Getting Back on Track

By Joharah Baker

I just returned from participating in the United Nation’s conference on the Question of Palestine, organized by its Committee for the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, in Malta. Obviously, the audience, participants and organizers were comprised of a unique amalgam of nationalities, religions and perspectives, making the assembly extremely rich and diverse.

The Palestinian representatives at the conference were also of diverse opinions, but with one common thread woven between all of those there. Getting Palestine’s house in order is the first task the Palestinian leadership must tackle before any other progress could be made.

This was clearly the opinion of President Mahmoud Abbas, who on June 4 announced an initiative for a national dialogue based on the Yemeni Initiative last March, in a bid to bridge the treacherous and often bloody gap between Fatah and Hamas. It is no coincidence that his initiative took flight on the first anniversary of Hamas’ takeover of the Gaza Strip last June after a confrontation between Palestine’s two Titan rivals where brothers turned their arms against each other.

Since then, there have been several efforts to get the two sides talking, through Egyptian mediation and finally the Yemeni Initiative. While both sides have continued to claim they are eager to reconcile, neither has yet offered the conditions the other has demanded. Fateh, under President Abbas has so far insisted the situation in Gaza would have to be restored to that before Hamas’ takeover of June 2007 before any talks could be initiated while Hamas has said it wants a restoration of dialogue without any preconditions.

These demands have so far brought any efforts to repeated stalemates and has inadvertently plunged the region into further decline. Since Hamas’ takeover of the Strip, Israel has imposed a brutal and strangulating siege on that area under the guise of protecting its citizens from Hamas hostilities. This has resulted in a severe lack of food, medical and fuel supplies entering the Strip and has hindered humanitarian and emergency efforts there. Furthermore, Israel virtually closed all of Gaza’s border crossings into Israel and the West Bank in addition to the Rafah Crossing into Egypt, creating a de facto prison for its 1.4 million inhabitants.

So, when Hamas and Fatah officials met in the Senegalese capital, Dakkar last week, Palestinians everywhere held their breath in anticipation. President Abbas’ speech a day before in which he announced the reconciliation initiative was met positively by Hamas, which said the speech hailed a “new spirit” of dialogue.

This is not to say there is no bad blood still festering between them. Accusations between the two sides are ample, with Hamas expressing clear resentment of the arrest of hundreds of its operatives in the West Bank by Fatah-backed PA security forces. Fatah is still seething over Hamas’ refusal to relinquish control over the Gaza Strip, control which it feels is rightly theirs. Above all, Hamas and Fatah will need to overcome the fact that both sides raised their weapons against each other, taking the lives of men who just a few months earlier were standing side by side against Israeli occupying forces. Needless to say, there is a lot of work to be done before “Humpty Dumpty” can be put back together again.

Nonetheless, the agreement of both sides to smooth out this tattered and torn relationship is a huge step in the right direction. It is gaining even more momentum because of enormous international and Arab endorsement. Arab leaders promised their countries were behind the initiative one hundred percent, suggesting that the Hamas-Fateh talks are conducted under the umbrella of the Arab League. Additionally, other Palestinian factions are taking part in the initiative on the premise that all political parties and movements must be involved in any reconciliation efforts if they are to succeed. This includes Palestine’s leftist movements such as the Popular and Democratic Fronts for the Liberation of Palestine and the Palestinian People’s Party, who presented a memo to Fateh outlining the positive points on which a lasting dialogue can be established.

Creating an atmosphere conducive to a united Palestinian front has proven extremely crucial in the face of Israel’s ongoing efforts to isolate the Gaza Strip and alienate Hamas from any political solution. Israel has already made it clear to Abbas’ government in the West Bank that no progress in the negotiations would be made if Abbas engages Hamas in any part of the process. The United States, in its position at the helm of the international community, has sent the Palestinian leadership the same message, which naturally has crammed Abbas between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Cutting the PA government out of the political process would have devastating ramifications on the leadership and the people as well, not least of which are those regarding international aid and funding.

Hence, Abbas must be commended for this if for nothing else. It has taken more than a year and has cost a lot of lost lives and almost irreparable damage to our cause as a whole, but it is never too late. The battle with Israel requires that we all bond together, regardless of our differences.

This was apparent in the conference room of a beautiful seaside hotel in Malta. Seated side by side were Palestinians who fought in the fierce clashes of Beirut in the ranks of Fatah and those who could only be described as part of the founding fathers of the PFLP. There was no representative of Hamas, of course, given that it was a UN conference. However, official rhetoric and casual chitchat between the Palestinians reflected the same views. Whether Islamist, leftist or mainstream Fatah, the most pressing issue on our table today is to glue it back together. Only then can we be prepared to fight the real battle against the occupation.

Even though the views of Hamas and Fatah seem oceans apart, the problem is not as complicated as it looks. The rift between the two parties has only gained ground in the past few years. The Palestinian struggle against the occupation is over four decades old. Leaders from both sides only need to let these last few years fall away – as difficult as this may sound – and recall those days when our efforts were directed in one direction in spite of all of our political or ideological differences. Once these days are refreshed in our minds, these absurd struggles for false power will prove irrelevant and we can get back to liberating ourselves from occupation: the goal we originally set out to achieve.

-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 at mip@miftah.org. (This article was originally published by MIFTAH – www.miftah.org – and is republished with permission.)

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