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Leap of faith
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 11 - 02 - 2010

Reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah is still a world away, writes Saleh Al-Naami
Laughter echoed in the spacious reception hall. It had been more than 20 minutes that the two men had been exchanging jokes, which were well received by everyone present, delighted with the cordiality of the meeting. This was the prelude before Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and Nabil Shaath, member of Fatah's Central Committee, began serious discussions regarding dialogue and reconciliation. The two met at Haniyeh's home at Al-Shateh Refugee Camp, east of Gaza City.
It was obvious that the Hamas leadership wanted to demonstrate the importance of Shaath's visit to the Gaza Strip, the first of its kind by a senior Fatah leader since Hamas came to power in Gaza in the summer of 2007. Shaath met with most Hamas leaders in Gaza and concluded his visit with a joint meeting of leaders from both groups.
Apparently, Shaath's trip not only succeeded in clearing the air between the two camps, but also went beyond that by establishing a number of significant understandings. Sources told Al-Ahram Weekly that the two sides agreed to end the war of words and reopen all Fatah institutions in Gaza and Hamas associations in the West Bank. They also exchanged ideas about the release of detainees.
Khalil Al-Hayya, member of Hamas's politburo, told the Weekly that his group signalled its goodwill and strong commitment to end divisions through several initiatives. "Other than compromising on national principles which are unanimously upheld by Palestinians, we are willing to make huge sacrifices in order to ensure reconciliation is successful," said Al-Hayya. "We will prove that we are willing to compromise many organisational gains to revive national unity and end this dismal situation."
Al-Hayya added, however, that the "problem is that we realise that not all decision-makers in Fatah embrace Shaath's conciliatory positions. Nonetheless, we are adamant to demonstrate our honest commitment to ending discord." At the same time, Al-Hayya warned against Israeli and US interference that could undermine the chances of reaching a political settlement.
For his part, Shaath stated that his visit aimed at creating an atmosphere that would end internal divisions, noting that he was delegated by the Revolutionary Council and Fatah's Central Committee to visit Gaza. The Fatah official revealed that Hamas promised to take positive steps towards Fatah members in Gaza, but refused to elaborate, saying that Hamas would announce these measures.
Shaath rejected the notion of creating joint committees between the two groups and emphasised the need for more visits and communication on both sides. He was guarded in quantifying his optimism about whether Hamas and Fatah will in fact reach an agreement, and warned of possible setbacks.
Indeed, as soon as Shaath departed from Gaza the war of words was reignited in full force. Hamas was deeply angered by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's repeated statements that he would not meet with Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshaal unless Hamas signs the Egyptian proposal for reconciliation without amendments.
Matters escalated further when Fatah took advantage of news that Hamas had apologised for harming Israeli civilians, which Hamas denied. Fatah demanded an apology by Hamas to the Palestinian people for causing the internal rift.
Meanwhile, the security apparatus controlled by Salam Fayyad's cabinet continued to arrest Hamas activists in the West Bank. Some 50 activists were apprehended in a few days following Shaath's trip. Hamas is also claiming that Abbas's security forces continue the objectionable practice of questioning the wives of detainees about their husbands' activities, some of who are detained by Israel.
Hamas has asked Fatah to allow its leadership to move around in the West Bank, as Shaath was permitted to come to the Gaza Strip and meet with Hamas officials and cadres there. Omar Abdel-Razek, former minister of finance and a leading member in the group, called for more liberty for Hamas leaders in the West Bank. "This would enable them to work on achieving reconciliation and ending divisions in the Palestinian cause," Abdel-Razek argued. "Freedoms have been granted to Fatah members, including regional and committee representatives, in Gaza."
Abdel-Razek revealed that Hamas allowed Fatah meetings to take place, noting that Shaath's visit demonstrates that Fatah is allowed to function in Gaza, "unlike conditions in the West Bank, where Hamas faces annihilation at the hands of security forces acting upon the orders of Dayton and the CIA."
Nonetheless, informed Palestinian sources told the Weekly that intense Arab and Palestinian efforts are underway, targeting the Hamas leadership in Damascus, Abbas and the Egyptian government, to end disagreements about signing the Egyptian proposal. So far, the source disclosed, all ideas evolve around "saving face" for all parties, especially in the wake of obstinate positions that were taken regarding the Egyptian plan. The source revealed that ideas are coming together to create "a ladder for everyone to come down from the soapbox they climbed upon."
The source continued that despite severe tensions in relations between the two sides, members of Hamas and Haniyeh's government are communicating with Egyptians, especially intelligence circles, to reach a formula that would allow them to sign the Egyptian proposal. The source emphasised that despite the firm positions that the various parties currently embrace, the chances of ending the quarrel over the Egyptian plan are promising. The source stated that already Arab and Palestinian efforts have arrived at a formula allowing Hamas to sign the proposal, but did not elaborate. He expected that the document would be signed before the next Arab summit is convened in the Libyan capital of Tripoli in March.
Both Abbas and Cairo are aware of these efforts; what remains is for Egypt to invite all parties to Cairo to sign the proposal.
It is clear that Hamas is now intent on finding a way to end divisions, although it is challenging for the group to meet the requisites of this endeavour, especially agreeing to the Egyptian plan, which neither Cairo nor Fatah are willing to amend. Hamas has come to realise that the situation is more complicated than it initially estimated. While it publicly rejects Abbas and his political agenda, it also realises that there is no end to the siege and its harsh consequences without reaching an agreement to end discord with Abbas.
Hamas avoided concurring with Abbas, especially after his role in preventing a vote on the Goldstone Report in the UN Human Rights Council, which caused a furore among the Palestinian people. While Hamas felt it unwise to acquiesce to Abbas in the wake of this incident, it later found that whether it wanted to continue to share power or remove Abbas from power, Hamas needed to reconcile with Abbas.
As the human suffering of more than 1.5 million Palestinians worsens in Gaza under a stifling siege, it is almost certain that Hamas could not just negatively react to the positions adopted by Abbas regarding a political settlement, the Goldstone Report, and his hostile statements against the group. Egypt, which controls the border crossing at Rafah -- the Gaza Strip's sole gateway to the outside world -- asserts that the border will not reopen until Hamas signs the Egyptian proposal and ends divisions. This means that the group is forced to agree with Abbas, the man it has often attacked and criticised.
The situation becomes even more convoluted as Egypt continues to build a steel wall along the border with Gaza, which ostensibly would prevent smuggling supplies into Gaza and make the siege even more unbearable. However, it is unlikely that Hamas will sign the Egyptian plan on the command of Abbas. News that Abbas is ready to indirectly negotiate with Israel has thrown another monkey wrench into Hamas's thought process, since both Tel Aviv and Washington have stipulated that Hamas commit to the conditions of the Quartet. These are: recognition of Israel, ending resistance activities against the Israeli occupation, and recognition of agreements signed by the Palestinian Authority. These terms are unacceptable to Hamas and most of the Palestinian people.
In fact, many Palestinians are asking why no one has placed conditions on the Israeli government headed by Binyamin Netanyahu, who every day restates his rejection of the return of refugees and insists on retaining Jerusalem and settlements. It appears that if there is no fundamental change in Abbas's positions with regards to his willingness to capitulate to Israeli pressure, then efforts to achieve reconciliation would end up a waste of time.


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