By Steve Hibbard
The Palestinian government that was sworn in on June 2, subsequent to the Fatah–Hamas unity agreement that was signed in April, represents a significant victory for President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority (PA). Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh’s Hamas government was disbanded, and the writ of the Palestinian Authority was extended, at least nominally, to Gaza.
Endorsement of the new technocratic government, which contains no Hamas ministers, must have been painful for Hamas. Many of its senior figures, including Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, do not differ from the PA administration it replaced.
The unity government has pledged itself to three principles that were problematic for Hamas, but that the United States and European Union countries demanded as conditions for their aid: non-violence, adherence to past agreements, and recognition of Israel. Security cooperation with Israel, anathema to Hamas, will also continue.
Several factors help explain why Hamas accepted such a humiliating agreement: years of hardship caused by Israeli economic sanctions; the loss of Iranian and Syrian support due to the civil war in Syria; and a backlash against a major financial supporter, Qatar, in the Arab world.
But the major blow was the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, and the subsequent closing of border crossings between Egypt and Gaza, as well as the destruction of most smuggling tunnels under the border, which brought arms and other supplies into Gaza and revenue to the Haniyeh government.
Acceptance of the three principles has proven sufficient to ensure EU and U.S. support for the PA unity government. Indeed, despite statements of caution intended to placate Israel and its supporters, policy makers have ample reason to welcome the waning of Hamas and the waxing of more moderate Palestinian factions – most notably Fatah – that are committed to a two-state solution to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Western interests could be well served by aid projects in the West Bank and Gaza designed to reward moderation.
In theory, the unity government will last only until new elections in early 2015, which could – though it’s unlikely – bring Hamas to power. But slippage can be anticipated, as can delays caused by Israeli objection to East Jerusalem Palestinians voting.
The Netanyahu government’s over-the-top reaction to Palestinian unity, such as its immediate announcement of new housing construction in illegal East Jerusalem and West Bank settlements, reflects visceral distaste for Hamas.
But, given the Netanyahu government’s failure to work constructively with Abbas and other Palestinian leaders who are committed to a negotiated settlement, it seems fair to conclude that on the Israeli right, there is little enthusiasm for the enhanced international credibility that the unity government could bring to the Palestinian quest for an end to occupation and an equitable two-state solution to the conflict with Israel.
Recent votes in the United Nations supportive of Palestinian statehood, as well as the growing strength of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, demonstrate that worldviews on the conflict are evolving.
The United States has been largely impervious to the BDS campaign, but on Friday, June 20, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted to divest its shares in Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, and Hewlett-Packard on the grounds that they have been providing Israel with equipment used in the occupation of Palestinian territory.
The decision took place despite vigorous opposition from major American Jewish organizations, and reflects, in part, the relative moderation the PA has displayed in recent years. If the unity government brings further moderation, these trends could accelerate.
But building support internationally through moderation and security cooperation with Israel comes with costs for the PA. The abduction of three Israeli teenagers who were studying at a yeshiva (religious school) in the occupied West Bank illustrates the point. It has led to a major search for the perpetrators, whom Netanyahu – and possibly even Abbas – presumes (without evidence) to be members of Hamas seeking to exchange them for some of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
Hundreds of Palestinians – mostly members of Hamas – have been arrested, and restrictions have been placed on the movements of hundreds of thousands in the Hebron area. In the process, the PA’s security services have cooperated closely with the Israeli army and police.
In effect, the Palestinian security agencies in the West Bank are playing the role of Israel’s policemen, which is unpopular among many Palestinians. Security cooperation with Israel may be the right strategic choice for the PA, but it is not a winning position with much of the Palestinian public.
Steve Hibbard headed Canada’s Representative Office in Ramallah from 2001 to 2004. He served for 37 years in the Canadian foreign office, the majority of his assignments related to the Middle East – in Cairo, Washington, Tel Aviv and Ramallah.
This article first appeared in www.themarknews.com