The Integration of Hamas into the Palestinian Authority Government
The latest assault in the blame game is well under way as a secret document, allegedly of the Palestinian Authority (PA), has been released that was circulated by Israeli National Security Adviser, Joseph Cohen, on 22 April 2014 when Fatah announced its reconciliation agreement with Hamas. He accused the PA of planning the reunification with Hamas long before the peace talks broke down. The letter attached a document allegedly written by chief PA negotiator, Saeb Ekrat, and dated 9 March even before Abbas met with President Obama on 17 March. The document is a policy paper giving Ekrat’s interpretation of the talks thus far, and recommends a unilateral strategy both with respect to submission of requests of accession to Geneva Conventions and reconciliation with Hamas. The purpose of Cohen’s letter was to show that PA actions had not been a response to the failure to release the last tranche of 26 prisoners but had been planned long beforehand.
I myself thought that was self-evident. The agreement to plan for the re-inclusion of Hamas in the PA in the last week before the talks were ended came too swiftly to be a response to the prisoner release issue. Such an agreement had to have been under negotiation for weeks if not months. However, it does not indicate that Abbas was negotiating in bad faith, only that he had a second track under development if the first track failed, as both he and Netanyahu expected it would. Putting contingency plans in motion in most quarters would be regarded as good politics.
The letter is a distraction as is the whole blame game. The key issue is whether the proposed reconciliation will work and what its effects will be on peace. I have already indicated the motives each side had for concluding such an agreement, stressing particularly the actions of the new governments in Iran and especially Egypt and the effects on Hamas, and, on the other side, Abbas’ fears of his rival and challenger, Mohammed Dahlan. Since I have already suggested that the peace process will no longer be advanced through negotiations between the parties but by unilateral actions by each side, the issue is how this unilateral initiative by the Palestinian Authority will play out. What are the terms of the deal that Azzam al-Ahmad (Fatah) and Mahmoud al-Zahar (Hamas) negotiated and how will the agreement affect the issue of peace?
On the one hand, Hamas refers to the reconciliation of Israel and Hamas as well as participation in the government as a precondition of the reconciliation going forth. On the other hand, others point to the more obvious conclusion of most observers that a reconciliation of Hamas and Fatah makes peace now much more remote since Israel cannot be expected to take steps towards peace, either negotiated or unilateral, when the government on the other side includes a party explicitly dedicated to the elimination of Israel altogether and to the continuation of terrorism. How can these two such opposite positions be reconciled – first, that the most extremist factions in Hamas have agreed on reconciliation with Israel and its opposite, the totally incongruent position of Hamas’ continued insistence that its goal is to eliminate Israel. As Hamas has repeatedly said, “There is no future without jihad and resistance.” As Mousa Abu Marzouk, the deputy chair of Hamas’ political bureau has said, unequivocally, “Hamas will not recognize Israel.”
On Israel Independence Day, Hamas released a new video entitled “The End of Hope”, the end of “Hatikva”, the Israeli national anthem. Hatikva means “hope”. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xsDVUVwbtfE) The video open with full orchestral and violin accompaniment and a map of Palestine between the Jordan and the Mediterranean with a Jewish Star of David on top. As Hatikva plays, a young Palestinian boy as a cartoon figure is seen running and throwing a rock at a wall. We then view stock footage of bombed buses and wounded young children wrapped in white sheets and soaked in blood The video emphasizes the use of terror and the rejection of Israel. In the two-minute clip released by the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Israeli Jews are warned to emigrate or be killed for the latter will be the consequence of Jews who choose to remain. Cartoon caricatures of Jews with kippas are seen boarding a large passenger ship, presumably in Haifa. Jews praying at the Western Wall are viewed running for their lives as masked members of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades with rifles guard the Golden Dome in Jerusalem. The IDF is portrayed as a defeated army. The video ends with a burning Israeli flag inscribed in Arabic, “Israel will inevitably be eliminated”.
But the real issue, on the one hand, is whether Hamas will permit a Palestinian government to recognize and make peace with Israel. I do not believe there is any reason to think that Hamas has changed its position vis a vis Israel or Jews in Palestine. That is why this issue is the most significant aspect of the agreement between Fatah and Hamas. Evidently, and paradoxically, the agreement does permit peace initiatives..
Second, each party would be represented in Parliament in proportion to existing allocations in the National Council from areas where elections cannot be held (Syria and Jordan), but otherwise in proportion to the votes received in the upcoming elections that will be held not only in the West Bank and Gaza, but hopefully in Lebanon. Third, a technocratic government of specialists would be created before the elections with adjustments to allow for inclusion of technocrats working for Hamas. Fourth, six months afterwards, elections for parliament and for the President will proceed.
As per previous agreements between the parties, Hamas would retain control of security forces in Gaza. Hamas would be assigned a Deputy Minister in the new government. Public prosecution staff and judges employed by the PA who fled Gaza after the Hamas coup would return to their positions in Gaza.. To reconcile with Egypt, the PA presidential security forces would take charge of the Rafah crossing and would be armed only with light weapons. Clearly, to reduce tensions with Egypt in the Sinai, Egypt has backed the reconciliation agreement and allowed Abu Marzouk to travel to Gaza to negotiate and sign the deal. Three days ago, Abbas expanded on the agreement and, as a confidence measure between the two parties, permitted newspapers published by Hamas and Islamic Jihad to be distributed in the West Bank not under Israeli control.
One aspect of the agreement important for mollifying the 20,000 employees that Hamas hired to replaced ousted PA people is that they will either be provided with jobs or pensions (retirement age was set at 55 with an incentive to retire if they are 50 or over) as adjudicated by a special committee with Hamas as an organization paying 40% of the costs of such pensions.
One candidate in the presidential elections in Israel scheduled for June has stood out in welcoming the reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah, Meir Sheetit of Hatnua, a strong supporter of Tzipi Livni. What about Hamas well-known stand that it does not support past agreements resulting from Oslo, does not support peace negotiations with Israel and does not recognize Israel? There is no reason to expect those positions to change, but factions in Netanyahu’s government disown a two-state solution or any negotiations with the Palestinians yet the Israeli government engages in such negotiations pursuing a two-state solution. Further, the point is moot since peace is unlikely to be advanced in the near future through formal peace negotiations. Dealing with a government that includes Hamas for some brings closer the possibility that Hamas will reject terrorism and recognize Israel just as the PLO did several decades earlier while for others it brings forward the possibility that the ideology of terror will once more dominate in the halls of power of the central Palestinian Authority.
Whatever the inevitable outcome, the immediate prospect of a more peaceful PA is more a hope rather than an immediate prospect, and a hope that can be characterized as very unlike the dream of Hatikva. The reconciliation agreement just sets a process in motion, a process with a plethora of landmines. Hamas rejects placing the Izz ad-Din al Qassam Brigades under any unified security command structure. There is not even a provision for such a unified command structure in the 23 April agreement whatever Abbas implies. Further, Hamas insists on retaining its weapons and will not even subordinate its security forces to a Higher Security Committee. Hamas uses the Lebanon model as an example. It is the PLO government that will recognize Israel and reject violence, not Hamas.
If this is a formula simply for Hamas saving itself when in dire circumstances or even a formula for Fatah saving face, it is a very dangerous one, that if given substance, will dynamite any moves towards peace from either side, including unilateral ones.