October 16, 2017 | Foreign Policy

Can Anyone End the Palestinian Civil War?

Co-authored by Neri Zilber.

Stop us if you’ve heard this story before. The two largest Palestinian factions signed a reconciliation agreement on Thursday meant to reunite the West Bank and the Gaza Strip under a single political leadership, paving the way for the alleviation of the humanitarian crisis that Gaza residents face.

In fact, since the civil war that saw Hamas oust the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) from Gaza in 2007, the two sides have announced at least six unity agreements that aimed to end the divide. All such deals ultimately collapsed under the weight of mutual suspicions, divergent ideologies, and the gaping disagreement over Hamas’s use of terrorism and the PA leadership’s focus on peace negotiations with Israel.

This latest effort may be more serious than past attempts, given the shifts in the region and within the two parties — PA President Mahmoud Abbas on Oct. 12 called it the “final agreement.” But skepticism is still warranted. Less unity or reconciliation, what Hamas and Fatah seem to be trying to achieve is an effective political cease-fire that will allow the PA to reassume partial control over Gaza, thereby reopening the blockaded territory to the outside world.

The latest round of negotiations was prompted by unprecedented change on both sides of the political divide. Hamas’s political center of gravity shifted with its internal elections this year, as Ismail Haniyeh emerged as head of the overall movement and Yahya Sinwar was appointed head of Hamas in Gaza. Previously, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal had made his home in Qatar, ruling the group from abroad, usually from the comfort of five-star hotels. Now, Hamas’s two most powerful figures, both from humble Gazan origins, will be based within the coastal strip. Sinwar’s elevation marks a particularly sharp departure from the group’s previous political leaders, as many considered him the military wing’s most hard-line figure.

Upon their election, Haniyeh and Sinwar formed an administrative committee to govern Gaza, which was seen by Abbas as cementing the Hamas takeover. Abbas responded by cutting off payments for fuel and medical supplies, as well as salaries to PA civil servants. In the decade since losing the territory, Abbas had never taken such harsh economic steps against his own people.

Abbas’s actions plunged an already bleak fuel situation into near darkness, with many Gazans getting by on just hours of electricity a day. Sewage poured into the sea as Gaza’s filtration plants went offline. And several medical patients — awaiting visas from the PA — even died. The situation had grown so dire that one senior Israel Defense Forces officer on the Gaza border said this year that there was a greater chance of a popular uprising against Hamas than another round of Hamas-Israel warfare. Gazans, he said, “simply wanted a normal life.”

Hamas’s Gaza-based leaders responded by reaching out to anyone who could help. The group unveiled a new political document in May that attempted to distance itself from the Muslim Brotherhood, an apparent overture to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Hamas went even further in July when it announced a surprise agreement with Mohammed Dahlan, a close ally of Sisi and the Emiratis who has a bloody history with the organization. Dahlan, a former PA security chief, orchestrated the often ruthless interrogations of Hamas members when he ran Gaza in the 1990s.

Yet Dahlan began pumping cash into the strip as soon as the deal with Hamas was announced, facilitating the entry of fuel shipments to the territory’s sole power plant. Hamas also reached out to Iran, a major patron before the fallout over the Syrian civil war, in which the then Damascus-based Meshaal had sided with the Sunni rebels. In August, Sinwar announced that ties had been restored and were “returning to what it was in the old days.”

Still, alternative sources of funding couldn’t make up for the cutoff in PA cash nor provide what Gaza sorely needed — a reopening of the coastal enclave to the outside world.

That’s where Egypt comes in. Though initially a partner in blockading Gaza, Sisi’s position has shifted in recent months due to the Islamic State-inspired insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula. The campaign has been protracted and bloody, and Israeli and Egyptian sources have accused Hamas in Gaza of aiding the insurgents with arms, medical aid, and sanctuary. Indeed, a major concession by Hamas to Cairo has reportedly been a severing of its ties with the militants in Sinai. It’s probably not a coincidence that on the eve of the Hamas delegation’s trip to Cairo this week, its security forces arrested a prominent Salafi commander inside Gaza.

“The message to the Egyptian side is a calming one,” said one Hamas security official this summer as the organization took the unprecedented step of razing a wide buffer zone on the Gaza-Egypt border to assuage Cairo’s concerns about smuggling. “Egyptian national security is part of Palestinian national security, and we will not let the peace along the southern border be disturbed.”

The regional geopolitical situation also spurred the Sisi administration to cut a deal with Hamas. Egypt has aligned itself against Hamas’s traditional patrons — Qatar, Turkey, and Iran — and joined the Saudi-led boycott of Doha. With the blockade in full force, “the timing was right,” according to one Israel-based foreign diplomat with knowledge of Egyptian thinking, “to try to break Hamas away from this [rival] bloc.”

Egypt has to “take care of its own neighborhood,” the diplomat said, while also working toward what Sisi himself has repeatedly emphasized as an Egyptian interest: Palestinian unity and an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Whether a calculated feint or genuine attempt at alleviating the hardship in Gaza, the Dahlan-Gaza deal this year seemed to get Abbas’s attention. The Egyptian government found itself negotiating from a position of strength, armed with leverage over Abbas and dealing with a Hamas leadership searching for any kind of economic lifeline.

Hamas has now dismantled its administrative committee, allowed the visit last week of PA cabinet ministers, and signaled its willingness to hand civil control over Gaza — as well security control at several border crossings — back to the PA. Though Hamas has billed these as painful concessions, they are so far only superficial announcements. Mere hours after the signing ceremony in Cairo, a senior Haniyeh aide contradicted multiple press reports regarding an elite PA security unit taking over at the Rafah crossing connecting Gaza to Egypt, saying only: “We will discuss the possibility of allowing the presidential guard from the West Bank to control it.”

Make no mistake, the issues dividing the two parties remain vast. How to consolidate thousands of PA and Hamas civil servants into one bureaucracy, the integration of Fatah security forces into a Hamas-dominated Interior Ministry, whether national elections will take place, and the inclusion of Hamas in the broader PLO framework are just a few major issues that are so far still unresolved. In the meantime, committees made up of Hamas and Fatah representatives will convene to assess their progress on these issues ahead of an ambitious Dec. 1 date for the PA to reassume civil control in Gaza.

What doesn’t appear up for discussion right now, however, is the fate of Hamas’s 25,000-strong military wing. Belying repeated statements by Abbas that there would only be “one state, one system, one law, and one weapon” and that he would not accept a “Hezbollah model” in Gaza, Hamas leaders have consistently rejected any mention of disarmament. The deal in Cairo elided this thorniest of issues.

This may all mean that true reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah is impossible and that this latest effort is, like its many forebears, doomed to fail. Yet a cease-fire over Gaza may now be in the cards, in which the PA regains partial control over its breakaway territory in exchange for Hamas’s acquiescence. Sinwar has, after all, threatened to “break the neck” of anyone who does not support reconciliation.

In the past, Israel has talked about a hudna, or long-term cease-fire, with Hamas in Gaza. Perhaps the Palestinians have reached one of their own.

Grant Rumley is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and co-author of the The Last Palestinian, a book about Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Follow him on Twitter @GrantRumley.

Follow the the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD.


Palestinian Politics