Hamas now appears to be suing for peace with the Palestinian Authority (PA). But while this looks like a victory for PA President Mahmoud Abbas, things are not as straightforward for him as they might seem.
The Islamist movement Hamas has run Gaza since its violent take-over of the territory in 2007 from the PA, which is based in Ramallah in the West Bank and is dominated by the rival Fatah movement. For their different reasons, the PA, Israel and Egypt have all been seeking for the last several years to bring the Hamas administration in Gaza to heel and have been putting pressure of various kinds on it. This has made the territory almost impossible to run, as well as causing a great deal of suffering for the people of Gaza themselves.
In mid-September, the leadership of Hamas offered to reconcile with the PA on terms previously demanded by Abbas. Hamas would, it said, dissolve its government in Gaza (the ‘administrative committee’) and agree to elections in both the West Bank and Gaza.
Reconciliation being a high priority for ordinary Palestinians, and given that Hamas said it accepted his terms, Abbas could hardly reject the offer. And since making its initial offer, Hamas has made strong public statements of its commitment to reconciliation (Yahya Sinwar, head of Hamas in Gaza, said he would ‘break the neck’ of anyone who opposed it) and its willingness to make concessions to achieve it.
However, Abbas is not likely to be celebrating yet. For one thing, this is far from being the first attempt at Hamas–Fatah reconciliation, all the others having broken down sooner or later – and usually sooner. And for another, he is probably highly suspicious of Hamas’ intentions. While it has not imposed any conditions of its own, it will almost certainly want something in return for the concessions it is saying it will make.
One major issue which the PA and Hamas will have to negotiate is what the latter calls ‘armed resistance’ – what Israel and many others would call terrorism. For his part, Abbas is committed to finding a peaceful solution to the Palestinians’ conflict with Israel. As his speech to the UN General Assembly last month made clear, he has doubts about the readiness of the current Israeli government to negotiate in earnest with him. But for the moment, with no better alternative available, he is resting his hopes on the Trump administration’s promise of a peace initiative. For its part, Hamas has continued to insist that, to quote its Document of Principles and Policies issued in May, resistance for the liberation of Palestine will remain ‘a legitimate right, a duty and an honour’.
For Hamas to foreswear the option of resistance so soon after reaffirming it (in the most important policy document it has issued since its 1988 charter) would be tantamount to total capitulation. However, if the PA agrees to a role for Hamas in running Gaza or to Hamas retaining their capacity to strike against Israel, Abbas can be sure that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will accuse him of being an accomplice of a terrorist organization. That would give Netanyahu yet another pretext to decline to negotiate – and one, moreover, that would resonate with the Trump administration. This is something Abbas would certainly wish to avoid, wanting as he very much does to keep the US on side.
Another cause for wariness on Abbas’ part is the role of Egypt’s Palestinian protégé, Mohammed Dahlan. President Abdel Fatah el- Sisi of Egypt has used both carrots and sticks to moderate Hamas’ behaviour, mainly to induce it to end its support for the insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula. As one means to this end, Egypt has put pressure on Hamas to accept reconciliation with the PA in a way which gives the latter the controlling voice in the running of Gaza.
So far so good, for Abbas. But Egypt’s choice of Dahlan to act as intermediary with Hamas will have been anything but welcome for him: Abbas, believing that he was plotting to seize the leadership of Fatah, expelled Dahlan and his supporters from the movement in 2011. Any insistence on the part of Egypt or Hamas on a substantial role for Dahlan in the governance of Gaza would probably be a red line for Abbas.
Abbas is not himself doing the negotiating with Hamas. Rather, he is letting his prime minister, Rami Hamdallah, take the lead for the PA side. This is sensible: if Hamdallah reaches a tentative agreement with Hamas which looks likely to cause problems with the Trump administration, Abbas will be able to disown it (and Hamdallah too, if needs be).
In this complicated situation, Abbas will be aware that a misstep could cost him dear. He can be expected to make haste slowly – and to blame Hamas if a reconciliation deal fails to materialize.
Greg Shapland, Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme.