By Fadi Elhusseini
Palestinian success in burying a seven-year division has surpassed its domestic effects and has, without a doubt, regional and international implications. With the Palestinian unity government, the relationships between the Palestinians and Israelis on one side and the Palestinians, their Arab neighbours and the international community on the other side will experience a dramatic change that may chart a new course of events and developments.
In general, the Palestinian streets have welcomed the reconciliation, but voices have varied between optimistic and pessimistic; confident and sceptical; and between beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries. The Palestinians realised that the division was a painful chapter in the history of their cause and was considered a very harmful element that distorted the credibility of their historical struggle in the eyes of many supporters.
Israel wanted, facilitated and supported the division, and has pushed throughout the past seven years to bolster the separation between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, either politically or geographically. The acceptance of Hamas rule in Gaza is just a case in point.
Israel’s response was not surprising, and the announcement of the construction of 3,000 settlement units did not exceed expectations. More so, talk of an annexation of some parts of the West Bank (“Area C”) to Israel is really outdated and outlandish, as everyone on this planet is well aware that the time of annexation policies has passed and will never happen again.
Some politicians in Israel bet on the continuation of the Palestinian division, and found in it a convincing way out when approaching an “unacceptable” settlement of the conflict with the moderate Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, claiming that Gaza Strip was under the control of Hamas at times and saying that Abbas would be unable to implement any potential agreement on all the Palestinian territories at other times.
Many political leaders in Israel thought the results of recent efforts towards reconciliation would not exceed the results of previous ones. That is the reason why Israel allowed Fatah officials to visit the Gaza Strip, in order to meet with Hamas. But when the reconciliation was finalised, Israel not only prevented ministers from the Gaza Strip from attending the new government’s inauguration in Ramallah, but also tightened its sanctions and restricted the movement of all the Palestinian officials in the West Bank and abolished their VIP permits.
Looking at the implications of the Palestinian reconciliation
The significant implications of the Palestinian reconciliation were sensed by many Israeli writers. For example, in an Al-Monitor article titled “Israel should put Fatah-Hamas government to the test,” Shlomi Eldar calls on Netanyahu to give the Palestinian new government a chance.
Alon Ben-Meir wrote in a 10 June article in the Jerusalem Post, “Netanyahu’s rejection of the Palestinian unity government and his refusal to negotiate with it will only further isolate Netanyahu both domestically and internationally, as it stands in total contrast to the position of all major powers that are willing to give it a chance to demonstrate its readiness to seriously negotiate with Israel.”
Ben-Meir was right. For decades, Israel has enjoyed international support for its position or decisions, but recently things have changed. In this vein, one may argue that Netanyahu has brilliantly served Palestinian diplomacy and credibility though his stanch positions and challenging decisions and by not listening to close allies.
Unlike the previous unity government, the new Palestinian government was recognised by the majority of the international community. The position of the European Union was represented in a statement issued by Vice President of the European Commission (EC) Catherine Ashton, who welcomed the unity government. The widening gap between the European and Israeli positions was reflected in the EU statement’s commenting on Israel’s “punitive” decision to build 3,000 settlement units, emphasising on European boycott of the products of the Israeli settlements.
The US’ position gave the effects of Palestinian reconciliation a global hue. Their response narrowed the gap in positions between the EU and the US. Their announcement in the aftermath of the inauguration of the Palestinian unity government was very similar. With sinking ties between the US and Israel – and very different from previous stances on governments supported by Hamas – the US accepted, welcomed and urged the Israelis to follow suit.
A number of regional conditions facilitated this reconciliation. The waning of Islamic forces in the region can be considered a primary reason, either voluntarily as in Tunisia or forcibly as in Egypt. Developments in Syria and its repercussions in Lebanon have also prompted the Palestinian factions to reconsider their domestic policies.
These circumstances have been the only positive side of the so-called Arab Spring, as the latter caused a significant setback of the Palestinian issue, considering the amount of calamity in the region. Traditional Arab supporters of the Palestinian cause became busy with their own issues and with the continuity of the events of the Arab Spring, more attention has been distracted away from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Some may wonder what makes the Palestinian cause so special to Arabs. The simplest answer takes us back to Sharif Hussein, the Sharif and Emir of Mecca from 1908–1924, who pinned his hopes on British promises to grant him an independent Arab state, in return for the Arabs’ rebellion against the Ottomans. While Hussein was negotiating Arab independence with McMahon, Britain and France were cementing their colonial presence in the region through the Sykes-Picot agreement and carved up Arab territories among them.
Not surprisingly, many Arabs put this in the pattern of betrayal and manipulation by Western powers, and the increased presence of Jews in Palestine and the establishment of the State of Israel became a symbol to Arabs of that betrayal and a cause for the wider Arab world.
While Palestinian national reconciliation is meant to unify Palestinian efforts to establish their independent state, uncertainty of the future lingers, as it remains vulnerable to the perils of security and financial challenges.
After seven years of division, various security measures and concerns have been created in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
Merging these forces under one command is considered the biggest challenge. Another challenge is securing sufficient funds to pay the salaries of Palestinian public servants, bearing in mind that Hamas has recruited around 40,000 employees throughout the course of the past seven years.
Yet, the actions of this government will be the most critical challenge, as the international community, mainly the US and the EU, are expecting a peaceful approach towards the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Fadi Elhusseini is a Political and Media Counselor in Turkey. He is an associate research fellow (ESRC) at the Institute for Middle East Studies-Canada and a doctoral candidate at the University of Sunderland in Britain.