Regular Palestinians in Gaza received the news of the April 23 reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas—known as the Beach (Shati’) agreement, signed in the Beach Refugee Camp in the house of Gazan Prime Minister Ismail Haniya—with a mix of skepticism and optimism. A formal announcement of a temporary technocratic cabinet is expected soon, to be followed by presidential and parliamentary elections in Gaza and the West Bank by the end of 2014. Gazans’ different views on this process reflect trepidation, as previous national unity efforts failed, but also hope in the strength unity might bring.
Since Hamas won the majority in the 2006 parliamentary election, Gazans have faced many hardships, including a blockade, two wars, and restrictions from Israeli and Egyptian sides. Israel began describing Gaza as a “hostile entity,” and Egypt cracked down on the tunnels in Rafah, only opening the border crossing occasionally for humanitarian purposes. For Majida, a resident of Gaza the unity agreement between Fatah and Hamas opens the possibility that past hardships will be resolved, “It was like a surprise or a dream that both parties will talk and stand together. … In 2007, we had a civil war. I remember I could not go out of my home because of the fighting in the streets. So many were killed because of that military dispute. Now having both parties shake hands and sign the Beach agreement is a glance of hope.”
In 2012, Hamas and the majority of Gazans saw hope in the Muslim Brotherhood’s victory in Egypt’s elections, expecting increased aid and the opening of tunnels and Egypt border crossings. That hope vanished after the military coup of 2013—and Hamas found itself again isolated and looking for support. Ibrahim, an aid worker said, “I believe that Hamas thinks of reconciliation as a final resort of its financial deficit and being isolated from the outside world. After losing the backup from the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt, they feel it’s time to return to the unity so strongly.” Through this unity agreement, Hamas hopes to cover its budget deficit and to pay government workers in Gaza; for the past few months they have only been able to pay their employees half their salaries. More broadly, Hamas is worried about its declining popularity among Gaza residents, as seen in the lessening number of supporters who take to the streets for party rallies or anniversary celebrations. The group hopes to avert a revolution among the disappointed Gazan population, which has waited seven years for Hamas to address their isolation and poverty, without result.
As for Fatah, unity provides a stronger position within the Palestinian government from which to consolidate their power and stem internal divides. For Mahmoud Abbas in particular, unity will allow him to isolate his internal rival Mohammed Dahlan, who is popular in Gaza, and his followers. More significantly, Abbas hopes that a unity government that nominally includes Hamas will be enough to convince Israel and the United States that it speaks on behalf of all Palestinians and compel them to put more efforts into the negotiations process. Mohammed, a 30-year old teacher, said that he feels optimistic: “Reconciliation is a concrete progress of the peace process.” He further made clear that Palestinians could not be strong advocates for the cause of Palestine unless they were united. However, Israel and the United States have indicated they will not accept at the negotiating table any unity government that includes Hamas—undermining Fatah’s primary reason for seeking unity in the first place. And if Hamas again wins parliamentary elections for a united Palestinian government, Gaza could again return to the 2006 situation in which their government will remain boycotted by most of the international community. Especially as Egypt and Saudi Arabia intensify their crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, these countries may at the moment not accept an Islamist organization such as Hamas in power. And while Hamas survived this particular situation after 2006, it now lacks the resources to continue governing an isolated Gaza.
To secure international support, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is trying to convince U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to accept the mostly technocratic temporary government (which might be announced in the next few days), arguing that if Hamas is part of a unity government, it will have to play by the rules of the game. Abbas hopes American support will push Israel to accept a unity government as well, as opposed to isolating him for embracing Hamas. In a way to reassure the international community, he also declared that there is no contradiction between national unity and peace talks based on a two-state solution, seeing internal unity as necessary to forming an internationally legitimate Palestinian state consistent with the Arab Peace Initiative.
Internally, Palestinian parties—including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Islamic Jihad, Al-Mustaqbal, and Third Way, among others—seem to agree that unity is a desirable goal, even if they remain divided over policy toward Israel. But despite optimism among Palestinian parties about the results of the unity agreement, the Palestinian street is skeptical, with good reason. Amal, a 27-year-old woman, emphasized the importance of having national reconciliation. “However, I doubt reconciliation efforts will pay off, as Hamas and Fatah don't take regular Palestinians seriously. Each party is only concerned for their own interest, not the Palestinians’ interest.” Gazans look at the extreme divides between Hamas and Fatah since 2006, both in their political approaches to the people and their different strategies in solving the Palestinian cause: Fatah with negotiations and Hamas with military “resistance.” Azzam, a social activist in Gaza, said: “it [national reconciliation] should not be only ink on papers between two parties having different political and ideological approaches. For seven years, the division has deepened and its implications were spread in every Palestinian home. It will take too long to have people reconcile and pave the way to a real civil settlement.” He added, “We had Cairo and Mecca unity agreements before, but they both failed. Practically, it’s too hard to have it done.”
However, the political difficulties Hamas and Fatah face may be enough to force them into a unity government. Laila, a Palestinian woman, said, “Fatah and Hamas are in trouble now. Hamas suffers from the blockade on Gaza and Fatah feels it’s a blocked way with Israel with peace negotiations after over 20 years of achieving nothing. It’s not a matter of achieving a national goal; it is rather a matter of who is getting out of the factional problem.” For Fatah in particular, unity counters the Israeli view that negotiations are not worth pursuing because Palestinians are not united enough to implement any agreement. If this process does succeed, it will have to confront security issues, Hamas’s position toward Israel, among other divisive issues.
Hatem Shurrab is a Palestinian writer and aid worker based in Gaza. He is currently a Leaders for Democracy Fellow at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University.