…. why doesn’t anyone in Cairo look happy on the historic occasion of signing a reconciliation deal in October, 2017?
Like the classic Bill Murray movie, Groundhog Day, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority hear their clock alarms go off only to discover they are repeating the same events over-and-over. In their case, these events are their fantasy reconciliation, first tried in 2007, 2008, 2011, 2012, 2014 and now yet again in 2017. These words about the ‘historic’ 2014 effort could have been written today. Still, could the seventh time be the charm?
Just. Possibly. What has changed?
In a region where movements are the extension of leaders, more than states, three major Palestinian players have chained themselves together and then, no doubt unintentionally, lost the disentanglement key.
The first player, Yehya Al-Sinwar, famed architect of Hamas terrorism, took a governmental leadership role early in 2017. Facing the unexpected rebellion of thousands in Gaza this spring who were driven into the streets by a desperation greater even than fear of their own leaders, Sinwar began reaching out, remarkably, to a childhood friend but longer-time enemy, Mohammed Dahlan.
Dahlan, a former Fatah security chief in Gaza, was long a bitter political and military foe of Hamas. However, Dahlan has been engaged in a multi-year internal war with PA leader, Mahmoud Abbas, over the latter’s determined refusal to open any path for a successor, and Dahlan above all.
Al-Sinwar, with Dahlan’s help, began searching for ways to pressure the PA, as well as secure direct aid for Gaza from Dahlan’s own sponsors in the UAE.
If Sinwar and Dahlan believed the old man in Ramallah would buckle, they miscalculated badly. Abbas immediately cut PA distribution of electricity to Hamas by 40% and added a series of other punishing actions. He even fired 6,000 of the PA’s own employees in Gaza. Money (especially the lack of it) talks.
Now, even more desperate, Hamas reached out to another enemy, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt. Hamas agreed to halt its long-successful attrition of Egyptian security across a broad swath of the Sinai in return for Gaza infrastructure aid. Sisi agreed, providing that Hamas also signed on for reconciliation with Abbas, as well as broader Egyptian leadership of regional peace efforts. This converges with Egypt’s own ambitions and need to be seen again as a Sunni power broker across the Middle East and counter-poise to Iran. Good luck with that.
Fast-forward: the (now) four-fold tag team of mutual despisers crafted a marvelous reconciliation agreement that called for the Palestinian Authority to resume direct governance of the Gaza Strip while Hamas disarms. Anwar Sadat himself could hardly have done better, and all this without apparent pressure from Israel, nor obvious involvement from the remarkably invisible American President.
Lest it all seem entirely fictional, Hamas leaked the signed agreement and entertained the PA in Gaza for the first time in a decade. All players professed, in unison, that the play must certainly go on, according to plan.
Yes, but whose plan?
Yehya Al-Sinwa had promised to break the headof anyone who stood in the way of the agreement, which sounded promising. Alas, he then proclaimed with still greater insistence that “The discussion is no longer about recognizing Israel but about wiping Israel out,” adding for good measure, that Hamas would disarm when “Satan enters paradise.” Oops.
Neither Israel nor the famed Quartet has greeted this with, shall we say, enthusiasm.
So, recalling Groundhog Day, isn’t this latest reconciliation much ado about less-than-nothing at all?
Possibly. Not. This has become the first act in a new, highly consequential drama to determine who will take control of Palestinianism in the near-future, given the shared failures of Hamas and PA to deliver either victory-over or peace-with Israel. Like its kissing cousin, the interminable Palestinian-Israeli peace process, this latest intra-Palestinian reconciliation process may now be an unstoppable public-relations fixture.
Meanwhile, the three main players are glued together. Abbas will go, but he will most likely refuse to disappear until Dahlan has been denied the throne in Ramallah. For their part, Sinwar and Hamas need the PA as a foil for their military ambitions, and would prefer a compromised and dependent Dahlan at its head over someone who owes them nothing. Dahlan, of course, foresees Hamas dependence upon him. Meanwhile, Sisi loses nothing if reconciliation collapses, but stands to gain much even from a modest, positive result.
Of the main players, who has been the winner to-date?
Conventional wisdom, as always, claims to know: it’s Abbas, followed closely by el-Sisi. Even if Hamas reneges on demilitarization, the PA seems to have gained the upper-hand in Gaza. But there are a few who believe that Hamas has enticed both Abbas and Sisi into a cunning trap, aided as usual by Iran.
As for the losers, sadly, it remains the Palestinian people, as usual. Even those Palestinians who blame Israel recognize internal failures as the critical cause for current events: “Both Hamas and Fatah are out of options. Their regional politicking was a failure, and their political program ceased to impress Palestinians who are feeling orphaned and abandoned.”
If our analysis proves right, this latest reconciliation ‘process’ must provide a second and third act to follow the first. We will devote future posts, as needed, to analyze relationships between the major players over the coming months, as well as the curious invisibility of America’s President Trump and the veiled visibility of Israel during these seemingly crucial days of negotiation.
Meanwhile, set your alarm and keep an eye out for groundhogs.