Frida Ghitis: The survival of Gazans is dependent on a new agreement between Fatah and Hamas
After enduring failed Hamas leadership and inflexible militancy, Gazans deserve an agreement that finally works, writes Ghitis
Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
In a brief ceremony held in Cairo last Thursday, Palestinian negotiators signed an agreement meant to bring an end to the bitter feud that has divided Hamas from the main Palestinian leadership. The leaders of Hamas and of the Palestinian Authority hailed the deal as the beginning of a new era, but much remains to be resolved, and the plan could unravel just as similar ones did in the past.
What the agreement makes clear, regardless of whether the reconciliation plan succeeds, is that Hamas has completely failed the test of governing.
For the 1.8 million people of Gaza, the decade under Hamas rule has brought nothing but misery, bloodshed and despair. There are multiple reasons for that, but it is absolutely clear that during its time in control of the narrow strip on the shore of the Mediterranean, Hamas’ strategy achieved none of its goals, succeeding only in aggravating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and causing profound damage to the relationship with other Palestinian entities as well as with a number of Arab countries.
Hamas’ inflexible militancy, while perhaps inspirational to some, resulted in three disastrous wars with Israel in less than 10 years. Continued rocket attacks against Israeli populations, diversion of resources toward weaponry instead of civilian uses and confrontational tactics on multiple fronts left Gazan civilians out in the cold.
It is no secret that Israel and Hamas are mortal enemies. But Hamas embraces tactics and ideology that have long put it at loggerheads with other key Arab players, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority.
Whatever happens to its latest agreement with Fatah, the faction that controls the Palestinian Authority, Hamas has proven itself incapable of improving living standards for people living under its rule, and it cannot justify that failure by pointing to any other achievements. By any measure it has also failed at furthering its stated goal of replacing Israel with a Palestinian state.
The new reconciliation agreement aims to reunite the Palestinians, who since 2007 have lived in separate territories and under separate adversary governments. The rift occurred when Hamas militants wrested control of the Gaza strip in fierce clashes with Fatah.
Arab governments have tried repeatedly to bring them together, with talks and seeming progress in 2007, 2011, 2012, and 2014. It’s difficult to set aside skepticism – remembering the words of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas each time. “We have turned the black page of division forever,” he declared in 2011, before the deal fell apart.
What came after that was a worsening of relations between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, and even deeper acrimony between Hamas and Egypt.
For a brief period, the rise of a Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Egypt seemed promising, but when it was toppled, Gaza’s fortunes rapidly deteriorated. Egypt’s new government viewed the Muslim Brotherhood as the enemy and considered Hamas its ally. Egyptian forces flooded and destroyed the tunnels that Hamas built to smuggle in weapons and everyday goods. And they kept the Egypt-Gaza border sealed most of the time, tightening an Israeli blockade.
Then an Egyptian court put Hamas on the terrorist list. Hamas had already been designated a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union, Israel and other countries.
The final squeeze that brought Hamas to the table this time came courtesy of the Palestinian Authority, which imposed its own sanctions. Abbas cut the salaries of tens of thousands of Gazans on the PA payroll, and stopped paying Gaza’s electricity bill, asking Israel to cut service.
Hamas agreed to negotiate and give up control of Gaza to the Palestinian Authority.
The new agreement leaves much to be resolved. While Hamas agrees to let the PA run Gaza’s civilian administration and control the borders with Israel and with Egypt starting on December 1, the sides have not decided what happens with Hamas’ large arsenal of rockets, or with the estimated 20,000 fighters of its Qassam brigades.
More Cairo meetings are scheduled for November. Hamas and Fatah are supposed to start forming a “unity government,” which would include members of Hamas.
That will create new problems, since US law bans support to terrorist organizations. If Hamas is part of the Palestinian government, Washington’s vital $400 million in annual aid could be in jeopardy.
When Hamas won the Palestinian elections in 2006, the international community offered to support a Hamas-led government, and Israel offered to negotiate if Hamas agreed to basic conditions: renounce violence, accept previous agreements, and recognize Israel’s right to exist.
But Hamas rejected the offer, vowing to continue its struggle. Since then, it amended its charter, which used to call not only for Israel’s destruction but for killing Jews. Earlier this year it rewrote it, omitting links to the Muslim Brotherhood and the call for killing Jews, and suggesting Hamas would accept a temporary state in a smaller territory, while reaffirming that ultimately, Israel would have to be eradicated.
Hamas is yet unlikely to accept the international community’s conditions, which Israel still demands.
It’s hard to imagine Fatah accepting a massive, and massively armed, Hamas military force in its midst.
There are many other obstacles to reconciliation. But unlike in previous failed unity agreements, there are a few factors working in favor of a compromise.
Egypt and Israel would welcome PA control of the borders and improving living conditions for the people of Gaza, which have become a grave source of concern. Sunni Arab states view the deal as an opportunity to drive a wedge between Hamas and its patrons in Iran, Qatar and Turkey.
And Washington has sounded cautiously optimistic about the agreement, saying it “would welcome the effort,” to have the Palestinian Authority assume responsibilities for Gaza.
If the deal goes through, it is unclear if it would do much to further the Trump administration’s effort to broker a peace deal with Palestinians; a plan that has been met with polite pessimism by almost everyone.
What it would do, however, is improve living standards for the people of Gaza, who have endured a decade of misrule by Hamas, an organization that failed miserably at governing.