January 16, 2017 | Policy Brief

Another Palestinian Unity Agreement?

January 16, 2017 | Policy Brief

Another Palestinian Unity Agreement?

A coalition of Palestinian parties released a statement last week calling for the first session in over two decades of the parliamentary body of the PLO, the Palestinian National Council (PNC). Meeting in Beirut, members of the largest PLO factions – including President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party – negotiated with the non-PLO factions – including the designated terror group Hamas – over the need to elect new leaders and incorporate non-PLO factions.

This seemingly historic moment of Palestinian reconciliation is more a game of chicken between the two largest Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas. Since their civil war in 2007, both sides have attempted to portray the other’s intransigence as the primary obstacle to Palestinian national unity. Right now, that battle is especially heated. After enduring weeks of power cuts, thousands of Gazans took to the streets on Thursday to protest against the Hamas government. Similarly in the West Bank, protests against Abbas and the ossified Palestinian Authority have become commonplace. The aging leader’s sagging popularity has a majority of Palestinians wanting him to resign. Thus, neither side wants to appear to be the culprit behind yet another collapsed attempt at national unity.

But convening the PLO’s parliamentary body is complicated. There are approximately 700 members of the PNC spread across the West Bank, Gaza, and Palestinian diaspora. That number is actually smaller when one subtracts the parliamentarians who have died since the last time the PNC reached a quorum in 1996. Still, convening such a large group is no small task.

The issue of whether to include non-PLO members such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad has long divided the Palestinian movement. Prominent Palestinian figures, such as former PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, have routinely issued calls to include Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the broader Palestinian body politic, but the inclusion of terrorist groups threatens to undermine the global acceptance of the PLO. Previous reconciliation attempts have failed due to Hamas’ refusal to renounce violence and abide by the PLO’s recognition of Israel.

Hamas has committed several senior figures – including politburo members Musa Abu Marzouk and Izzat Rishq – to the meetings in Beirut. There is no chance these figures will renounce the violent ‘resistance’ Hamas has long espoused. While Abu Marzouk’s comments typically stay broad (such as when he urged Palestinians last month to unite to “confront the occupation”), rank and file members of the group refuse to budge (after the Jerusalem truck attack last week, a Hamas spokesman called on Palestinians to “escalate the resistance”).

The Hamas position is incompatible with Abbas’ focus on international diplomacy. The stakes are particularly high for Abbas, who cannot reconcile with a terrorist organization for fear that the incoming American administration might cut him off financially – something Congress has already threatened to do. Moreover, both sides have fundamentally divergent views on what a future Palestinian state might look like, and both sides continue to view their struggle with the other as zero-sum.

In the end, Hamas and Fatah could not agree to hold city council elections last October; there is little possibility that they will agree to compromise now. Despite the fanfare, a “big tent” PNC seems highly unlikely.

Grant Rumley is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @GrantRumley


Palestinian Politics