News emerged this week of a peace deal, brokered by Egyptian intelligence, between rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah. The two had split violently in 2007, with Fatah losing control of the Gaza Strip to Hamas fighters. This week’s news is something of a surprise–the two factions have a deep distaste for one another, and the physical gulf between them, coupled with the siege of Gaza, meant that they had no way to confront each other directly. Their division had posed a major obstacle to the coming Palestinian statehood, and to the peace process generally. How, after all, could Fatah settle the many claims of the Palestinians when a large portion of them live on land it does not control? How could Fatah sign any peace with Israel on behalf of Palestine generally if Hamas could interfere at any moment?
Israeli diplomats had been making this point repeatedly in recent weeks. However, the reunion they seemed to be calling for has been greeted with equal skepticism, with Israeli PM Netanyahu stating that Fatah “must choose either peace with Israel or peace with Hamas.” This is not entirely unfair. After all, Hamas and Fatah have wildly different visions of Palestine, and Hamas’ religious legitimation of its ideology may make moves to a more moderate stance difficult. Hamas has also refused to recognize Israel, which means they fail to meet widely-accepted preconditions for negotiation. PA president Mahmoud Abbas has attempted to sidestep this problem by pointing out that any peace settlement would be with the PLO, of which Hamas is not a member; while this is correct, such fine distinctions will likely be lost on the residents of Sderot, for they will certainly see a new wave of Hamas rockets should the PLO sign a treaty.
However, Israel’s reaction is also one of fear. Wild rumors have been flying around that the Israelis are in a panic over the prospect of Palestine being recognized by the UN in five months; this reunion removes one more obstacle to that event. Some of the reports coming from the negotiations have suggested that Hamas may be taking a more moderate tack, one that could allow them to enter into some form of negotiation. This is plausible given the current shakeup of their strategic landscape. A major supporter, the al Asad regime in Syria, is in the midst of a serious uprising, and their other key ally, Iran, is on the verge of a political crisis. The Mubarak regime, which had been quite unfriendly to them, is gone. Hamas is under pressure, and may be putting out feelers for new allies. However, reports of Hamas moderating are a regular occurrence, and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh seemed eager to put these rumors to bed, calling on Fatah to withdraw its recognition of Israel.
This reunion, despite Hamas’ problematic policies, is still a step forward for the peace process. The disunion of the West Bank and Gaza is a crucial problem for any Palestinian state, and the transformation of that physical disunion into a political disunion is a natural consequence of geopolitics that will likely occur again in the future. Israel has long criticized Fatah for failing to subdue its opposition and obtain a monopoly on violence, and a peaceful Palestine will need a government capable of controlling rival nodes of power–this is a fundamental principle of politics. Fatah will not move against Hamas soon, and Hamas will remain the main outlet of Palestinian radical feeling. However, with its backers tottering and its own people energized by the Arab Spring, Hamas may attempt to come in from the cold with some sort of partial acceptance of the preconditions for negotiation.
It is also notable that Egypt arranged the deal. Mubarak’s diplomatic policy had a quietist tone that has now been silenced. Egypt has a fragile economy, but it is still the Arab world’s most populous country, and the days of Gamal Abdul Nasser show that it can play an enormous role in the region’s politics. If the elections in the fall produce a regime with some stability, the Saudis and Turks may be chagrined to find a new actor stealing their spotlight.
Upshot: The reunion is a step forward for peace, but a small one.