Palestinian reconciliation: A history of documents

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Palestinian Fatah delegation chief Azzam al-Ahmed (L) speaks with Hamas prime minister in the Gaza Strip Ismail Haniya in Gaza City on April 23, 2014 after West Bank and Gaza Strip leaders agreed to form a unity government within five weeks. (Photo: AFP-Said Khatib)

By: Yazan al-Saadi

Published Monday, April 28, 2014

Last week officials from rival Palestinian factions announced a national reconciliation agreement. This is not the first time such an announcement has been made. For nearly a decade, various accords promising an end to the division between Hamas and Fatah have come and gone, leaving behind dashed hopes and festering apathy. Will this time be different?

The sudden death of Yasser Arafat on November 11, 2004 marked the beginning of a vicious conflict between two major political factions – the Islamist political movement known as Hamas and the older guard of Fatah, administers of the West-Bank based Palestinian Authority (PA).

The struggle for power in the post-Arafat era is comparable to trench warfare. Each faction remains unmovable in their position, unable to overpower the other, and unswayed by the many internal and external challenges that have emerged periodically.

Since winning democratic elections in 2006, Hamas has survived an attempted coup, a suspension of Arab and international monetary aid, multiple Israeli military invasions, a tightening of an Egyptian-Israeli blockade, and the rapid rise and fall of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, to name but a few significant events. Yet, Hamas still manages to govern the besieged Gaza Strip.

On the other side, Fatah, in the guise of the Palestinian Authority (PA), has survived a series of Israeli military raids, an eruption of Zionist colonization, increasing irrelevancy, dwindling legitimacy, and simmering Palestinian discontent over a series of scandals, wide-spread corruption, and capitulations. Yet, Fatah still maintains control of whatever lands it governs in the ever-shrinking West Bank.

In between the two lie the Palestinian people – trapped in Gaza, under occupation in the West Bank enclaves, and refugees in the region and abroad. They are paralyzed by the divide, watching powerlessly as unceasing attempts for national unity falter one after another.

In order to truly understand the chances of success for this latest national unity agreement announced by Hamas and the PLO on April 24, 2014, one has to take a historical journey that examines the evolution of the Hamas-PA struggle, seen from the perspective of documents and agreements produced throughout this dismal decade.

The timing and location of these agreements not only reflect the shifting political power dynamics amongst Palestinian factions, but even sheds light on the regional factors at play.

Cairo Accord (March 2005):

On March 2005, 13 Palestinian factions, joined by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem, gathered in Cairo. The meeting took place more than a month after the Sharm al-Sheikh summit between PA President Mahmoud Abbas and then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon proclaimed the second intifada’s end.

The Palestinians bore the burnt of the death and devastation during the uprising against the Israeli occupation, and the Israelis furthered their colonization and occupation by building a wall that snaked into the West Bank, appropriating more land and water resources, among an array of oppressive acts. In addition to the increase of Israeli oppression, the death of Yasser Arafat in November 2004 induced a massive power vacuum, resulting in clashes between various Palestinian factions.

At the heart of the intra-Palestinian conflict was the growth of Hamas' appeal for the Palestinian public. It had garnered a favorable reputation as a movement that challenged Israel's occupation and was starkly opposed to the Oslo Accords, commonly viewed as catastrophic for Palestinian rights. Hamas was also seen as a viable alternative to Fatah, which was swamped with allegations of inefficiency and mass corruption amongst its upper echelon.

Naturally, the Islamist movement became a considerable rival to Fatah's long grip over Palestinian politics, especially within the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and gradually demanded it has more say in the decision-making process. This led to the 2005 Cairo Accords.

The language of the articles of the 2005 Cairo Accord reflected Hamas' desire to open up the PLO for other factions, as seen from Articles 4 and 5 which called for reform of the political apparatus in order to include all Palestinian factions prior to parliamentary elections planned for the summer.

More so, it reaffirmed the language of resistance, one that remains committed to the right to resist and the right of return, as indicated by the first article's bluntness in adhering to “Palestinian constants.”

The 2005 Cairo Accord clearly did not end tensions, but it allowed a moment’s respite for the conflicting Palestinian factions as the second intifada drew to a close. Attention had now turned to the planned parliamentary elections, and building up arms for the next battle.

