Palestinian Unity Government More Show than Substance?


With the partition of the Iraqi state a real possibility, Syria and Libya in civil war, Yemen fighting for its life facing Shi’ite Huthi opposition in the north, rebels in the south who want to succeed and Al-Qaeda everywhere, the present unity government in Palestine might yet meet the fate of dozens of other unity schemes in the Arab world, believes Hillel Frisch

Unity, since the heyday of Egyptian leader Gamal Abd al-Nasser, has been a very popular word in the politics of the Arab Middle East. Like many political buzzwords, it is used so often because unity in Arab politics has been all too rare. Despite all the pan-Arab unity rhetoric of the past, only one act of unity in the modern Arab Middle East has ever succeeded – the unification of Yemen in 1990 – and even this achievement is very much in doubt today as more and more Arab states, including Yemen, are facing disintegration or partition rather than unity.

End to Bitter and Violent Inter-Palestinian Partition

Palestinians have hardly been more successful in achieving unity than their fellow Arabs. Their latest exercise in unity, the recent establishment of a unity government between Hamas and Fatah, is likely to be no exception to the historical rule.

To recall, the unity government between the Palestinian Authority in Judea and Samaria/the West Bank headed by Mahmoud Abbas, and the Hamas government, which controls the tiny territory of Gaza, purports to be the first of many moves that will bring to an end the bitter and violent inter-Palestinian partition that occurred in the summer of 2007. At the time, Hamas’ Izz al-Din al-Qassam brigades chased away the Palestinian Authority’s security forces from Gaza, brutally suppressed Fatah members, and proceeded to establish theocratic rule over its million and one-quarter inhabitants.

Hamas’ takeover of Gaza, and the creation of a parallel government that was at odds with its rival, the Palestinian Authority, was a paradoxical outcome of two processes – free and democratic elections held in 2006 and the Oslo negotiations. It was paradoxical because free elections should in theory enhance the prospects of democracy – instead, in both ‘statelets’; one-party rule prevailed ever since unencumbered by a legislative council which ceased to exist. Both proceeded to suppress the party that ruled in the other territory.

Meanwhile, the Oslo peace process not only led to a violent conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in the second intifada, but to a civil war between the Palestinians. The two sides began fighting two months after the elections took place and one month after the winners, Hamas, formed a government, which Fatah never basically accepted and proceeded to undermine.

Deep Divisions Intensified by Regional Tensions

To make matters worse, the partition of the Palestinians between two governments separated by Israeli territories became enmeshed in the growing regional and international rivalry between the moderate Arab states allied with the United States and locally headed by Saudi Arabia, and the Iranian-Syrian axis. This rivalry polarised politics in Lebanon and Iraq, and also deepen divisions between the Palestinians themselves.

It quickly became apparent that Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority was firmly entrenched in the American camp. The United States and the Europeans contributed over 50 percent of the Authority budget, trained its security forces and police, which often took place in Jordan, a state in the same coalition. Abbas maintained warm ties with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.

By contrast, the Hamas external leadership, after its expulsion from Jordan in 1999, established its headquarters in Damascus, and was trained and financed by Iran as one of the proxy forces which Iran supported as part of its strategy to destroy the Jewish state. Even the support Hamas received from Qatar, the only Gulf state to maintain close relations with Hamas, stemmed from the former’s long-standing rivalry with Saudi Arabia rather than out of concern for the Palestinians.

The enmity between the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas entity was expressed in several ways. The most important was the effective security cooperation between the Palestinian Authority and the Israel security services against their common enemy – the Hamas in the West Bank. A division of labour emerged in which the Palestinian Authority uprooted the civil infrastructure of the group by day, while the Israeli security forces apprehended Hamas terrorist suspects at night. The cooperation was almost on a daily basis – the number and names of the suspects nabbed was a daily feature in the Hamas controlled media in Gaza. So deep was Abbas’ fear of a Hamas takeover of Judea and Samaria that Abbas suppressed local protests against Israeli wide-scale offensives (in 2008-09 and 2012) aimed at Hamas in Gaza in retaliation against rocket launchings at Israeli civilian targets.

