By Marcus Halaby
FOR THE sixth time in six years, Fatah and Hamas appear to be in talks to unite their respective administrations in the Israeli-besieged Gaza Strip and the Israeli-occupied West Bank, with the two factions planning to hold elections for the Palestinian Authority (PA) as a whole for the first time in over a decade.
The last serious set of negotiations were effectively forced on the two sides by the democratic mood created by 2011’s “Arab Spring” uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain, which saw Palestinians pressing for new elections and an end to years of deadlock and division. The current negotiations, however, are a sign of the growing strength of the regional counterrevolution, and in particular of Egypt’s military dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who came to power in a coup in July 2013.
Sisi’s elected predecessor, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, had tried previously to pursue a policy more conciliatory towards Hamas-ruled Gaza. Egypt under Sisi however has effectively moved back towards the policy of pre-2011 dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, which helped to enforce the Israeli siege of Gaza and tried to isolate Hamas.
A division forced from the outside
The division between the two administrations dates back to the aftermath of the last set of Palestinian elections in January 2006, in the wake of the defeat of the Second Intifada that began in September 2000. These elections gave Hamas 74 out of 132 seats in the PA’s Legislative Council, with 44 per cent of the popular vote to Fatah’s 41 per cent.
They also produced a hostile response from Israel, which suspended “negotiations” and cut off the PA’s tax revenues. This was accompanied by similarly hostile moves from Israel’s US and EU allies, who cut off funding to the PA in a bid to pressure its (then and current) President Mahmoud Abbas not to allow “terrorists” into office, despite Hamas’s undeniable democratic mandate. Israel also arrested nearly a third of the Palestinian Legislative Council’s members in cross-border raids.
A Saudi-brokered agreement forced a “national unity government” on Hamas in March 2007, in place of the previous Hamas-led government formed twelve months earlier. However, this agreement quickly fell apart. Abbas’s appointment of personal cronies to head the PA’s security apparatus during the previous administration, bypassing the Hamas-affiliated Interior Minister Said Seyam, forced the Hamas PA prime minister Ismail Haniyeh to establish a separate security apparatus in Gaza. This set the stage for a power struggle between him and the Fatah PA President Abbas.
This power struggle finally came to a head in June 2007, when a failed coup attempt in Gaza by Abbas’s sometime security chief Mohammed Dahlan saw Hamas and Fatah establish their current rival administrations. Since that time, Abbas’s Ramallah-based administration (recognised by Western and Arab states where Gaza has been diplomatically isolated) has continued its previous policy of “security cooperation” with Israel, while Hamas-ruled Gaza has been under Israeli siege and the repeated target of Israeli bombardments, most notoriously in 2008-09 and in 2014.
Israel’s hostility to “Palestinian unity”
As with the original Fatah-Hamas conflict in 2006-07, the numerous attempts since to reunite the two administrations have foundered repeatedly on Israeli provocations, all of them intended to force upon Fatah the role of repressing Palestinian resistance, whether led by Hamas or coming from any other source. They have also foundered on the role of the various Arab regimes, with an “Arab Quartet” of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) largely siding with Fatah. A now increasingly isolated Qatar has acted as Hamas’s only regional power sponsor, especially since Hamas’s declarations of support for there Syrian revolution forced it to break ties with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and his regional sponsor Iran.
That the initiative for the latest “reconciliation process” has come from Fatah - and that it is intended effectively to force Gaza’s political surrender - is indicated by the events of the last few months. Abbas suspended payments to Israel for Gaza’s electricity supply in April, forcing a reduction in the available supply to four hours a day. He also slashed funding to hospitals and other institutions, and imposed pay cuts of 30 to 70 per cent on public employees, many of whom had previously been ordered to stay at home and to boycott the Hamas administration in return for their salaries.
These moves were probably intended to provoke an uprising against Hamas rule in Gaza, although they rebounded on Abbas by making him appear to be taking Israel’s side by exacerbating the Israeli siege. On this occasion, however, Hamas found for itself an unlikely ally in the same Mohammed Dahlan that had tried to overthrow it in 2007. Dahlan negotiated the delivery of 1.1 million litres of diesel from Egypt in June, allowing Gaza’s power station to resume operation.