The Prisoner's Document (June 2006):

The Prisoner's Document, announced in May and amended a month later, was written by five Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, each representing five Palestinian parties: Hamas, Fatah, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

A few months prior, Hamas had won the legislative elections, scooping up 74 out of 132 seats, ending decades of Fatah's political monopoly. One of Hamas' political leaders, Ismail Haniyeh, was selected as prime minister to form a new government.

Almost instantaneously after the election results were revealed, sanctions by the US, European Union, and their allies were implemented against the new government. Israel further restricted mobility in the occupied territories and held back tax revenues owed to the Palestinian Authority, while also accelerating construction of the apartheid wall and settlement blocs. For Israel and it’s Western allies, Hamas represented a “terrorist” organization, one which would not totally capitulate to the demands and interests of the occupation. Its political ascendancy marked a massive set-back for Israel and the West’s interests.

Eventually, attempts at unity collapsed under the weight of the feud between Hamas and Fatah, particularly over who should command the security forces.

Shortly after the elections, Hamas had formed the Executive Force, a para-military force that was a military opposition to the western-backed PA Presidential Guards. Quick condemnations by Mahmoud Abbas on constitutional grounds followed, which Hamas brushed away.

Under this context, the Prisoner's Document attempted to alleviate animosity between the parties, especially as Israeli aggression was reaching its zenith.

The document referred to the 2005 Cairo Accord as the main foundation for that unity. Like the Cairo Accord, the Prisoner's Document called for the reform and expansion of the PLO, as well as other political and security apparatuses. But unlike the previous agreement, the Prisoner's Document also called for a joint military front to fight the occupation.

Moreover, the language of the Prisoner's Document took great pains to bridge the ideological divide between Hamas and Fatah by acknowledging both the right to resist and negotiate.

Of great concern for the document's writers was the plight of thousands of Palestinian prisoners within Israeli jails. They demanded their immediate release, in addition to granting Palestinian refugees – who remained voiceless – more agency in decision-making.

The call ultimately fell on deaf ears.

Mecca Agreement (Feb. 2007):

The Prisoner’s Declaration did not amount to much, likely due to it being written by Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, unable to influence forces in the West Bank and Gaza.

As 2006 drew to a close, the row over power sharing in regards to who would have authority over security intensified, widening divisions between the two political groups.

By mid-December, Mahmoud Abbas called for early elections, a tactic Hamas considered as an attempt to invalidate electoral results. Pro-Hamas rallies broke out in the West Bank were repressed by PA security forces. Fatah gunmen loyal to Mohammed Dahlan in Gaza also attempted to assassinate Ismail Haniyeh during this period.

Intense fighting erupted within the Gaza Strip between groups linked to either side, interrupted by moments of cease-fire that quickly crumbled as fast as they were made.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia sought to reassert its regional power and legitimacy after it was bruised by it's support of Israel's war on Lebanon in the summer of 2006, and to quell Iran's growing financial influence among Palestinian resistance groups. The main Palestinian leaders answered the Saudi monarchy’s call for a gathering. Mahmoud Abbas and Mohammed Dahlan, representing Fatah, met with Ismail Haniyeh and Khaled Meshaal, for Hamas, in Mecca on February 1 and negotiated for eight days.

The result was a promise to end violence and immediately set up a national unity government, outlined in greater detail within eight sub-sections that was released after the agreement was announced.

The ministries would be divided between Hamas and Fatah.

Hamas would hold the seats of the prime minister, the ministries of education and higher education, Islamic waqf, labour, local government, youth and sports, justice, telecommunications, economy and an extra seat as a state minister. Hamas would also be granted the ability to nominate independent figures for the interior ministry, planning, and another person as state minister.

On the other hand, Fatah still held the executive branch, the seat of deputy prime minister, and the ministries of health, social affairs, public works, transportation, agriculture, prisoner affairs, and foreign affairs.

Resistance and negotiations under the norms of formerly signed international treaties were both acknowledged as legitimate means to achieve Palestinian rights, and it reaffirmed previous national reconciliation documents, as well as promised reforms within the Palestinian Legislative Council in the security and judiciary fields. For security, a major point of contention, the agreement vaguely suggested the formation of a national security council that would merely follow the decisions of the political class, delaying the final decision after the establishment of a national unity government.

By March 17, a unity government was formed. It lasted only three months.

Yemen Initiative (Feb. 2008):

Despite the Mecca agreement and the formation of a unity government, hostilities between Hamas and Fatah persisted over who would master security forces.

