Fatah hopes to seal Palestinian unity deal

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, left, talks with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on December 19 in Konya, Turkey.

Story highlights

  • Palestinians meet in Cairo to discuss implementation of national reconciliation agreement
  • Fatah confident they will conclude deal that will include their bitter rival Hamas
  • Pressure grows from Arab countries, Turkey for Hamas to distance itself from Syria
  • Analyst: Hamas set to renounce armed resistance, according to source

As Palestinian politicians meet in Cairo this week to discuss the long-awaited and much-delayed implementation of a national reconciliation agreement signed by political factions earlier this year, officials in the Fatah party of Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas have been surprisingly open and confident in their predictions of concluding a deal that will include their bitter rival Hamas.

"We have seen serious progress in Hamas coming to our terms," Palestinian negotiator and senior Fatah official Mohammed Shtayyeh told a small group reporters in a briefing last week.

Among other things, Shtayyeh said Hamas had accepted the Palestinian Authority position of passive resistance to Israeli occupation, agreed on a Palestinian state based on 1967 lines, and said it would accept talks with Israel if the Quartet (the United Nations, United States, European Union and Russia) could create "conducive and appropriate environment for negotiations."

Shtayyeh said Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal had signaled his acceptance of these positions in his November meeting with Abbas in Cairo and that they would be laid out in the text of the political agreement.

Asked about these comments, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Bahroum did not deny that Mashaal and Abbas had spoken about these issues. However he was quick to qualify that the Islamist group has long indicated that it could accept a long-term truce with Israel but that would not mean recognition of the Jewish state.

"There are many shapes of resistance," Bahroum said. "Popular and military resistance -- we could use all according to the reality on the ground."

While mixed messages from Hamas are not uncommon, the remarks from Shtayyeh's other senior Fatah officials constitute a more upbeat assessment on the prospects of Palestinian reconciliation than have been offered in some time.

And not coincidentally, it comes amid increased pressure from various Arab countries and Turkey for Hamas to distance itself from the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad which is in the midst of a months-long and brutal crack-down on anti-government opposition which, according to the United Nations, has left some 5,000 Syrians dead.

For years, the Islamist group has maintained its headquarters in Damascus and has received both monetary and military support from the al-Assad regime.

But in an apparent nod to changing regional politics, Hamas is distancing itself from its long-time patron. In recent weeks Hamas personnel and their families have left Syria and in the announcement of his first official trip outside Gaza since 2007, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh noticeably did not have Syria on the list of countries that he plans to visit.

The Syria factor, says Shtayyeh, is playing an important role in the current Palestinian unity efforts.

"Without the Arab Spring this Palestinian-Palestinian political reconciliation could not have happened," Shtayyeh remarked optimistically. There are two factors he said: "Egypt is a pull factor and Syria is a push factor."

Contributing to the chatter about a possible change of Hamas strategy, the security analysis company IHS Jane's last week published a report saying a senior Hamas security sources had told them the group was "on the brink of renouncing armed resistance and moving to a policy of non-violent resistance to Israel."

Jane's quoted one Hamas official as saying "[The] Hamas move is a strategic ... not a tactical one. A committee of various experts is formulating a vision on how to activate the non-violent resistance, mainly in the West Bank."

Asked whether he believed it was important for Mashaal or another senior Hamas leader to come out publicly to articulate these policies, Shtayyeh it was "up to them whether they want to speak about it or not ... but it has been agreed upon"

Even a tacit Hamas acceptance of popular and non-violent resistance would mark a fundamental change for the Islamist movement which just last week celebrated its 24th anniversary.

The group, which is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, maintains a charter that calls for the destruction of Israel and the establishment of an Islamic state in all of historic Palestine, which encompasses most of modern day Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza.

If the policy shift is imminent, it is not something Hamas officials are likely to be speaking too publicly about. Just last Wednesday in public remarks Haniyeh extolled the virtues of armed resistance as being "the strategic choice to liberate Palestine from the river to the sea."

But in an effort to more directly align itself with the growing power of Islamist parties in Egypt and present a more acceptable face to the West, it is possible as Jane's points out, that Hamas might try to have its cake and eat it too by operating "a twin-track policy of not completely renouncing violence but also embracing non-violent resistance."

Such a change in Hamas strategy would certainly create more Western pressure on Israel to allow a new Palestinian unity government a chance to succeed, but it's unlikely the Israeli government will be persuaded that Hamas has truly changed its colors or that it could enforce such a policy with a handful of smaller and less ideologically disciplined militant groups firing rockets into Israel from Gaza.

And any positive indications notwithstanding, betting on successful Palestinian unity efforts has been a money-losing proposition for the past four years.

The differences and recriminations between the dominant Fatah and Hamas factions remain fundamental, with no clear solutions being presented on vexing issues such as security service reform, the restructuring of the PLO, and the composition of a new caretaker government before elections tentatively scheduled for May of 2012.

But as much of stretch that a Hamas realignment and an effective Palestinian unity government may seem, it's worth remembering that stranger things have happened in the region this year and the Arab Spring has yet to run its course.