reasons for continuing to uphold and perhaps even further implement the national-unity agreement. After the formation of the new Palestinian government, which has already been accomplished, the next phase mandated is the holding of both presidential and parliamentary elections six months after the signing of the agreement on April 23, 2014.

This date may now be considered aspirational under the circumstances of the Israel-Hamas conflict. In any event, its implementation was always doubtful. Palestinians desperately need national elections, but neither party has a clear incentive to engage in them, given that their rule in their respective areas of control is virtually uncontested. Hamas, however, as noted above, may have concluded that retaining governance authority in Gaza is, ultimately, less important than making significant progress on the ground in the West Bank. The PA and Abbas himself may see elections as essential for gaining the legitimacy to continue their policies. However, both of these considerations could just as easily militate in the opposite direction. There is no guarantee that either party, let alone both, will in reality want anything to do with Palestinian national elections in the next year or so.

Nonetheless, the Gaza hostilities could well mean that the unity agreement has a much longer shelf life than was originally anticipated by most observers. If there is an arrangement involving PA security forces replacing Hamas fighters on the Rafah crossing or elsewhere, Israel will have to change its implicit, and perhaps even explicit, position towards the unity agreement. It could well be argued that Israel has already done so, by signaling a willingness to go along with such an arrangement if it is coupled with a "demilitarization" regime of greatly intensified inspections and monitoring of imports to Gaza. If Israel does not adapt its policies towards the Ramallah leadership, it can virtually guarantee that Hamas will eventually and plausibly insist that the 2014 war with Israel constituted a "victory" for the Islamist organization and its policy of armed struggle — if not over Israel, at least over the PA and PLO. If Israel does decide to adapt its policies in order to deny Hamas that opportunity, this will require a new approach to the PA and, if there is an explicit understanding on a lasting cease-fire or reconstruction, perhaps also to the Palestinian national-unity agreement.