The new Palestinian unity government was sworn in on June 2, 2014, promising to end seven years of violent dispute between Fatah and Hamas and between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The mild optimism that the agreement on the unity government generated, however, has been short-lived. The challenges to security, institutional, and economic integration remain as contentious as they were during previous attempts at reconciliation. Disagreements over security coordination with Israel have in particular heightened discord between Hamas and Fatah.
The composition of the new “technocratic” government is not very different from the Fatah-dominated one that preceded it. Hamas preferred to remain in the background rather than insist on appointing its own people to the cabinet, due to concern that the international donor community, particularly the United States, would halt the flow of aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA) if Hamas took the lead. In addition, during its seven-year rule in Gaza, Hamas has come to recognize the costly burdens of governance, especially in light of the Israeli siege of Gaza and recent changes in regional alliances and the balance of power. The movement has been under tightening financial and political strain, which had worsened after Hamas fell out with the Syrian and Iranian regimes and as the new military rule in Egypt increasingly isolated the Gaza Strip. These factors contributed to the movement’s inability to pay its public sector employees or provide essential services to Gaza residents. Passing the responsibilities of governance to the PA through the unity government came as a much-needed lifeline for Hamas. For his part, Mahmoud Abbas, the PA president, sought to take advantage of Hamas’ failure and to stem the growing influence in Gaza of his former Fatah opponent Mohammad Dahlan. Israel immediately condemned the unity deal, stating that Hamas remains a terrorist organization committed to Israel’s destruction. It has promised to use diplomatic and financial pressure to end the PA’s cooperation with Hamas.
But even before Israel could significantly retaliate, developments on the ground quickly lifted any semblance of accord between Fatah and Hamas. Only two weeks after the government was announced, three young Jewish settlers were kidnapped around the West Bank city of Hebron. Their bodies were found by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) on June 30, near Halhoul, a town north of Hebron. The kidnapping and its aftermath highlighted the fundamental differences of approach between Fatah and Hamas toward relations with Israel. This constitutes one of the biggest obstacles for the reconciliation process. Abbas publicly condemned the kidnapping at the foreign ministers’ meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) on June 18 and reaffirmed his commitment to security coordination between the PA and Israel. Abbas, as well as others in Fatah, also hinted that if it were found that Hamas was to blame for the incident, this would be cause for dissolving the unity agreement. Israel was quick to name Hamas, citing two members who had disappeared from their homes on the night of the kidnapping as prime suspects. Hamas did not claim responsibility for the act—which could mean that the two were working on their own, without orders from Hamas leadership—but nevertheless commended it. Israel then embarked on a sweeping military operation in the West Bank officially aimed at finding the hostages, but in practice targeting Hamas operatives and infrastructure. The Israeli raid searched homes, offices, and institutions thought to be affiliated with the movement, and close to 600 Palestinians, most of them Hamas members, were arrested.
Abbas’s unequivocal condemnation of the kidnapping and his support for continued security coordination with Israel led to harsh criticism from both Hamas ranks and the general Palestinian public. After Israeli forces ended a raid in Ramallah on June 22, disgruntled Palestinians vented their anger at the PA police headquarters in the city, throwing rocks at the building and clashing with rank-and-file officers. Even within Fatah, some, like Jibril Rajoub, criticized how Abbas handled the affair. Hamas, however, was most vehement in its condemnation of Abbas’s response. Some in the movement argued that the reconciliation agreement stipulated the discontinuation of security coordination with Israel, and that Abbas’s conduct hastens the end of the reconciliation. As Muhammad Nazal, a prominent Hamas leader, said in June, “If Abbas does not reconsider his positions, he will be burying the reconciliation much earlier than any of the parties involved expected.” Abbas’s supporters in Fatah were quick to respond, accusing Hamas of trying to weaken and even collapse the PA. Fatah’s spokesperson in the West Bank, Ahmed Assaf, went as far as accusing Hamas of planning a coup in the West Bank.
The acrimonious rhetoric has benefited the Israeli government, which has declared its objection to Fatah-Hamas reconciliation and suspended talks with the PA in response to the creation of the unity government. The IDF’s latest military operation targeting Hamas personnel and infrastructure in the West Bank reduced the movement’s capabilities there, but has also had the unintended outcome of boosting Hamas’s popularity on the Palestinian street. As Israel’s previous rounds of targeting the movement demonstrated, military raids are ineffective in eradicating Hamas’s presence in the West Bank. In the recent student council elections in West Bank universities, for instance, it was clear that Hamas has maintained an impressive degree of popularity among Palestinians despite efforts by the PA and Israel to stem the movement’s influence. Dismantling Hamas’s organizational capacity in the West Bank could also lead its operatives to work independently—without the directives and the moderating influence of the leadership—or join new localized jihadi initiatives that have begun to take root there.
If Hamas’s leadership is found to be behind the kidnapping and murder of the three settlers, it is likely the unity government will fall. Yet, even if it proves to be the work of local Hamas members operating without the orders of the central command, there remains many other challenges that threaten to break down the fragile unity. The government still has little presence in the Gaza Strip, and it has not integrated Hamas’s Gazan civil servants into PA institutions. It has not created any strategic plan for Gaza’s rehabilitation and reconstruction, reopening border crossings, or ending the siege. Nor has it taken any steps to prepare for legislative and presidential elections or to merge Fatah and Hamas governing institutions.
After taking over Gaza in 2007, Hamas hired fifty thousand new public sector employees (forty thousand civil servants and security personnel, and ten thousand temporary workers) to replace those affiliated with Fatah. The unity government has so far been reluctant to pay the salaries of Hamas employees, claiming that it does not have the funds to cover their wages. Gaza’s civil servants have gone on strike in response, stopping most public services in the strip. The PA government is rightly concerned that integrating Hamas employees may threaten the flow of aid from the United States and the European Union. In the aftermath of the kidnapping and murder, for which Hamas had been blamed even though its leadership neither confirmed nor denied the organization’s involvement, it may become even harder for Abbas to justify to foreign donors the addition of Hamas employees to the PA’s payroll.
The growing crisis in Gaza, where public sector workers are on strike and services are undelivered, is therefore unlikely to be resolved soon, even though Qatar has offered funds to cover three months of the unpaid salaries. This state of affairs signals that the same challenges that existed prior to the kidnapping crisis have not been adequately met. Musa Abu Marzuq, a prominent Hamas leader, said on June 29 that it appears Abbas has no interest in Gaza and leaves Hamas no choice but to reassume exclusive control of the strip. All the odds are stacked against the unity government, yet it remains the best option for both Fatah and Hamas to move forward. Given the failure of negotiations with Israel and the dire situation in Gaza, each movement is facing a legitimacy crisis in their respective territories. Each must respond to the mounting dissatisfaction of the Palestinian street. A unity government that would make headway toward Palestinian elections, which have not taken place since 2006, is the only way to restore the public’s faith in the Palestinian leadership. If they want this latest experiment with unity to survive, then both Fatah and Hamas must display much greater moderation in their public dealings with each other than they have done so far.
Mahmoud Jaraba is a Researcher at the Erlangen Centre for Islam and Law in Europe, Germany. He is the author of Hamas: Tentative March toward Peace (Ramallah: Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 2010). Lihi Ben Shitrit is an Assistant Professor at the School of Public and International Affairs, University of Georgia, Athens. Both are regular contributors to Sada.