An Illusive Unity

Khaled Amayreh
Al-Ahram Weekly

The Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) president, Mahmoud Abbas, has apparently back-pedalled on threats he made last week to oust the Hamas-led government, opting instead to give “dialogue” a second chance.

Abbas said last week, during a joint press conference with visiting US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Jericho, that talks with Hamas over the formation a national unity government had reached a dead end. Looking exasperated, Abbas said he would explore “alternatives” to extract the Palestinian people from “this difficult crisis” — his chosen euphemism for the harsh American-led, Israeli- enforced six-month-old siege — adding carefully that he would never allow civil war to take root.

Abbas didn’t say what alternatives he was seeking, but some of his advisors and aides, like Yasser Abd Rabbo and Nabil Amr, gave an impression of an acute crisis, especially after Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh began an extended tour of several Arab and Islamic states to enlist political — and especially financial — support for his beleaguered and embattled government.

The visit, which was not coordinated with Abbas, was viewed as an affront to the PA leadership and indication by Hamas that it was not really serious about reaching a speedy agreement over the formation of a national unity government of any kind.

Some observers in the occupied Palestinian territories interpreted Abbas’s statements, especially subsequent sharp-toned remarks by his aides, as a kind of psychological war waged on Hamas aimed at coercing the movement to give more concessions and show more flexibility.

The Palestine Liberation Organisation Executive Committee met in Ramallah earlier this week and recommended that Abbas refrain from taking any “undemocratic” or “unconstitutional” approach to resolving the current deadlock. The committee effectively recommended that the best choice for the time being was to exhaust talks with Hamas in the hope that an agreement might be reached after all.

This apparent change of tactics was the result of two main factors. First, a number of Arab states, especially Egypt, reportedly asked Abbas to refrain from taking any dramatic and uncalculated steps at this time, telling him that a confrontation with Hamas would be disastrous for the Palestinian cause. Second, Hamas’s own strong reactions to Abbas’s remarks in Jericho, which came while Abbas was in the company of Secretary Rice, also militated against the Palestinian leader and probably convinced him that Hamas was not going to hand him the government on a silver platter.

There is a third important psychological factor that may have prompted Abbas and his aides to reconsider their options. Haniyeh’s Arab tour has thus far been successful, even beyond expectations. In Egypt, Haniyeh was accorded a dignified reception and had meeting with high-ranking Egyptian officials. And in Qatar, a “miracle” occurred — to use the words of a Palestinian official — when the emir of the small but influential Arabian Gulf Emirate, Hamad Ibn Khalifa Al-Thani, undertook to pay the salaries of more than 40,000 Palestinian teachers for six months.

The emir of Qatar also approved a package of aid to the Palestinians, including a pledge to establish an Islamic Bank in Gaza through which future financial aid to the Palestinian government could be channelled, bypassing commercial banks answerable to the United States.

(The Americans and the Israelis were badly upset by the Qatari gesture. However, given Qatar’s special relationship with the US — the US has a large air base in Qatar — and more or less good relations with Israel, the two could do very little publicly. Reportedly they voiced indignation privately through diplomatic channels).

Similarly, Haniyeh’s high-profile speeches in Damascus, especially at the Yarmouk Refugee camp, the largest in Syria, portrayed the Palestinian prime minister as more of a national Palestinian leader than of a leader of a single Palestinian faction, Hamas.

In such atmosphere, it was difficult for Abbas to appear as undercutting, even backstabbing, the Palestinian prime minister while he was making every effort possible to lift the throttling siege on the Palestinian people and alleviate their suffering. Indeed, any action against the Hamas-led government or Haniyeh — for example, sacking him — under such circumstances would have portrayed Abbas and his aides as stooges working for America and Israel.

Moreover, Haniyeh and other Hamas officials denied vehemently that the “dialogue” with Fatah had reached a dead-end, insisting that the door for talks was still open and that agreement could still be reached. Such statements were interpreted in Ramallah as reflecting a certain willingness on Hamas’s part to cede some concessions and may have contributed to Abbas’s decision to display more patience.

In Damascus, in an impassioned speech before thousands of Palestinian refugees, expelled from their homes and villages by Israel in 1948, Haniyeh criticised Fatah’s insistence that important portfolios, such as finance and the interior, be occupied by “independents.” “How could that be? We are answerable to the people. What would we tell the people if these independent ministers misuse and abuse their responsibilities?”

Haniyeh went on to stress that the “alternative to dialogue is more dialogue, because protecting our national unity is more paramount than all political bickering.” Furthermore, he asserted Hamas’s commitment to form a government of national unity pursuant the Palestinian Accord Document, formerly known as the Prisoners’ Document.

Meanwhile, it is clear that Israel and Hamas remain estranged with regard to a possible prisoner swap that would involve freeing Gilad Shalit, an Israeli occupation soldier captured by Palestinian resistance fighters in Gaza more than five months ago.

Last week, Egyptian General Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman met Israeli officials in a renewed effort to get the Israeli government to agree on a possible deal. Israel has yet to respond to questions and proposals that Suleiman conveyed to Israeli leaders on behalf of Hamas whose leader Khaled Meshaal he had met earlier in Cairo.

Israel this week said it would be willing to free 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit. Israel didn’t say what sort of prisoners it would be willing to release, prompting Hamas to accuse Israel of “deception” and “of acting in bad faith”.

Hamas is more than justified in its suspicions. For several weeks the Israeli army and Shin Bet (Israel’s domestic intelligence agency) have been carrying out a sustained spate of arrests, targeting Palestinian activists as well as ordinary Palestinians, some on petty charges, some on “violations” dating back to the 1980s, while others, who make up the vast bulk of detainees, are ordinary Palestinians Israel only wants to use as hostages and bargaining chips.

Indeed, Palestinian sources spoke of up to 30 Palestinians being rounded up on any given day, meaning that Israel has arrested many hundreds of Palestinians since Shalit was captured 27 June.

Apparently Israel is calculating that it won’t lose anything by freeing these hostages who are detained for prolonged periods without charge or trial. Indeed, every Palestinian under occupation is effectively held hostage and can further be arrested at will by the Israeli occupation army. That so many arrests have been taking place indicates that Israel feels no compulsion to resist dipping into this vast reservoir whenever it needs more bargaining chips.

Hamas is aware of these tactics and has been insisting that Israel must free at least 1,400 prisoners, including veteran prisoners and all women and children in Israeli jails.

Haniyeh and Meshaal were meeting in Damascus as Al-Ahram Weekly went to press and were expected to agree on Hamas’s final position on this issue. Interestingly, even the Egyptians, who had earlier tacitly blamed Hamas for showing undue intransigence, are now convinced that the ball is in the Israeli court, especially the latest spate of nightly round-ups.

The suffering and saga continues.

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