Since Hamas’ takeover of the Gaza strip in 2007, the Palestinians’ ambitions for statehood have been thwarted not least by their own inability to form a united government. If for no other reason, there’s little point in recognizing a Palestinian “state” that is really two pseudo-states sometimes violently at odds with one another. And that’s all the more true when one of those statelets is governed by an internationally designated terrorist organization.
But while Hamas and Fatah have made noises about reconciliation in the past, yesterday’s visit to the Gaza Strip by the Palestinian Prime Minister suggests that the two groups appear to be closer to putting aside their differences than they have been in years. As Reuters reports:
The West Bank-based Palestinian prime minister crossed into the Gaza Strip on Monday in a move toward reconciliation between the mainstream Fatah party and Hamas, a decade after the Islamist group seized the territory in a civil war.
Rami al-Hamdallah said at a welcome ceremony his unity government would begin assuming control of Gaza’s administrative affairs, as well as “security responsibilities and responsibility for crossings and borders”.
Hamas, considered a terrorist group by Israel and the West, made its dramatic step toward unity last month, disbanding its Gaza shadow government, after Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates imposed an economic boycott on its main donor, Qatar, over alleged support of terrorism. Qatar denies the allegation. [….]
That deployment [of up to 3,000 Fatah security men to Gaza] would still leave Hamas’s armed wing — analysts say it has at least 25,000 well-equipped fighters — the dominant power in the Palestinian enclave of 2 million people.
For the time being at least, the Israeli government seems to be taking a wait-and-see approach to the unity efforts. The Israelis have a far more nuanced view of Hamas’ governance of the Gaza Strip than Israel’s advocates—or, for that matter, its detractors—give it credit for. Hamas might call for the destruction of Israel, but Israel isn’t exactly eager for the immediate destruction of Hamas. As former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon noted in an interview with The American Interest last year, the Israeli government, for one thing, used to provide Qatari oil to the Gaza Strip via Ashdod. That arrangement, as with the provision of Israeli electricity into the Strip that prompted the latest crisis in April, was halted by Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, not by Israel.
Israel is well aware that even in dealing with a terrorist group calling for its destruction, there are worse things than Hamas. With Egypt still struggling to defeat ISIS’ Sinai Province affiliate just across the border, the collapse of Hamas in the Strip might well entail the rise of something more like ISIS. The struggles of Gazan civilians under the alleged Gaza “blockade” (Egypt’s border closure is inevitably elided whenever this accusation is leveled at Israel) is also a diplomatic weapon for Hamas, never mind that the restrictions are necessary because of Hamas itself. And so Israel can at least be content if Hamas and Fatah come to a deal that keeps the lights on in Gaza.
Whether a unity agreement might lead to more meaningful restraint from Hamas remains very much in doubt, however. Hamas’ new “political document” that it released in April was a widely publicized opportunity to chart a new course. Even for Arab leaders, it was too cute by half. While stating that “Palestine” might exist within the pre-1967 borders, it refused to recognize Israel. While not mentioning the group’s foundational connection to the Muslim Brotherhood, it didn’t reject it. Announced from a plush hotel in Qatar, its release immediately preceded the Gulf Qatar Crisis.
Hamas may have conceded to Fatah’s key political demands, in other words, but there’s no real reason to think that any of this will lead to a kindler, gentler terrorist group. Still, some of the concessions might weaken the group while giving Fatah a foothold in Gaza, which is a positive outcome even if it’s of no great substance for Israeli security concerns.
The larger issue is what comes next in Palestinian politics. One key behind-the-scenes player in all of these negotiations between Hamas and Fatah is Mohammed Dahlan, who may be setting himself up as Mahmoud Abbas’ successor. The 82 year-old Abbas is a chainsmoker in less-than ideal health with no clear successor. Palestinian politics, which have been frozen in place for years, could get very interesting very quickly. These latest moves in the Gaza strip might just be the first steps.