Palestine is ripe for a revolution. How do we know that? Because the two rival governments that have so spectacularly failed that hypothetical country are finally ending their 4-year-old breach and getting back together. Or at least that’s what they say they’re doing.
The reconciliation took place in Cairo last Wednesday, when Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority (which controls the West Bank), and Khaled Meshaal, the leader of Hamas (which controls the Gaza Strip), signed an agreement to form an interim government to rule both parts of the would-be country. “We forever turn the black page of division,” said Abbas in his opening remarks.
The two men went further than that. They agreed that no member either of Hamas or of Fatah (the movement that is Mahmoud Abbas’ political base) could be part of the interim government. That government would pave the way for free elections next year in both parts of the disjointed proto-state that would really restore Palestinian national unity. Or so the deal says.
But Fatah and Hamas still hate each other, and they haven’t actually made a single compromise on the key areas where they disagree, such as the question of whether to make peace with Israel. Most observers still doubt that the gulf between the two sides can ever be bridged. So why would they even bother to sign such a “unity” accord?
Because they are both running scared. They have seen what happened to other oppressive and-or corrupt regimes in the Arab world as the “Arab spring” has unfolded, and they are afraid that a comparable revolution could drive them from power too. Fatah, after all, is very corrupt and quite authoritarian, while Hamas is less corrupt but extremely repressive and economically incompetent to boot.
There have already been large popular demonstrations in the Palestinian territories, although they have not been widely reported. The protesters’ main demand is “national unity,” but there is good reason to suspect that many of them actually have a broader agenda.
One further incentive for the deal, from Abbas’ point of view, is that he hopes to get formal recognition of the Palestinian state from the United Nations General Assembly in September, even though its borders with Israel have still not been agreed and much of it is under Israeli military occupation.
This is mere gesture politics, since it will not force Israel to remove its troops or make any other concessions, but Abbas hopes that it will strengthen his standing with his own people. Besides, he can hardly ask the U.N. members to recognize Palestinian sovereignty so long as different parts of its territory are ruled by rival and indeed hostile regimes. A cosmetic reconciliation with Hamas is necessary, at least for a while.
The probable price of this Fatah-Hamas deal is a complete shutdown of peace negotiations with Israel, because Israel, the European Union and the United States define Hamas as a “terrorist movement.” Therefore, they will have nothing to do with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas (or so they say).
Israel’s hard-line prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said the accord was a “tremendous blow to peace and a great victory for terrorism.” But Netanyahu is widely and probably correctly seen as a man who isn’t interested in a peace agreement anyway, so Abbas doesn’t think anything important will be lost if he cozies up to Hamas for a while.
The real question is whether the Palestinians will ignore all this window-dressing, and rise up like their Egyptian neighbors to rid themselves of the arbitrary and corrupt governments that now rule them. The answer is probably no, because the felt need for “unity” in the face of the Israelis usually cripples Palestinian attempts to address the failings of their own institutions.
Indeed, the biggest short-term consequence of the “Arab spring” for the Palestinians may be another Israeli military assault on the Gaza Strip, or even a full-scale re-occupation of that territory, because the new Egyptian government plans to reopen its border with Gaza very soon.
Under Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s recently deposed dictator, Cairo fully cooperated with Israel in enforcing a tight blockade of the Gaza Strip. Once the border with Egypt is reopened, Israel fears, the extremists who regularly fire rockets into Israel from the territory will have access to an endless flow of weapons.
Trying to shut that border down again would immediately embroil Israel in a conflict not only with Hamas but with newly democratic Egypt. That would certainly not be to Israel’s long-term advantage, but that doesn’t mean they won’t do it.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose commentary is published in 45 countries.