IT’S TIME TO MEND FENCES
Source: MIFTAH, 10 September 2008, http://www.miftah.org. Distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission to publish from The Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH).
The Arab ministers are calling for it, Palestinian intellectuals and political pundits are espousing it, and the people are hoping for it. Hamas and Fatah need to patch up their relationship and move forward.
During the 130th session of the Arab ministerial summit, Arab ministers all agreed that the rift between Hamas and Fatah had to end in order for other more substantial achievements to be made. Regardless of how many Palestinians may feel about their Arab brethren’s role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, this is one point they should take to heart.
The divisions between the two major movements have been building up for years, but culminated in 2007 when Hamas wrestled control of the Gaza Strip from the Fatah-backed Palestinian Authority. It was a bloody takeover, with roughly 200 people killed from both sides. Hamas had previously won the majority of seats in the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections, which did not sit well with Fatah, who for the first time in its history, was not at the helm of the Palestinian leadership.
Needless to say, the differences between the two Titans are based in their desire to rule. While this is a natural aspiration for any political party, regardless of the ideologies that govern them, it is clear that Hamas and Fatah have lost track of the national interest or the ‘big picture’, if you will.
There have been several attempts at reconciling the two. Egypt has attempted to play a role in mediating between the two parties, as have Senegal and Yemen. The Mecca Agreement, signed in March 2007, was supposedly aimed at preventing the coup that took place two months later. As it stands today, President Mahmoud Abbas insists that negotiations with Hamas can only take place after the situation in the Gaza Strip returns to the status quo prior to June 2007. Hamas, for its part, says it has no problem talking to Fatah, but it will not be dictated by its conditions. That is, the de facto government in Gaza is not budging a centimetre just yet.
Obviously, there have been far reaching repercussions due to this split. Hundreds of Fatah and Hamas operatives and supporters have been jailed in the others’ prisons, institutions have been shut down and Israel has taken the opportunity to clamp down a strangulating siege on the Gaza Strip. However, in a roundabout way, the potential deal that may be struck with Israel over their captured Israeli solider Gilad Shalit could either make it or break it for Palestinian internal politics.
Since Shalit‚s capture in June 2006 by Hamas activists in a Gaza Strip border raid, Israel and Hamas have been engaged in a swan dance of sorts. Both want a prisoner swap, especially since Shalit is alive and Hamas wants to secure the freedom of as many Palestinian prisoners as it possibly can. Of course the numbers differ, with Hamas demanding some 1,500 prisoners and Israel maintaining it would not release more than 450.
Still, if the swap does actually happen, Hamas is looking at the release of 40 of its parliamentarians, arrested by Israel after the Shalit operation. If all 40 are released and reinstated in their Palestinian Legislative Council seats, this would put them back as the majority. If this happens, Hamas could argue that legally, President Abbas’ term ends by January, thus giving them an opportunity to push the Fatah government out of power, which in their opinion would be null and void.
The fear is that the rift, which is already bad enough, will only get worse once the parliamentarians are released and ready to reassert their legal clout. If Hamas and Fatah remain in their current frame of mind, the Palestinians can only be looking at more infighting and internal disunity.
However, if by some insane turn of events, the two parties actually take this opportunity to mend their fences, this could prove to be a golden opportunity. Although the list is not complete, rumour has it that Hamas is also insisting on the release of West Bank Fatah Secretary Marwan Barghouti, who has been imprisoned since 2002. Widely believed to be the most popular Fatah man out there, Barghouti has repeatedly called for reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, and enjoys a wide enough popular platform to actually make a difference. Even Hamas likes Barghouti, who would most likely run in any upcoming presidential elections.
The point to be highlighted here is that political diversity is healthy and should not be discouraged in any way. The fact that Hamas and Fatah espouse different ideologies where liberating Palestine is concerned is not the cause for all of the vicious fighting that ensued. On the contrary, Palestinian diversity should be channelled towards the single goal of establishing an independent Palestinian state where Gaza and the West Bank are not separate entities.
This is a goal that has been apparently lost on the two parties, even though both claim to hold it before them. A prisoner swap where 450 Palestinians are released from Israeli jails is an achievement regardless with whom the prisoners are affiliated. It is high time that the two set their differences aside for once, check their grudges at the door, and get down to the business that is really important. Israel is trying its best to exclude Jerusalem from any final peace deal, and Abbas needs all the support he can get internally and externally to clinch an acceptable settlement, regardless of whether he remains president or not next year. Hamas, on the other hand, is burning its own bridges with the Arabs and with its own people, who are tired of the siege in Gaza, the iron fist with which Hamas rules there, and of the infighting that has taken so many lives.
Besides, how powerful is a seat that can be snatched from beneath you by an occupying power with more might than both of the rivals put together? Has Israel not made this clear enough over the years? More importantly is the fact that if the two do not take a more conciliatory stance towards one another and constructively combine their efforts, much of which has been squandered on their bickering, we will all lose on a much larger scale than Fatah or Hamas ever envisioned.
*Joharah Baker is a writer for the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted email@example.com.