A united, representative and democratic “government” is good for Palestine. United governance would increase external confidence, which might strengthen the negotiation capabilities of the Palestinians. A representative “government” would increase popular confidence in the governing structures, which might strengthen popular resistance in Palestine. As such Hamas’s talk of ceding some control through the assertion to dissolve their council, consolidate a unity government with Fatah and promote new elections is welcomed. However, there are questions to be asked about whether these shifts are strategies of faltering politicians to stay in power or will genuinely lead to strengthened Palestinian governance.
A divided Palestinian leadership is good for Israel. Israel welcomed the rise of Hamas in the 1980s as it offered competition to Fatah’s power. Israel’s policies have continued to drive a wedge between the parties, such as the security arrangements post-Oslo which put PA security forces, at the time dominated by Fatah, in charge of combatting “terrorism” within PA “controlled” parts of the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinian Papers revealed Tony Blair’s government support for the training and funding of PA forces in their continued pressure on Hamas. WikiLeaks documents revealed Israeli collaboration in arming Fatah fighters in Gaza post-2006 to maintain their fight against Hamas fighters. Segments of Israeli administration secretly welcomed Hamas’s electoral success in 2006. First, because Hamas’s win allowed Israel to treat Gaza as a hostile territory, permitting the use of extreme violence against the territory. Second, the Hamas’s success prevented unity in governance, as Israel argued that any diplomatic engagement with a shared power arrangement would mean engagement with a terrorist movement.
The EU has also played a role in aggravating the tensions between Hamas and Fatah, especially in governance. EU policies post 2006 withheld financing from Hamas, used the Temporary International Mechanism to divert funds directly to Fatah and refused to pay civil servant salaries of anyone affiliated with Hamas. This prevented the possibility of any potential collaborative partnership in government. In evidence given to the House of Lords, EU Committee 2006-07 senior EU bureaucrats admit to an awareness of how EU policies were damaging Palestinian governance, but that such policies would be enacted anyhow.
Robert Cooper, Former Director-General for External and Politico-Military Affairs at the General Secretariat of the Council of the European Union said:
“Personally, I think we should be a little bit careful about saying we are prepared to do business with one-half of the Government and not the other because we have, after all, been urging the Palestinians to form a National Unity Government and, again personally, I think that is probably a condition of the peace settlement in the end. First, the Palestinians need to get their act together and then they need to negotiate with Israel. Our only reservation is that we need the Palestinians to get their act together in a way that enables a negotiation with Israel rather than one which closes it off, and that is why we are in this delicate balancing act that we are at the moment.”
My own research reveals that Israeli and American diplomats applied pressure on EU bureaucrats following Hamas’s election to follow the line of refusing engagement with the Hamas government. As such despite verbal commitments between EU bureaucrats and Hamas leaders, Ahmed Yousef and Ghazi Hamad that the EU may be willing to accept a national unity government, the EU ultimately refused such recognition. This external pressure to thwart, at all costs, a unified government was also notable in 2014. When both American and European politicians were showing willingness of engaging with a unity government, the Guardian’s Peter Beaumont reports that the U.S., under the direction of Secretary of State John Kerry, said that it would work with the new government, and European governments responded with encouragement. However, “Israel also said it would act – including in the international community – to prevent Palestinian elections taking place which included the participation of Hamas.”—“The prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, chairing a security cabinet following the signing, told ministers: ‘Today, Abu Mazen [as President Mahmoud Abbas is known] said yes to terrorism and no to peace.’”
Now what? There is a crisis in Palestinian governance. While elections are welcomed, there is a lack of pluralism and elections, largely due to external influence, were not successful at strengthening Palestinian governance in 2006. Hamas is making important needed changes to its dynamics as a movement, for example through the publication of its new Charter in May of this year. Point 28 of the charter states that “Hamas believes in, and adheres to, managing its Palestinian relations on the basis of pluralism, democracy, national partnership, acceptance of the other and the adoption of dialogue.” It notes this is a strategic choice in accomplishing national goals and fulfilling the aspirations of the Palestinian people. The Charter affirms support for elections, but there have not been repeat elections at the ‘national’ level since Hamas came to power.
The Charter also outlines the importance of Palestinian women playing a “pivotal role in the project of resistance, liberation and building the political system.” There is a lack of gender representation in Palestinian government. Both Abbas and Hamas are failing in providing equal and fair representation, the electricity crisis in Gaza is one of the most notable signs of this.
Is the unification a strategic practice meant to strengthen Palestinian governance? Or is it a practice that allows Hamas to stay in power? A power sharing arrangement may be good for Palestinian governance, but this has to be the aim and not simply the unintended consequence. The worry is this looks like strong men exchanges, where Egyptian authorities celebrate Yahya Sinwar’s offer to Mohammed Dahlan for a governing position Gaza in exchange for his support for unification. Peter Krause of Boston College argues that a unified government between two parties of equal size and strength, Hamas and Fatah, is a hard fought solution, and either party might be unwilling undertake action that limits its own power. The recent regional pressure on Hamas might have “forced” Hamas to make concessions. However, perhaps both Fatah and Hamas need to worry less about just trying to stay in power and more about how they are governing. Krause discusses the possible benefits of the parties encouraging popular resistance and negotiations. Negotiations and popular resistance can potentially engage all key audiences without alienating them and nonviolent national struggles often gain significant international support. Krause writes,
“Popular resistance has the potential to actively involve the largest number of Palestinians and international backers while simultaneously exerting pressure on the Israelis and building support for a deal among their ranks. In this way, popular resistance can gain domestic support and provide leverage for negotiations without losing international legitimacy.”
Hamas’s practices have alienated popular resistance in the past. It is a key moment for both parties to support popular resistance and to support pluralism so renewed elections can lead to more encompassing representation of all Palestinian voices.