Almost eight years ago, destructive clashes erupted in the Gaza Strip between the Palestinians themselves. The clashing parties were Hamas and the Islamic Movement against Fatah and the Palestinian National Authority’s (PNA) forces. The result of the internal conflict was not only several thousands of casualties, including journalists, academics, militants and leaders, but also a political disaster that can be compared to the Nakba, when the Palestinians were driven out of their homes and lands in 1948.
Hamas, who came first in the parliamentary elections in 2006, was unable to rule due to political and financial fortifications that were instituted in the way of a Hamas government. At the time, the international community and the Quartet on the Middle East (Russia, USA, EU, UN) asked Hamas to recognize Israel and abandon violence as a condition to pay salaries for the employees of the PNA, who are basically members or activists of Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). In 2007, as a result of the continued provocations carried out by a particular PA force, mainly the preventive security agency that was established by the strong man of Gaza, Mohammed Dahlan, Hamas took over the Gaza Strip by force, killing dozens Fatah members, using all means to throw all PNA forces off board and gain strong control of the Strip.
FOR MANY YEARS, Dahlan was the most wanted and loathed person in Hamas circles. They confirmed this, issuing several statements in 2007 and 2008 that its military action was solely directed against Dahlan and his junta. Unfortunately, Hamas was misleading all the Arabs and the Palestinians. In a very short time, Hamas killed dozens of people, members of the most renowned families in Gaza, as well as dozens of members of its rival Islamic parties such as the Salafis and Islamic Jihad. Ultimately, Hamas proved day after day that it was interested in ruling Gaza, and not fighting Dahlan or corruption.
"...a political disaster that can be compared to the Nakba"
As violence erupted, the Arab League, the Egyptian, Jordanian, and Saudi governments mediated to avoid a catastrophic outcome. Both Fatah and Hamas alongside the Palestinian factions held dozens of meetings in Cairo and other Arab cities. Before 2007, and the “coup d’état,” the Palestinian factions signed two agreements to share power and reform the PLO. Unfortunately, the principal agreement named “Mecca Agreement” was doomed in less than a month, as both Hamas and Fatah sent indications that they were not disposed to share power. Indeed, Hamas felt that the US and EU were trying to bypass their electoral victory in several ways: they dispatched finance directly to President Mahmoud Abbas’s office; they backed special forces led by Dahlan himself; and most importantly, they pressed them more by sharpening the siege and inciting the world community and somehow succeeded in mobilizing a good portion of the Palestinian public against Hamas.
When Hamas finally took over the Gaza Strip, it appointed its loyalists in the public services and police agencies. They created new governmental institutions with their own employees and structure/hierarchy. The argument that Hamas and Fatah have opposite ideological lines was acceptable and correctly examined. However, this is only applied to the timeframe prior to 2007. From 2007 onwards, the differences between Hamas on one side, and Fatah and the PNA on the other, are indeed of an institutional nature. The settings and management of public policies, and the large size of human capacity prevent Hamas from bargaining its bureaucratic capacity vis-à-vis the demands of Fatah and the PA, who want to see their own people reinstated.
Hamas simply does not want to mislay the minimal community support it has to its close loyalists after the huge wrongdoings in the Gaza Strip and the unbearable humanitarian situation caused by the miscalculations it made during the last eight years. The long series of meetings and agreements between both parties indicate without doubt that they do not trust each other. Trust issues are not only limited to meeting the agreements, however, but rather lie beyond the details. Societal revenge from Hamas’s fighters who committed crimes, killing dozens of Fatah members, has to do with Gazan society’s tribal nature.
WITHOUT A DOUBT the drowning of the financial channels of Hamas played a very decisive role in forcing it to go for a unity government where for the first time a prime minister appointed by Abbas could visit Gaza Strip. So what factors led to this situation?
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First, Hamas’s position towards the Syrian situation; they left Syria and accused the Syrian regime of committing atrocities. This position insulted Iran, the strong ally of the Syrian regime, which stopped funding Hamas. Back in 2002, when Hamas found itself alone without the funds of countries of the Gulf (after 9/11) it turned to Iran, through the Syrian regime. Iran funded Hamas, trained its fighters and maybe guided them in certain times.
Second, the Israeli closure of the Gaza Strip and the shutting down of the tunnels between Egypt and Gaza averted Hamas’s ability to smuggle the financial resources needed to sustain its power. At this point, Hamas is unable to benefit from the doubled and high taxes from goods smuggled from Egypt. They ended up unable to pay salaries to their employees for several months.
Recently, there have been very unanticipated tones of acceptance towards Mohammed Dahlan. Hamas met his loyalists and facilitated his wife’s visit to the Gaza Strip. Moreover, they organized joint events including group weddings and student funding. Of course, Dahlan did so in support of his position against his rival in the West Bank, President Mahmoud Abbas, who accused Dahlan of breaking the law, participating in killing several leaders and even poisoning Arafat. At the same time, Hamas and Iran are shortening the gap again after several meetings since August 2014.
"Hamas does not want to mislay the minimal community support it has"
Iran is willing to carry on with funding Hamas, mainly the military wing and the hardline of Hamas leadership. However, with the current regional political change, Saudi authorities are calling on Hamas leadership to take part in the new regional Sunni coalition that they are trying to form with Turkey and Egypt against Iran. They already commenced the war against Yemen's Houthis.
If Hamas accept to stand with the Saudi coalition, the prize for Hamas will likely be the Gaza Strip. Saudi Arabia could seduce Hamas by giving them the Strip, using Saudi relations to Egypt, the US, and Israel, with the condition that Hamas keeps the Gaza front calm. Saudi’s coalition can convince Abbas to manage the Palestinian division by sharing power with Hamas in a way where Hamas keeps the real power in the Gaza Strip. Obviously, the Saudis do not care for the future of the Palestinians, as always.
Another factor that stands against the end of the Palestinian division is the security issue. The most problematic file related to the Palestinian division is the security folder and the armed militias. Hamas will not accept the return of the previous PA forces as they were before 2007; and the PA/Fatah will not accept that Hamas keeps its weapons and militias as it is now. Abbas, supported by the Arabs, and of course Israel, aims to de-militarize Hamas and the other militias. The two agendas will never meet, and there the division lies.
ULTIMATELY, the current situation is likely to continue without alteration. The recent call from an Abbas advisor for Arab forces to crack down on Hamas, and Hamas’s strong rebuke, is an indicator that both sides are not willing to be responsible and accept the concepts of participation and sharing. Besides that, the latest statements by Hamas (which accused the PA of wanting instability in the Gaza Strip) and the response by the PA (which used very unpleasant tones in the political discourse) further show that neither Fatah nor Hamas mean to bridge the gap; the intention, rather, is to widen it strongly and consistently.
The Palestinian division between Fatah and Hamas is not of ideological nature anymore. It is deeply rooted in the institutional capacity of both parties. Adding the lack of trust and security issues, the division seems to endure.
The hope for real unity with one political strategy, one government and one legitimate authority, is further off than ever for the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.