Reconciliation at Last?

By Joharah Baker

It has been almost two years since the fabric of Palestinian unity was torn down the seam. For almost two years Hamas and Fatah have duked it out on the ground and in political corridors, claiming hundreds of lives and creating an almost irreparable split between the West Bank and Gaza. Today, although terribly overdue, Palestinians are cautiously squinting into the future, at the possible light at the end of this very dark tunnel.

On March 3, Fatah announced the members of the five joint committees agreed on at the recent Cairo talks. The five committees will deal with the issues of the transitional government formation, reconciliation, security, elections and the PLO. If all goes well, a transitional government will be formed by the end of March and will conduct the affairs of the state until presidential and legislative elections take place at the beginning of 2010.

To an outsider, this may seem like a small step. To Palestinians it is definitely not. There have been numerous attempts to reconcile the two Palestinian political giants, Hamas and Fatah, but to no avail. Ever since the international community refused to accept Hamas’ victory in the 2006 PLC elections, the situation has gone in one direction only: downhill. Thereafter, Hamas refused to relinquish power in Gaza and Fatah refused to let go of its historic reins over the Palestinian Authority, naturally resulting in the metaphorical clash of the Titans. The bloody Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007 left hundreds dead in its wake and bad blood between brothers. The clashes between the two have been on again off again since then with intermittent lulls in between. This new development is the first glimmer of hope in a long time.

Like all political developments, this one cannot be viewed in the absence of its political surroundings. At least three main factors have undoubtedly played a role – the Gaza invasion, the new US Administration and the new right-wing Israeli government in the making. Following the 22-day Israeli offensive against Gaza, international parties, including the United States have begun to inch towards inclusion of Hamas in a future solution. Of course, this inclusion is contingent upon Hamas’ acceptance of the Quartet Committee’s conditions, namely the acceptance of Israel’s right to exist, the renunciation of "terror" and abidance by previous agreements signed by the Palestinians.

Even US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has uttered the word Hamas and Palestinian state all in the same sentence. Perhaps her slight change of heart comes with the fact that her boss is Barack Obama, a president who has made it clear that his administration, in sharp contrast with the last one, will become immediately involved in working towards a final solution. Just the other day, Secretary of State Clinton, on her first trip to the region in this capacity, said "the movement towards a Palestinian state is inescapable."

So it is safe to say, that after all this toil and trouble, some semblance of a Palestinian state will eventually be created. How long this will take and in what form is yet to be seen but the reality remains that Palestine will not just vanish into thin air.

The question is whether Hamas wants a piece of this cake or not? The assumption is yes, if our litmus test is how comfortable they have become in their "seats of power" after their entrance into political life. Hamas is definitely interested in keeping its foot in the government’s front door, even as it continues to espouse its manifesto of resistance. But even Hamas knows that government and resistance do not go hand in hand and eventually one will have to be sacrificed for the sake of the other.

If the international community, which continues to label Hamas as a terrorist organization, plays its cards right, it would neutralize Hamas by inclusion not seclusion. Perhaps this is what it is trying to do now and if Hamas really wants a piece of the pie, it will take the bait. First, however, one problem stands in the way – Israel’s new right wing leadership, which is probably not ready to make that shift.

Benjamin Netanyahu is coming into power with the mindset of destruction. Destroy Hamas, destroy any resistance and destroy any hopes for a viable Palestinian state. Even the United States, Israel’s staunchest ally, sees this approach problematic, with Clinton herself saying that Netanyahu’s "economic peace" plan has no chance of success without a political solution.

Anyway, it is highly unlikely that Netanyahu’s "economic peace" will entail the unfettered opening of Gaza’s borders, which is necessary for any stability to settle in the Gaza Strip. So far, the international community has been critical of Israel’s handling of the Gaza border situation, saying Israel is not allowing nearly as much aid as it should to alleviate the hardship of residents there.

Still, in spite of all these factors, some good and some not so good, Palestinian reconciliation can only be a positive step. The fact that Hamas and Fatah have agreed to sit down and form a government is a sign that things may be moving in the comforting direction of internal calm.

Whether or not the international community – namely the United States and Europe – will finally deliver on their promises to push forward the creation of a viable and sustainable Palestinian state, is important, but not exclusively. Over the years, the Palestinians have experienced disappointment time and time again but have never lost hope that one day justice would prevail. Palestinians have always prided themselves on embracing political pluralism while continuing to maintain a common goal. That is, until recently. The danger Palestinians face today is that what was once their unified dream has splintered into two.

Palestinians have more than one thing to look forward to. US President Barack Obama will certainly bring more positivity to the table than his predecessor and has already adopted a foreign policy of inclusion rather than exclusion. Any right wing Israeli government will have to deal with this new American attitude and perhaps bend more in its direction if it wants to reap all of the benefits from its cordial relationship with the US. With the Palestinians as one unified front, this can only strengthen their position in the international community and in confronting Israel’s continued expansionist policies on its land.

Hence, Hamas, Fatah and all other factions for that matter are responsible for gluing us back together again. Only then can the battle for liberation, however difficult, be ultimately won.

– Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Program at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at mip@miftah.org.

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