According to the leaked Palestine Papers, Israel, the US, and the EU were working hard with their local allies such as Egypt and Jordan to support Fatah's military apparatus with the aim of toppling Hamas in Gaza. Millions of dollars were spent on equipment and training in a plan headed by US security coordinator Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton. Meanwhile, Hamas expanded the size and scope of its Executive Force to match Fatah's own military changes. The result was an on-going confrontation and clashes between the two, especially in the West Bank as PA security forces clamp down on armed resistance movements against Israel.

The infighting peaked to a five day conflict in June known as the Battle of Gaza. All Hamas and Fatah officials, military or political, were targeted in tit-for-tat attacks as fighting spread throughout Gaza. Once the dust settled, Hamas had gained complete control of the territory.

The national unity government was dissolved, and Abbas announced a state of emergency, dismissing Haniyeh as prime minister and replacing him with Salam Fayyad. In response, Hamas condemned Abbas and Fatah for attempting to topple the government. A de facto split – politically and physically – was established between Gaza and the West Bank.

From that point onwards, both sides actively sought to uproot and repress the other through crack-downs, arrests, torture, and antagonistic rhetoric. Clashes commonly flared up. In addition to these events, Israel’s blockade on Gaza tightened, and international financial support flowed away from government institutions under Hamas' control, and went solely to Fatah.

With this situation, Ali Saleh, Yemen's dictator, leaped into the diplomatic fray. Hamas and Fatah officials were called to the Yemeni capital, Sana, and quickly inked another agreement promising reconciliation.

The Yemen Initiative called for a return of the pre-June 2007 status quo, the formation of a regional commission to oversee Palestinian national unity efforts, and reaffirmed commitment to the Cairo Accords and the Mecca Agreement. As before, the document echoed the need for the Palestinian political institutions to include all factions.

But like previous attempts, there was no active effort to implement the promises of the Yemen Initiative by either party. Argument broke out only hours after the initiative was announced, the point of contention revolving on how and when negotiations between the factions would occur.

As tensions endured, Israel unleashed a devastating three-week assault on Gaza, known as Operation Cast Lead, which Fatah subtly supported, in the winter of 2008. More than 1,400 Palestinians were killed, and much of the civilian infrastructure was annihilated.

Yet, Hamas maintained control of the territory, while Fatah, through the help of Israel and foreign support, deepened it’s hold in the West Bank.

Cairo Accords (May 2011):

Other than the Mecca Agreement, the Cairo Accords of 2011 was a document that somewhat outlined the structure and nature of what a national unity government would entail.

The context of the agreement, which was brokered by the Egyptian intelligence, was during the first year of the Arab uprisings. Both Fatah and Hamas, feeling pressure from both within their ranks and externally, were possibly motivated by self preservation.

Fatah had lost a major ally in the form of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, who was removed from power after 18 days of intense protests throughout Egypt. The organization was already staggering under the weight of irrelevancy, its legitimacy wavering over the complete failure of the peace process with Israel.

Hamas, for its part, while unsure of what position to take with regards to protests in Syria, was feeling empowered by the surge of its spiritual and ideological brethren, the Muslim Brotherhood, on the Egyptian political scene. For an instant, it seemed like the crippling blockade on Gaza would end, and with it Hamas' isolation.

The Cairo Accords of 2011, formally signed by Abbas and Meshaal on May 4, reflected these dynamics at play. In particular, the language of the document was more diplomatic and conciliatory in tone, and suggested a shift within Hamas' long-held stances against Fatah by accepting Abbas remains as head of state, in addition to agreeing to work within the legal framework established by the Oslo Accords that governed how the PLO functions in the Palestinian occupied territories.

Yet as Electronic Intifada founder and editor, Ali Abunimah, noted in his analysis of the accords, much of the agreement was rife with vague clauses and had altogether dropped previous demands to reform the PLO. Of greater concern is the fact that the document itself represented a transformation of Hamas politically, strikingly apparent when compared to the issues stressed by the 2005 Cairo accords.

This agreement also never mentioned anything in regards to Palestinian rights, struggles against the occupation, or the right of return.

Arguably, the 2011 Cairo Accord was a return to square one as it basically placed aside how the ministries and other government apparatuses were to be shared as outlined by the Mecca Agreement. Final decisions for ministry seats, as well as security administration, was simply left up to “consensus” without much clarification.