The UAE-exiled Dahlan, often described as Palestine’s equivalent of the Chilean former dictator Augusto Pinochet, was expelled from Fatah in 2011 following (almost certainly true) allegations of corruption that were then later abandoned. This US-supported stooge’s taste for coups and intrigues is indicated by plausible claims that he had a hand in the failed July 2016 coup attempt against Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a key ally of Hamas’s regional ally Qatar.
But Dahlan is also widely regarded as the Saudis’ and Emiratis’ favoured candidate to replace an ageing Abbas who is rumoured to be in poor health - and who is currently in the thirteenth year of what was originally supposed to be a four-year term in office.
And where Mohamed Morsi’s policy in power was seen as being intended to bring about a Palestinian reconciliation by encouraging Fatah to make concessions to Hamas, Sisi’s policy looks set to pave the way for a Dahlan presidency even more craven towards Israel than Abbas has been, albeit with the cover of support from a Hamas increasingly more keen on preserving its own bureaucratic and military apparatus (and on feeding the population under its rule) than on conducting the “resistance” through which it claims its popular mandate and its legitimacy.
Hamas returning from the cold
If so then this would be a major turnaround in the policy of the Arab regimes, only the “Arab Quartet” countries (with the partial exception of Jordan) are precisely the Arab regimes most hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood and to its regional affiliates like Hamas. And that Hamas might be willing to play such a role is already indicated by the launch of its new political charter in Qatar in May.
This “Document of General Principles and Policies” effectively declares Hamas’s independence from the Muslim Brotherhood and emphasises its character as a “national liberation movement”, rather than as an Islamist movement. It also commits Hamas to “the establishment of a fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital along the lines of the 4th of June 1967” as part of “a formula of national consensus”.
This effectively formalises a move towards Hamas’s acceptance of a “peace process” with Israel towards a “two-state solution” that has already been evident in its politics for more than a decade. The irony is that this move is taking place now, at a time when US President Donald Trump is indicating that the USA under his leadership has lost interest in maintaining the charade of this “peace process”, and that it is moving towards a formal acceptance of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s effective programme of maintaining the occupation in perpetuity, without any formal agreement with the Palestinians and without even any pretence of a Palestinian state.
And while Hamas might hold out the illusion that “peace process negotiations” conducted under its leadership or influence might seek real progress towards an end of the 1967 occupation where Abbas and his predecessor Yasser Arafat failed, the combined role of the Arab regimes, Dahlan, the PA’s security apparatus and the economic and diplomatic pressure of Israel’s Western allies make it far more likely that Hamas will be forced to tread the same path of collusion with the occupation that was trod previously by Arafat and by Abbas.
We should welcome any measures that bring to an end the artificial divisions imposed on the occupied Palestinian people by the enemies of their just national struggle, especially where they lead to any improvement in besieged Gaza’s appalling humanitarian situation, or where they allow for the free movement of Palestinians between Gaza and the West Bank. What looks more likely, however, is that what is being prepared is a new betrayal of the Palestinian struggle along the lines of the September 1993 Oslo accords. And for that betrayal we should be fully prepared.
This will require a renewed movement of solidarity with the Palestinians, one that is not tied to the politics of any Palestinian faction or of any of the Arab regimes who self-interestedly proclaim their “support” for the Palestinian people, alongside a new Palestinian political movement that contends for the leadership of the Palestinian national struggle on the basis of identification with the working class and with the social and democratic struggles of the exploited classes and oppressed peoples of the region as a whole.
And the programme that revolutionary socialists should advocate for such a new leadership should be a programme of a single, secular, democratic and binational workers’ state in Palestine, as part of a socialist federation of the Middle East. It is only such a programme that can put an end both to Zionism’s project of colonisation and also to the deadly national antagonisms that are likely to be its poisonous legacy for the foreseeable future.