Palestinian Party unity is No Substitute for a Political System

Palestinian political 'unity' requires an operating political system. (Via Aljazeera)

By Sam Bahour

Palestinian “unity”—reconciling tensions between Hamas and Fatah—is being revered as the foundation that can extract Gaza from the misery wrought upon it by yet another brutal Israeli military onslaught. The devastation from what Israel called “Operation Protective Edge” is overwhelming: over 2,000 Palestinians dead, over 10,000 wounded and paralyzed, and a third of the 1.8 million people in Gaza homeless. Added to this human tragedy is the rabid destruction of Gaza’s civilian infrastructure. Palestinian political “unity” requires an operating political system, which is something that Israel dismantled long ago with official Palestinian acquiescence. Anyone seriously wanting to see Palestinians survive this latest Israeli attack should support the reemergence of a fully operating Palestinian political system, rather than just the replacement of a pair of failed political monopolies with a reconciled but leaderless political duopoly.

If this newly founded Palestinian “unity” was cemented in a strategic political agreement and emerged from a unified political system that was representative in nature, one may have hope, but it was not. It is a unity of Fatah and Hamas, two non-representative political entities, one more militant today than the other, but both equally squeezed into a political corner that not only challenges their strategies to end the nearly five decades of Israeli military occupation, but also casts doubt on their political legitimacy.

On 3 June 2014—more than a week before three Israeli teenagers from the Gush Etzion settlement in the West Bank were reported kidnapped and murdered—I made the following comments on the Middle East Eye website and on my Facebook wall regarding the unity agreement reached in Cairo on 23 April 2014:

“Palestinians have finally created what has been coined as a “unity government” after nearly eight years of paralysing division between the two largest political parties, Fatah and Hamas. This step is extremely overdue, but should be welcomed nevertheless for what it is: a baby step in the right direction, finally accepting government for what it is, a branch of politics and not some technocratic institute.

“The Palestinian political spectrum is much more colourful than the bipolar duopoly that this new government depicts. If Palestinian decision-makers are serious about reconstituting an operating Palestinian political system, then no time should be wasted in passing a political party law so new political groupings, mainly youth groups, can organise politically, and then subsequently be allowed to enter elections for all levels of Palestinian governance—starting with the PLO and ending with the Palestinian Legislative Council.

“In the meantime, US and Israeli threats against the government because Hamas has joined it are strategically misplaced. One must ask, where does the US and Israel want Hamas to be: in a transparent political system, or in underground trenches? Regardless, the Palestinian government is not any other country’s business unless, that is, they allow Palestinians to choose the Israelis we accept to lead Israel.”

On 3 July 2014, the Israeli Air Force conducted 15 air strikes in Gaza supposedly directed at Hamas targets in response to a rocket attack from Palestinian militants. The subsequent bombardment of Gaza during July cut short the unified government’s efforts to take serious steps forward to solidify the unity agreement.

In a fury to stop the mass killing and destruction that came with the latest aggression against Palestinians in Gaza, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attempted to leverage the still-fresh unity agreement. Abbas appointed a “unity delegation” to negotiate with Israel indirectly, given that Hamas refuses to negotiate directly, for a permeant cease-fire.

Negotiating a ceasefire agreement was not planned to be the first act of the unity government, but Israel successfully disrupted any planned unification of the Palestinian political system by imposing the latest humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Instead of beginning organizational tasks such as reunifying ministries, integrating Gaza’s security personnel into the national security institutions, merging two legal systems, and holding national elections, the “unity government” effort morphed into a “unity delegation” to deal with the ceasefire. There is a huge difference between a unity government based on a unified political system and a “unified delegation” focused solely on saving what remains of the Gaza Strip.

Given the horrific carnage in Gaza, few in the West will even recall that the Israeli government lashed out against any unification of the Palestinians, threatened to cut funding, and took punitive measures to further entrench their state of military control over the West Bank. A very plausible argument can be made that Israeli massive destruction of Gaza and rampaging in the West Bank and East Jerusalem were all orchestrated to ensure Palestinians remain divided and Hamas continue to be perceived as a legitimate threat to Israel, providing the perfect justification for not ending the Israeli occupation.

With the ceasefire being the centerpiece of “unity,” I posted these remarks in the Middle East Eye on 8 August 2014:

“The sheer use of the word “ceasefire” is insulting. It depicts an artificial symmetry that the Palestinians have fell for, even though reality on the ground is totally contrary.

“For a fragile, non-representative, Palestinian unity delegation to be engaged in “ceasefire” negotiations with their military occupier (it means little if done directly or through intermediaries) sets up Palestinians for an Oslo-like phase, where, no matter what is agreed, the Palestinian side will be signing away rights that have been stripped from them by Israel for decades.

“These rights, first among them protection, should be secured by Third States under their obligations toward the Fourth Geneva Convention, without the need for “resistance” or “ceasefire” talks.

“A “ceasefire” simply reinforces the false impression that there is some hint of symmetry between Palestine and Israel. There is not! Furthermore, to be conducting these “ceasefire” talks [in Cairo,] the capital of a country that participates in the siege of the Gaza Strip, should be an embarrassment to every member of the Palestinian negotiating team, first among them Hamas.”

After all the dead are buried in Gaza and the mourning process comes to a close, politically we will be exactly where we were two months prior to this tragedy: living the illusion of unity in the absence of a legitimate political system. Meanwhile, the reality of military occupation keeps us physically and politically fragmented, led by unelected leaders, and sustained more than ever by foreign donors who have their own agendas. These are the ingredients for yet another round of violence.

Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American business consultant in Ramallah and serves as a policy adviser to Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network. He blogs at He contributed this article to

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