Will the Palestinian leadership be forever divided?

Palestinian politics can be cryptic at the best of times, but in recent days it seems to have been launched to a new level

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

Palestinian politics can be cryptic at the best of times, but in recent days it seems to have been launched to a new level in perplexing all of its observers. First, President Abbas announced last Wednesday that the government would resign within 24 hours, then there were denials, followed by reports that Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah handed in his resignation only to be ordered by President Abbas to form a new government. A very upset Hamas spokesperson, Sami Abu Zuhri, rejected the one-sided decision claiming the movement’s leadership was not consulted. It was even unclear if the intention in dissolving the government was a cabinet reshuffle, the formation of a new government of national unity with Hamas, or to form a government which would include a wide range of representatives from all political stripes including independents. Still, a week later the mystery of the government’s resignation has not been resolved, and no one knows who is going to be the next prime minister or what political elements will join. According to Ma’an, a Bethlehem based media network, a PA spokesperson Ihab Bseiso stated that “…the national unity government has not yet resigned and will continue for another week until PLO Executive Committee members complete consultations…” This all indicates a political body not only divided geographically and ideologically, but also in complete disarray.

The end of the war left both Israel and the Hamas with a sense of victory but paradoxically also exposed both sides’ vulnerabilities

Yossi Mekelberg

The announcement of a Palestinian reconciliation government just over a year ago when the Kerry peace initiative flattened was criticized by both the United States and Israel. The Israeli prime minister accused President Abbas of saying yes to terrorism, and Secretary Kerry expressed his “deep concerns” about including Hamas in the Palestinian government. A year later, the resignation of the Hamdallah’s government was barely mentioned in the Israeli media and Israeli politicians did not think it merited a response. Washington also remained silent. The major task of this government to facilitate the first elections since 2006 failed anyway, and last summer’s war in Gaza shuffled the political cards dramatically and tragically. The irony is that one of the major reasons given for the decision to dissolve the government was the fury of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank over apparent secret negotiations between Israel and Hamas on a long term ceasefire (Hudna). Denial by both the Israeli and Hamas leadership over these alleged negotiations were at best halfhearted. Indirectly, Israel contributed to the breakup of the Palestinian reconciliation government by talking to a sworn enemy, whose participation in the government it objected to in the first place.

Major obstacles

To be sure, the reconciliation government did not achieve almost anything it set out to accomplish, though not necessarily through its own fault. A major obstacle was the refusal of Hamas to allow the PA access to Gaza. Mr. Afif Safieh, a former head of the Palestinian Missions in London, Washington and Moscow, observed that the Hamas leadership is split into two schools of thought. The first insists on maintaining an absolute monopoly on power in Gaza and is reluctant to agree to receive a mandate from the people through elections. The other understands the importance of power sharing and the need for elections within 12 months even if Hamas ends up as a political minority. As long as the first faction in Hamas is in the ascendancy, the Palestinians are not only divided geographically but a united Palestinian polity is impossible. Subsequently, the days of reconciliation are now nothing more than a distant memory.

The war in Gaza, which broke out soon after the reconciliation government was formed, underlined the divisions between the Gaza strip and the West Bank and doomed the new government to fail.

The end of the war left both Israel and the Hamas with a sense of victory but paradoxically also exposed both sides’ vulnerabilities. Israel despite its obvious military superiority could not defeat Hamas, and by using excessive and indiscriminate force added to the ongoing decline in its international standing, not to mention further radicalizing the population. Hamas sustained heavy losses and similar to the Israelis is embroiled in gross violations of human rights. However, the war enhanced its reputation as it survived the Israeli onslaught and still managed to launch rockets deep into Israel for a full seven weeks and build tunnels into Israel. This cannot conceal that the movement’s policies do very little to advance the cause of the Palestinian people, and mainly add to their prolonged suffering.

Relative calm

Since the ceasefire last August, relative calm has been maintained along the border between Israel and Gaza, with a few exceptions of rocket firing by factions that are not controlled by Hamas. Furthermore, the Hamas leadership is quick to disassociate itself from the launch of these odd rockets into Israel by militants from Gaza, and Israel’s response is more measured than before. This reflects a realization on both sides that another round of violence will not benefit either of them. There is a mutual fear on both sides of the border that more radical elements, ISIS style, might take advantage of the misery inflicted by Israel’s harsh blockade and by the oppressive rule of the Hamas government.

If there is truth in the rumors that negotiations are taking place regarding a prolonged ceasefire in exchange for the lifting of the blockade, it indicates a change of heart on both sides about the nature of future relations along the Gaza borders. Increasingly there is an understanding among the security establishment in Israel that without improving economic conditions in Gaza, militancy and violence by even more extreme elements than Hamas are inevitable and are only a matter of time. Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said after last’s summer war: “Of course there’s a need to release the pressure and allow Gazans, and not Hamas, to live in dignity. 120,000 people are homeless because of the operation in the Strip. They paid a heavy price. They need to be allowed to earn a living, and therefore part of our interest is to allow these processes.” He recognizes, as the Hamas leadership probably does, that as long as Egypt blocks the crossing from Gaza, including through the tunnels, the Palestinians are dependent on Israel. Consequently, Hamas might look for an agreement with Israel as its only gateway to the world, and end as the guarantor of Israeli security along the Gaza border.

Israel might think that a separate agreement with Hamas in Gaza would simultaneously guarantee a quieter border with the Gaza Strip, and would at the same time weaken the overall Palestinian bargaining position. The strategy of divide and rule may be tempting, considering the tensions between the different Palestinian political factions, but this would be a short term approach which in the past only ended in violence and bloodshed. As a first move to make life in Gaza more livable and build a degree of mutual trust, it could be a positive development. Nevertheless, this option would not be a replacement for a just and comprehensive peace with the entire Palestinian people. A new Palestinian government should not necessarily be a unity one, but it should unite the people and be unified in the purpose of improving the lives of ordinary Palestinians, while also doing everything within its power to bring a peaceful end to the Israeli occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state. A first and necessary step would be to call for new elections, a move which would give the Palestinian political system renewed legitimacy, both domestically and internationally.


Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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