Last night, the Jerusalem Post reported on Fatah officials’ “furious” reaction to news of the indirect negotiations currently taking place between Israel and Hamas in Egypt.
Officials of the State of Israel and Hamas (the dominant Palestinian political party in the Gaza Strip, known for its official rejection of the Oslo Accords and for its use of rockets against Israeli targets) recently met in Cairo to solidify the ceasefire that ended Israel’s military campaign against Hamas in November.
Jamal Muheissen, a member of the Fatah Central Committee, responded by asserting that only the Palestine Liberation Organization, which Fatah dominates, is authorized to conduct such negotiations in its capacity as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” and that the Israel-Hamas talks are therefore “unacceptable.”
Hamas and rival party Fatah split the Palestinian Authority into two competing polities in 2006, when Fatah contested Hamas’s electoral victory. During the Hamas-Fatah conflict, which lasted into 2007, 600 Palestinians were killed and Hamas expelled Fatah members from Gaza. Reconciliation agreements between Fatah and Hamas since 2007 have produced few results, keeping Palestinian leadership divided and united representation of the Palestinian people impossible.
Fatah’s claims of being the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” are technically true. In 1974, the UN recognized the PLO as such, and in 1993, Israel and the US did the same. Today, the PLO is Israel’s preferred negotiating partner on the peace process, and Palestinian diplomacy is carried out through PLO consulates around the world. Fatah has traditionally dominated the PLO, with Fatah-backed President Mahmoud Abbas also serving as PLO chairman. Hamas has not joined the PLO.
Of course, Hamas knows the diplomatic history of the PLO and needs no reminding that the PLO is the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” in the eyes of the international community. In fact, Hamas officials responded to Fatah’s complaints not by contesting PLO supremacy, but by saying that these talks focused only on “humanitarian issues.”
In other words, these are talks that deal with the reopening of the crossing borders in the Gaza Strip, the cease-fire and the hunger strike of Palestinians in Israeli prisons. These talks do not deal with issues pertaining to the entire Palestinian people (such as international boundaries, refugees, or Jerusalem).
“We are only negotiating about humanitarian issues that would end the suffering of our prisoners,” said Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar.
Arguably, Hamas has not overstepped the boundaries of its position in Palestinian government. Therefore, one might conclude from Fatah’s reaction that Fatah is simply trying to sabotage international acceptance of Hamas as a legitimate political actor, following the example of the Israeli government, which mechanically denounces reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah whenever they occur. Such automatic, negative responses to cooperation between Israel, Hamas and Fatah expose the parties’ non-commitment to Palestinian reconciliation and to future final-status peace negotiations that depend on it.
Furthermore, Fatah’s status as “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” has been questionable since 2006, when Hamas won 74 of 132 seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council, vastly outnumbering Fatah’s 45 seats, in democratic elections backed by the Bush administration. Hamas officially controls a majority within the defunct Palestinian law-making body, so a Hamas claim that it had the right to negotiate on behalf of the entire Palestinian people, had it been uttered, would not have been unfounded.
Throughout this ordeal, Hamas has shown itself to be a serious political actor capable of compromise, whereas Fatah surprisingly exposed its petty side, seemingly jumping at the opportunity to diminish Hamas’s credibility in the eyes of the international community and prolonging the rivalry between the two parties.
During the 1990s, Israeli and PLO officials demonstrated their willingness to compromise through the Oslo process and came under heavy rhetorical attack from their more radical compatriots. Among the PLO’s detractors was Hamas, which rejected the Oslo process and the right of Israel to exist. Israeli leaders faced similar criticism from those who opposed the creation of a Palestinian state.
Today, however, just as all subsequent Israeli governments have expressed at least nominal commitment to the two-state solution, Hamas’s rhetoric has also changed, with leaders of the party intimating at the possible acceptance of the State of Israel within 1967 borders. Hamas even proved itself to be a reliable negotiating partner when past indirect talks concluded with Israel’s release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Hamas’s release of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit.
Whether Hamas’s participation in such talks with Israel is an indication of the organization either moderating or learning the value of pragmatism in its relationship with Israel is still unclear. However, both developments within Hamas would be crucial to Palestinian reconciliation and eventually to serious Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Fatah’s reaction served only to discourage these developments, prolonged its bitter rivalry with Hamas, and demonstrated a stronger commitment to short-term symbolic victories that to longer-term agreements that could actually improve the lives of Palestinian people.
Furthermore, Fatah failed to appreciate the impact that seemingly successful negotiations can have on a population. Since the signing of the Oslo accords, there has been broad support in Israel for the creation of a Palestinian state. Today, one of the primary obstacles to Palestinian reconciliation is Israel’s refusal to recognize a Palestinian government that included Hamas, which Israel considers a terrorist organization. Had Fatah, Israel’s preferred negotiating partner, supported Israel’s talks with Hamas and urged Hamas to commit itself to non-violence, it would have encouraged a change in Israel’s attitude toward Hamas in general, which would have removed huge obstacles from the path toward peace between all three parties.