When the Arab spring broke out, Palestinians expressed the unrealistic hope that the presumed solidarity of the Arab street would dissipate tensions between Abbas and Hamas. To the contrary, the so-called Arab spring has only polarised Arab states and communities between the moderate state coalition and the Iranian-Assad-Shi’ite axis and exacerbated relations between secular and fundamentalist forces.

These two regional tensions only intensified the enmity between Abbas’s Palestinian Authority and Hamas. When Muhammad Morsi won the presidential elections in Egypt in 2012 to become Egypt’s first president to belong to the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’ parent organisation, Hamas leaders responded with victory processions in Gaza. In Ramallah, the unofficial capital of the Palestinian Authority, the news was greeted with stony silence and fear. The situation reversed after Minister of Defence Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, albeit with much popular support, ousted Morsi from office in July 2013 and drove the Muslim Brotherhood underground. Abbas and his entourage were now all smiles and it was time for Hamas to worry over its political future.

Attempt at Unity

If the rift was so deep, what after all, brought the two sides to establish a unity government of mostly technocrats and to commit the two sides to holding presidential and parliamentary elections?

The answer in a nutshell was mutual weakness. Abbas was getting nowhere in the peace process. The gaps between the PA and Israel over the major issues was simply two wide and Abbas, 78-year-old, was hardly about to take the domestic risk to bridge it. He needed domestic legitimacy.

Hamas was facing an increasingly hostile Egyptian regime that accused it of abetting fundamentalist terrorism in Egyptian Sinai and areas even closer to the Egyptian capital. Egypt retaliated by closing the Rafah border crossing - the lifeline for Gaza to the Arab world and beyond. Hamas was also reeling under financial pressures. Iran has lowered financial support after Hamas refrained from supporting Syrian President Assad against its Sunni opposition. Hamas hardly had a choice in leaving Syria. After all, Hamas was a Sunni fundamentalist group; the Palestinians were overwhelmingly Sunni and were thus naturally inclined against the Syrian regime, especially Hamas supporters.

But there might have been another reason for Hamas, at least, to enter into a bargain with the PA it so loathes. The answer might lie in the recent kidnapping of three Israeli teenage students near Jerusalem. If indeed the kidnapping was Hamas’ doings, as both Israel and the PA believe, it clearly was a violent move against Israelis, but considered no less than a stab in the back by Abbas and his PA. Abbas was furious since one of the conditions of the unity deal was Hamas’ commitment to stop terrorist attacks against Israel from territory controlled by the PA. The PA needed that commitment to prevent Hamas from making a move that could lead to the freeing of Palestinian prisoners and attain much popularity at the expense of the PA.

The kidnapping is probably the death knell in the recent attempt at unity. Preceding it were other moves that showed the unity government was more show than substance. The PA continues to arrest Hamas suspects. The new government also failed to come up with funds to pay 40,000 government employees, mostly teachers, the Hamas government hired in Gaza since 2007. Hamas retaliated by sending its police in Gaza to close banks and confiscate money machines, in order to prevent the 70,000 employees who were on the Abbas PA payroll from receiving their salaries. The stalemate lasted for seven days until Qatar committed itself to pay the Hamas employees, but they are yet to be paid.

Much thornier issues await resolution down the line. Egypt will only open the border crossing on a regular basis if the Abbas security force will run it as stipulated in an international agreement brokered before the Hamas takeover. Hamas is understandably reluctant. Even more difficult is to come up with a unified security force, the bugbear of it all.

In short, the present unity government might yet meet the fate of dozens of other unity schemes in the Arab world. After all, the Palestinians in their state of disunity are clearly in keeping with the times. With Sunni Islamic fundamentalists at the gates of Baghdad and the partition of the Iraqi state a real possibility, Syria and Libya in civil war, Yemen fighting for its life facing Shi’ite Huthi opposition in the north, rebels in the south who want to succeed and al-Qaeda everywhere, the partition of the Palestinians into two entities is a relatively peaceful and livable situation by comparison.

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Hillel Frisch

Hillel Frisch is senior research associate in the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, the author of Israel’s Security and its Arab Citizens (Cambridge UP, 2011) and the guest editor of a special issue on the military in the Arab Spring in the Journal of Strategic Studies (2013).

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