Last Chance to End the Palestinian Rift

By Osama Al-Sharif – Amman

The Palestinians just can’t get their act together. The latest Egyptian initiative to bring all Palestinian factions to Cairo early next month now seems threatened because the two largest groups, Fatah and Hamas, have failed to agree on a compromise. In contrast to positive comments made last week by Palestinian President and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas, and Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Mash’al, the two main groups are again taking swipes at each other.

The mediation, led by Egyptian Intelligence director Gen. Omar Suleiman, has hit a snag because Abbas refused to hold a bilateral meeting prior to the conference in Cairo, a request made by the Egyptians on behalf of Hamas. So far, the prognosis for an end to the inter-Palestinian rift does not look good.

If the conference does take place in Cairo next month, the agenda will tackle at least five main issues, which all parties have agreed to discuss in principle. Five committees will deal with the following: The formation of a reconciliation government, reforming an archaic PLO, preparing for new legislative and presidential elections, rebuilding the security apparatus, and finally restoring Gaza to its pre- June 2007 conditions.

The Egyptians would also like to see a peaceful resolution to the Shalit affair, the Israeli corporal who is being held by Hamas in Gaza since June 2006. Naturally they would like to take credit for his release.

Hezbollah was able to seal a historic deal with Israel last July, securing the release of five Lebanese prisoners and the remains of 200 Palestinian and Lebanese fighters in exchange for two Israeli soldiers Hamas is now hoping to score a similar victory for hundreds of Palestinians in Israeli jails. Such a deal would embarrass the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and further discredit Abbas, whose efforts to get the departing Israeli premier Ehud Olmert to free thousands of Palestinian prisoners have achieved modest gains.

Another topic that Hamas would want to include on the agenda is ending the Gaza siege and opening the Rafah crossing into Egypt. So far the Egyptians have turned a deaf ear to Hamas’ requests and only opened the border point when humanitarian conditions in Gaza reached a critical point.

The Palestinian rift runs deep and goes back many years. Hamas accuses Abbas and his Fatah subordinates of conspiring with Israel and the United States to destroy the popular Islamist movement. More than two years ago Hamas, decided to contest the legislative elections and shocked the world by terminating Fatah’s traditional hold over the legislature and many municipalities. Abbas was forced to ask the movement’s Gaza leader Ismail Haniyeh to form a government.

The Hamas coup had a devastating effect on Palestinians everywhere. It ended PNA’s rule in the strip and created two Palestinian entities in the occupied territories that were vying for power and influence. The PNA retaliated by arresting Hamas activists in the West Bank and closing the movement’s offices and going after organisations perceived to be sympathetic with the Islamists. Israel, on its part, declared Gaza an “enemy entity” and launched brutal attacks against it before opting to seal it off.

In this bitter and hostile environment both Palestinian sides attempted to discredit each other, mostly at the expense of their own people. Israel continued to choke Gaza economically while boosting its control over the West Bank. Even when Olmert said he will continue to deal with Abbas as the legitimate representative of the Palestinians, he never responded to the latter’s pleas to remove hundreds of road blocks in the West Bank, release Palestinian prisoners or make progress on peace negotiations, revived by the American in Annapolis last year.

On its side, Hamas has failed to end the siege, although it finally acquiesced to a deal to end the firing of qassam rockets against southern Israeli towns in return for an easing of the Israeli blockade. But under its watch, Gaza’s misfortune as one of the poorest and most highly populated areas on the planet just got worse.

With the power change in Israel and the diminishing American influence of the Bush administration, the current Egyptian initiative may fare better. In recent weeks Syria and Jordan expressed support for Cairo’s efforts to end the rift. Abbas is feeling the pressure because the peace process is dormant and his term as president will come to an end in January. Hamas is also under pressure as humanitarian conditions in Gaza worsen and its popularity in the territories dips fast. Reconciliation has become more urgent than ever.

Fatah hardliners will have to accept the harsh reality that Palestinian voters revealed more than two years ago when people voted many of their candidates out. They will have to swallow their pride and accept to share power with Hamas. The Islamic resistance movement will have to realise that being supreme in Gaza will not help the Palestinian cause, and that they too will have to tone down their rhetoric, and give the PNA some much needed space to pursue negotiations with Israel in a fast changing world.

– Osama Al-Sharif is a veteran journalist based in Jordan. (This abridged article originally appeared in The Star – www.star.com.jo – and is distributed with permission by the Common Ground News Service, CGNews.)

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