Fatah and Hamas have formed a unity government but the tenuous allegiance faces challenges on all sides.
Palestine’s two rival political parties, Fatah and Hamas, put aside their differences on January 17 to form a unity government. The decision, which ends a decade-long political division between the West Bank and Gaza, was incentivised by the precariousness of their domestic positions. Fatah and Hamas are now the closest they have ever been, but many factors could yet undermine unity.
Hamas emerged during the first intifada as a reaction to Fatah’s secularism and focus on international conferences to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict. Hamas gained ground by boycotting the 1993 Oslo accords, the failure of which badly damaged the popularity of the Fatah-led Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). However, Hamas’ boycott also meant they were not involved in the Palestinian National Authority (PA), an interim government established in 1994.
Fatah’s popularity continued to fall through the 1990s. The PA lost critical economic assistance from Arab states after supporting Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and up to half of the 1997 budget vanished due to corruption or mismanagement. These factors, plus the deteriorating economic situation saw approval ratings of leader Yasser Arafat fall 30 per cent.
Fatah’s failure to lead the second intifada from 2000 to 2005 left a power vacuum that Hamas was able to exploit. Through their involvement in the uprising, Hamas gained enough political momentum and popular support to contest elections in 2006. Hamas won 56 per cent of the seats in the PA and Fatah lost their majority for the first time. Israel responded by sanctioning Palestine and declaring it would not work with the PA. The results also led to sporadic fighting between Fatah and Hamas. By June 2007, this fighting escalated to the point where Hamas expelled Fatah officials from Gaza, in response to fears of a US-backed Fatah coup.
Over the following decade, multiple Arab states have tried to reconcile the two groups but continual violence, ideological differences and internal dissent prevented talks from proceeding. Under Prime Minister Netanyahu, Israel has also sought to derail reconciliation, threatening to cut diplomatic ties with the PLO if a unity government was formed. However, on January 17, after three days of peace talks in Moscow, Fatah and Hamas declared the renewal of the unity government.
THE ROAD FROM RUINS
Both Palestinian groups are in need of domestic unity. In Hamas’ case, a series of Israeli attacks has left Gaza desperate for humanitarian assistance. The UN predicts that by 2020 Gaza will be uninhabitable due to rising food insecurity and unemployment, which is already at 44 per cent.
Hamas has received very little aid, financial or otherwise, to address these issues, as the vast majority of international funding goes through the PA. As Gaza verges on collapse, the economic assistance provided by a unity government is much needed.
Hamas is conscious of its unsustainable position and has tempered its rhetoric in an attempt to address instability. In 2012, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal claimed that he would accept the 1967 borders – aligning Hamas policy with the international norm – and said the extreme demands of Hamas’ founding charter should “not be regarded as the fundamental ideological frame of reference”. There is great internal and external pressure on Hamas to moderate its message so it can expand its relations.
FRIENDS IN NEED
Fatah faces difficult years ahead. The election of Donald Trump adds a layer of uncertainty to the Palestinian issue. The Trump administration is considering moving its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem. David Friedman, the new US ambassador to Israel, supports Israeli settlements, doesn’t support the creation of a Palestinian State and has declared there will be “no pressure” on Israel under Trump. Moreover, Netanyahu has become apathetic to peaceful negotiations and does not want a “[Palestinian] State with full authority.”
Under these conditions, the likelihood for Fatah to conduct successful negotiations with Israel and the US is significantly reduced (from an already very low level). Peaceful negotiations were a founding difference between Fatah and Hamas, and now that the option is off the table, there is little restricting Fatah from seeking some degree of domestic unity.
Fatah’s domestic stability will be essential in the coming year as the party restructures. Fatah’s leadership, which has an average age of 64 and contains only one woman, is very different from its population’s median age of 19. The 2016 Fatah Congress acknowledged the demographic gap needs to be addressed and 81-year-old president Mahmoud Abbas will need to step down to make way for a new generation. Attempting this reconstruction while locking horns with Hamas would leave Fatah domestically vulnerable. Having a degree of cooperation with Hamas during this time will be a necessity.
CAN RECONCILIATION HOLD?
The Fatah-Hamas negotiations in Moscow avoided the obstacles of the past. Instead of deciding who should run the PA – an issue that derailed three previous peace talks – Fatah and Hamas will instead form an interim bipartisan government until elections can be held. The divide over whether or not to negotiate with Israel has also become less of an issue now that Israel and the US are wavering on their commitment to peace talks. Finally, both groups are in tenuous domestic positions, and unity will provide both with the stability they desperately need.
But these negotiations are not invulnerable. If Hamas alienates international support, then it will no longer be prudent for Fatah to ally with them. Fatah will also have to invest heavily into Gaza, including paying the salaries of government officials and repairing infrastructure. Israeli obstructionism may derail negotiations, by withholding taxes collected by Israel for the PA (as happened in 2011) or through increasing military confrontation with Hamas, as seen in the 2014 Israeli raids into Gaza.
The unity government will fail if Fatah and Hamas are not committed to change. If Hamas does not continue constraining its radical elements, then another military confrontation with Israel is inevitable. Such a conflict would alienate Fatah and further destabilise Gaza. Fatah, in turn, must give up some of its economic power to Hamas.
The unity government may collapse under external pressure as well. Cooperation between the PLO and Hamas could provoke the US and Israel into withdrawing diplomatic ties, imposing sanctions or withholding PA taxes. Any of these moves could tip the scales on Palestine’s precarious domestic political situation.
Whether Fatah and Hamas stand united or fall divided remains to be seen.