Is There New Motivation for Palestinian Unification?

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

An article by Hussein Ibish examines the motivations behind the 2014 Unity Government and the relationship between Hamas and the PA. 

Despite months of American pressure about a potential two-state solution, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has asserted that there will be no acceptance of a Palestinian state after the war in Gaza ends. In a national news conference this Thursday, he declared that “Israel must have security control over all the territory west of the Jordan…This clashes with the idea of sovereignty. What can you do?” 

The outright rejection deepens the growing rift between Washington and Tel Aviv. “We obviously see it differently,” John Kirby, the White House national security spokesman, said in response. 

Netanyahu’s longstanding opposition to the two-state solution has not prevented the Biden administration from pushing Israel on the issue. Speaking earlier this month, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said, “What we have made clear that we want to see achieved long term is reunited West Bank and Gaza under Palestinian-led governance, and that is what we’re working to achieve.” 

Adding to the difficulty of unification is the adversarial relationship between the two major Palestinian factions: Hamas, the militant group and governing authority in Gaza, and the Palestinian Authority (PA), who exercises civil control in the West Bank. Since Hamas’s election to power in Gaza in 2006 that wrested control of the Strip from the PA, political infighting between the two has undermined the larger cause. 

“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,” writes Hussein Ibish, a Senior Resident Scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. 

There was a time, however, where “a degree of Palestinian political transformation” appeared possible. Ibish evaluates the national unity efforts between the two entities in an article in Middle East Policy’s new Gaza War issue 

The conditions for a unity push were formed by another Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza, Operation Cast Lead in 2014. A spiraling Hamas and an unpopular, financially constrained PA were seeking support and legitimacy.  

Hamas entered into the…agreement through a complex process of increasing desperation,” Ibish explains, born of military defeats against Israel, the growth of sectarianism over Islamism during the Arab Spring, and a crackdown on their activities by Egypt, which included a blockade of Gaza. The group “soon found itself politically isolated, diplomatically squeezed and economically strangled at a whole new level.” 

At the same time, the PA “lacked a popular mandate” in the West Bank, “its policy of negotiating with Israel had not produced any tangible benefits in years,” and had lost nearly half its aid from the US and Europe, as well as the Palestinian tax revenues that Israel was collecting and giving to the PA. “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.” 

Focused on reconciliation and the formation of a new government, the agreement was signed on June 2, 2014. By July 2015, however, the unity government had been dissolved as the PA felt it was unable to operate in the Gaza Strip.  

The national elections planned for late 2014 were never held: “Neither party has a clear incentive to engage in them, given that their rule in their respective areas of control is virtually uncontested.” 

Now, as Israel pushes into Gaza and expands control over the West Bank, are there renewed motivations for unification? This week, Hamas political chief Isamil Haniyeh called for unity, and was echoed by a member of Fatah’s Central Committee, Abbas Zaki. In 2014, Israel refused to recognize any Palestinian government that included Hamas; today, Fatah plans to hold its next meeting “without the influence of Israel,” a first for the organization. 

Writing in the context of Cast Lead, Ibish argues that “there are many other potential scenarios for ending the current spasm of violence between Gaza and Israel. Almost all of them…involve deploying the Palestinian unity agreement as a practical and formal vehicle to facilitate cooperation between Hamas and the PA.” The value of unity could play a similar role to the Gaza war today. 

Among the major takeaways readers can find in Hussein Ibish’s Middle East Policy article, “Indispensable but Elusive: Palestinian National Reunification”: 

  • During the development of the 2014 unity agreement, Palestinian political transformation appeared to be a real possibility. 
    • Popular protests in the West Bank and Gaza called for national unity and reconciliation between the two Palestinian factions, the Palestinian Authority (PA)/Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Hamas. 
  • The actions of the PA/PLO have been defined by competition rather than national liberation and ending Israel’s occupation. 
    • Hamas has focused on armed struggle to liberate historical Palestine and marginalize or eliminate the PA/PLO. 
    • PA/PLO has focused on establishing an independent Palestinian state through diplomacy, nonviolence, and an agreement with Israel. 
  • Hamas agreed to the Unity Agreement because of increasing challenges: 
    • A loss of support due to the Arab Spring raising the focus on sectarianism. 
    • Significant unpopularity when Egypt implemented the tightest blockade on Gaza in its history after cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood and then Hamas. 
  • Both Hamas and the PA/PLO served to benefit from the Unity Agreement. 
    • Hamas was permitted to keep its paramilitary force, remain the dominant presence in Gaza, receive money from the PA/PLO and its supporters, and have an increased presence in the West Bank. 
    • The PA/PLO was struggling with its own legitimacy issues following controversial policies with Israel and the United Nations that caused significant domestic and foreign backlash. 
    • Collaboration could shore up legitimacy and strengthen both parties. 
  • Israel’s opposition reflected a general lack of interest in negotiation with the PLO by the Netanyahu government. 
    • Israel claimed that the PA/PLO could negotiate with Israel or cooperate with Hamas, but not both. 
    • Israel benefits from the conflict between the two parties as a form of “divide and rule” and indicated no desire to solve it. 
  • Israel’s approach towards Palestine is shaped by attitudes about the concept of a Palestinian state and the two-state solution. 
    • Those opposed to a Palestinian state often conflate the PA/PLO and Hamas and are inclined to eliminate both. 
  • Ibish highlights key points regarding the possibility of another intifada: if a new intifada occurs, it will begin in the West Bank, and any significant national movement must come from the area. At the same time, there is a lack of popular enthusiasm. 

You can read “Indispensable but Elusive: Palestinian National Reunification” by Hussein Ibish in the special Gaza War issue of Middle East Policy. 

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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