Doha Declaration (Feb. 2012):

The Doha Declaration was written at the apex of Qatar's regional power. Over the course of the first year of the Arab uprising, Qatar had played an aggressive game. The emirate had thrown its full weight behind the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as it successfully gained hold of the executive and legislative branches of the Egyptian government. Doha also played a key role in the overthrow of Libya's dictator Muammar Gaddafi, and was in the midst of escalating support to the various opposition groups battling the Syrian regime.

Moreover, Hamas had decided to transfer its political bureau from Damascus to Doha, a sign that it was willing to reconsider alliances and restructure it's ideology in an era in which Qatar seemed supreme.

The Doha Declaration was an attempt to re-energize the 2011 Cairo Accords which stalled due to a discord over who should head the transitional government. Fatah had put forward Salam Fayyad as a candidate, promptly rebuked by Hamas, and was not keen to offer an alternative choice. Repression of Hamas members in the West Bank and Fatah members in Gaza were still ongoing, and the plan for elections seemed unattainable due to the fact that democratic elections under an Israeli occupation, which restricted movement and arrested candidates it opposed, were impossible.

The Doha Declaration offered nothing fundamentally new other than a commitment by Fatah to release Hamas prisoners in the West Bank, while Hamas promised to reciprocate by allowing elections to be held in the Gaza Strip.

But the declaration was hampered by the reluctance of anyone to take the first, necessary step. Another agreement was signed in Cairo nearly four months later, which sought to further the Doha Declaration by beginning the registration process for voters in the Gaza Strip and gradually laid the foundations for an interim government.

The Gaza Agreement (April 2014):

Since the Doha Declaration, and the Cairo agreement that followed, tensions between Hamas and Fatah eased considerably. Efforts for reconciliation were also motivated by another Israeli assault on Gaza, known as Operation Pillar of Defense, on November 2012 and the success of PA officials in upgrading UN status for Palestine in December 2012.

Both parties eased their respective crackdowns and allowed rallies in support of their rivals within their territories. Talks on reconciliation were announced, under the sponsorship of then-Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi.

New challenges arose during this year, which perhaps forced the parties to take the matter seriously.

After a honeymoon with Egypt under the short reign of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas was confronted by a wholly combative Egyptian military – which had gained power in a coup that overthrew the Brotherhood – and whom were threatening to attack Gaza. The blockade was still in effect, and became even more rigid.

Fatah, for its part, was faced with an ultra-right-wing Israeli government led by Benjamin Netanyahu that was simply not interested in pushing the peace process forward. It had significantly increased settlements in the West Bank, and has publicly voiced unwillingness for the existence of a free, sovereign Palestinian state.

These factors, with others, culminated in the announcement of another national reconciliation agreement on April 24, 2014, signed in Gaza City. The talks began only two days earlier, and the speed in which an agreement was made signified a sense of desperation by both parties to score a much-needed victory.

While this latest agreement recycled promises of following through with previous agreements, particularly the 2011 Cairo Accords, it differed from the rest by specifying the formation of a “technocratic government” within five weeks, and having legislative and executive elections after six months, rather than a year as stated previously.

Like the earlier declarations, the Gaza Agreement renewed calls to immediate reform the PLO in order to include Hamas and its allies in the formal decision making process, as well as prompt implementation of other articles presented within the 2011 Cairo Accords.

As soon as the Gaza Agreement was announced, the Americans condemned it as “disappointing” and “unhelpful” for peace, while Israel unleashed a series of strikes on Gaza. It is a routine rhetoric and tactic by the Americans and Israelis every time reconciliation between Palestinian factions seemed close at hand.

In a way, it could be a return of a similar difficulties faced by Palestinian factions after the 2006 elections, in which foreign sanctions, military attacks, and threats of isolation were let loose.

Despite these challenges, both Fatah and Hamas seem keen to push the agreement forward this year, more likely due to a convergence in their interests to remain relevant and legitimate to the Palestinian public.

However, there is no clarification in regards tackling the inherent differences in regards to negotiations, nor does it offer contingencies in the face of Western and Israeli rejection of Palestinian reconciliation, nor is the agreement clear in terms of how it will commit to Palestinian cause – notably the right of return.

Before, it was a matter of political and security that usually ended the drive for reconciliation. Today, the ultimate failure of the Palestinian reconciliation efforts could hinge on the bigger question: Are Hamas and Fatah’s attempts to reconcile and form a unified government obsolete and disconnected from the original goals of the Palestine cause?

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Obviously.

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