Hamas and Fatah have agreed to form a new unity government in order to increase pressure to establish a Palestinian state. According to Al Jazeera, the two rival parties agreed at a meeting in Moscow to join forces and create a new National Council. The negotiations in the Russian capital also included the militant Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine which, like Hamas, is a Sunni terrorist organisation supportive of a Palestinian state. This is an important step forward for the pro-Palestinian cause, even if it involves unsavoury actors.
The new National Council agreed to by the three organisations appears like it will replace the current Palestinian Authority (PA). The National Council will hold elections and the participants in these elections will include Palestinians residing in Israel, the Occupied Territories, and those in exile. In that it sense it will be a fully national organisation rather than simply a geographical one.
Hamas and Fatah have been at each others throats since the 2006 elections. Following the Palestinian elections, Hamas created it’s own security force and appointed Jamal Abu Samhadana to head the organisation up. Samhadana is a well-known militant and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas denounced the move, claiming (correctly) that only the President could command military forces. In the aftermath of the elections, a PA government was formed, however this government was comprised of members of Hamas and four independents. Fatah rejected the legitimacy of this government and relations worsened.
The international community also viewed the Hamas government as illegitimate and imposed sanctions. The PA had to rely on donations from overseas, but when Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh tried to enter Gaza but was prohibited by the Israeli military. Skirmishes broke out between Hamas forces and the IDF. Haniyeh was later allowed to enter without the money, but Israeli soldiers fired on Haniyeh’s car as he crossed the border into Gaza.
The relationship between Fatah and Hamas worsened in December 2007 when Hamas kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, which unsurprisingly prompted a condemnation from Mahmoud Abbas. On 16th December Abbas called for new presidential and parliamentary elections. Hamas rejected this call, labelling it an attempted coup, and pro-Fatah and pro-Hamas forces clashed in Gaze. Exchanges killed around 40 people, and the two sides eventually split government of the Occupied Territories. Since June 2007, Fatah has governed the West Bank, and Hamas has governed the Gaza Strip. Fatah and Hamas have remained on hostile terms since the split of government, and sporadic clashes between the two sides occasionally break out.
The news out of Moscow is welcomed by everyone who wants a peaceful resolution to the Israel-Palestine question. If the Palestinians can have a united front against Israeli occupation, it would focus the international community’s attention. Previously, the infighting has meant that progress has been slow as when agreements were being negotiated, they would effectively have to be done twice- once with Hamas, and once with Fatah. With a unity government in place the Palestinian struggle will not be undermined by factionalism, and if the Palestinian National Council election rules mandate a coalition between Hamas and Fatah, akin to the power-sharing situation in Northern Ireland, the new governing arrangement will be more stable and consensual.
There are some who oppose this move because it involved Hamas. I don’t like the fact that Hamas are involved either, because I find their ideology hateful and terrorism should never be the answer, but we don’t live in an ideal world. Do I wish that Hamas were popular in Palestine? Of course not, but at the end of the day they are so ignoring them would be counter-productive. If this new agreement can get ordinary people to put their faith in the democratic process and diplomacy over armed insurrection, I believe that would be an important step forward.
The other interesting aspect of this story is the role of Russia. Given Russia’s increasing presence in the Middle East, the desire to play a role in brokering agreements in Israel-Palestine is unsurprising. However it is worth considering the wider geopolitical context. With the United States’ future as an active participant in global affairs up in the air, Russia is seeking to expand its influence. My view on this is simple: we need to be cautious. As much as I don’t support the United States’ continued neo-imperialism in the Middle East, the thought of Russia doing the very same thing shouldn’t be welcomed by anyone. Putin’s Russia is not exactly a beacon of human rights and democracy. Those on the Left who think Russia’s actions shouldn’t be viewed with skepticism should be politely reminded that being anti-American doesn’t mean unilaterally supporting the alternative. It’s depressing that I have to say this, but opposing Russia’s increased influence and the continued military hegemony of the US is a credible position to take.
The situation in Palestine is interesting because it has the possibility to put significant pressure on the Israeli government. With the US finally condemning settlements at the UN, and the global BDS movement going from strength to strength, Palestinian unity is essential. Fatah and Hamas may be uneasy bedfellows, but given the popularity of the two organisations inside Occupied Territories, to have a unity government whilst omitting one of these groups would politically impossible. Those of us who want to see peace in the Middle East in our lifetimes, I would welcome every country to play their part. If the Russians can keep the Palestinians united and the US strong-arms Israel, which admittedly doesn’t seem likely in the next four years, we may see some form of agreement.
Nonetheless, unity between Fatah and Hamas should be celebrated but it should also be protected from those forces wishing to undermine the peace movement. There have been many agreements in recent years between Hamas and Fatah that have all fallen through. Although this breakthrough is a victory of cool heads, the steps forward agreed to in Moscow must be protected as divisions will only harm the Palestinian liberation movement.