What pushed Hamas and Fatah into each others arms?

By Michael Omer-ManWriters on this website have speculated that a soon-to-be-signed Palestinian reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah was spurred by a fear shared by both Palestinian leaderships that they’ve lost all legitimacy among their constituencies. Others have suggested that the deal represents a Hamas willingness to support Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s (Fatah) efforts to achieve on-paper statehood in the United Nations this September. But the fact of the matter is that nobody outside of the two parties’ leadership circles knows what the deal actually entails, let alone what prompted it.

The lack of available information combined with the steady flow of new developments prevents any authoritative analysis of what the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation means. Therefore, here are several key points to be considered when attempting to make sense of the new unknown reality, without any authoritative conclusions.

Part I of this post will focus on possible causes and catalysts for Hamas-Fatah reconciliation. Part II will deal with the possible consequences and implications of the move.

Fear of the Arab Spring – Hamas’ forceful takeover of the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian Authority’s (Fatah) subsequent decision to cancel elections have left both parties without traditional democratic legitimacy. Against the backdrop of the Arab Spring, where popular movements have demanded and to some extent succeeded in ousting non-representative governments, neither Fatah nor Hamas can or should be compared to the dictators that were overthrown or those still facing popular uprisings. Former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Yemini President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Bahraini King Sheikh Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad all found themselves on the losing end of decades-long dictatorships and monarchies of well-established countries that could ostensibly be taken over by a revolutionary movement. Contrarily, the current situation faced by the feuding Palestinian political leaderships represents democracy gone awry in a body politic sans statehood.While there is a notable March 15 movement within Palestinian society to demand change in its leadership, the call was for unity among the feuding parties, not replacing them.

The September Plan – In order for Abbas’s initiative seeking international recognition of statehood in the United Nations to carry any weight, there must be a unified Palestinian leadership to receive the conferment of statehood. One line of thought suggests that Hamas recognized the importance of the September Plan and therefore chose to join Abbas in order to present a united front for world consumption.

The second benefit for Hamas in getting behind the September Plan is that although the group has made significant headway in the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead and the Gaza Flotilla incident in augmenting international sympathy for Palestinians in Gaza, its armed resistance and terrorist tactics have brought about few tangible achievements to show for. It may very well fear being left behind should Abbas’ September Plan gain traction and prove beneficial for the Palestinian national movement.Abbas too needs reconciliation in order to make the September Plan work. He knows very well that declaring statehood in the West Bank while lacking any control, let alone representation, in the Gaza Strip would be meaningless and without legitimacy within Palestinian society. In order for the September Plan to be appreciated by the Palestinian people (both in Palestine and the Diaspora), it must apply to both the West Bank and Gaza.

The Mubarak-Assad angle – Yet another factor that likely led Fatah and Hamas to make the compromises necessary for reconciliation is that the two have lost or are in the process of losing their long-time state benefactors. Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was probably the strongest supporter of Abbas’ Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority stretching as far back as the key role played by Egypt’s Abdel Nasser in forming Yasser Arafat’s Fatah-dominated PLO in the 1960s. The new Egyptian government (both its military rulers and any future democratically elected government) is unlikely to be as loyal a supporter of Fatah over Hamas as Mubarak and his point man Omar Suleiman were in the past. Likewise, Hamas has long relied on the Assads in Syria (the group’s political and military leadership is based in Damascus).

With Syrian President Basher al-Assad facing an uprising that is unlikely to subside anytime soon, Hamas realizes that Assad is far to preoccupied with his own problems to continue acting as the benefactor they have come to rely on. This angle was strengthened by a report in Al-Hayat on Saturday that the Hamas political leadership was granted permission by Qatar’s emir to relocate to his island nation. A Hamas spokesman later issued a quasi-denial, saying, “as far as I know, we were not told to move to another country.”On a side note, it will be very interesting to see how the United States reacts to Hamas placing its official headquarters a few miles from the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet and the command and control center of US military operations in the Gulf. Syrian support for Hamas and Hezbollah has long been a major point of contention between Damascus and Washington and the reason for Syria’s designation as a state sponsor of terror by the State Department. How will the US respond to one of its closest Arab allies picking up Syria’s role in this regard?

Moderation of and cleavages within Hamas – The Hamas leadership is comprised of two wings, the political bureau and its armed wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades. In recent months (and going back much further), the two faces of Hamas have been in a significant state of disunity. An exceptionally public rift took place during last month’s violent flare-up between Hamas and Israel. After the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades broke the Gaza resistance’s modus operandi by firing an anti-tank missile at an Israeli school bus, the political leadership suggested that the group’s armed wing was acting on its own initiative, against the wishes of the political leadership. Another major disagreement between the political and armed wings of Hamas has to do with negotiations for a prisoner exchange involving Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, whom the Izz al-Din al-Qassam is believed to be holding. The political wing has indicated it would have liked to conclude a prisoner exchange deal for the political benefit of being able to point to a tangible accomplishment, which it can call a success of its armed resistance model. The armed wing’s leadership, however, has reportedly been holding out for a better deal, with the knowledge that Shalit is one of the strongest cards it holds vis-à-vis both Israel and the Damascus-based political wing of Hamas.

While the Hamas political wing holds the purse strings over its armed wing, Izz al-Din al-Kassam holds all the guns and essentially runs the show in Gaza. One of the key elements expected to be part of a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation deal is the placing of Gaza Strip security services under the control of a jointly-run Palestinian Authority government or a redesigned PLO, in which Hamas would play a significant role. By doing so, Hamas’ political wing might be making a desperate attempt to wrestle on-the-ground control over the Gaza Strip from its own armed wing, even if it means sharing control with rival Fatah. The implications of this specific scenario will be explored in Part II of this post.

Michael Omer-Man is a writer and conflict analyst based in Tel Aviv-Jaffa. With degrees in Conflict Resolution and Middle Eastern Studies, he focuses on Israeli and Middle Eastern societies and the conflicts that plague them. He blogs and writes at conflictedland.com and The Jerusalem Post.