Oct 05 2008

Maybe the time is ripe for national unity

Published by at 1:24 pm under Articles,Palestinian politics

Daoud Kuttab

I could be wrong, but I have a feeling that the upcoming Palestinian national unity talks have a better chance at success than in previous times. I am not naive. This optimistic prediction can turn out terribly wrong, but I think the time is now ripe, the parties are much more realistic in their expectations and the public disgust might produce the needed tipping point in favour of genuine reconciliation. Both negative and positive factors appear to favour such national unity among Palestinians today.

On the negative side, the latest incidents in Gaza and the West Bank have shown a sort of balance of terror. As the Islamists de facto leadership in Gaza carried out widespread arrests of Fateh leaders in Gaza, the Palestinian Authority carried out similar arrests of Hamas supporters in Gaza. The entry ban of Al Quds, Al Ayyam and Al Hayyat Al Jadida dailies, published in Jerusalem and Ramallah, into Gaza, was immediately countered by denying the entry of Gaza publications Falastin and Al Risala newspapers into the West Bank. Closure of PLO-leaning organisations and a PFLP-supported radio station in Gaza produced a similar response towards Islamist leaning institutions in West Bank towns.

It might be difficult to show total symmetry in reactions. Palestinian Authority supporters point out that the attacks in Gaza were brutal, accompanied by looting and burning of offices and even the demolition of a three-storey home in the Shijayyieh neighbourhood, whereas in the West Bank the reaction was much more civilised.

Ramallah also accuses the Hamas government of initiating this round and attacking before investigating. On the other hand, Gazan officials say that the Ramallah government has been involved for months in closing their supporters’ institutions.

But chances for Palestinian national unity also have many positive aspects. The lack of progress in the peace talks make Ramallah’s holding out on talks inappropriate. At one time it was thought that a breakthrough in the peace process, followed by a positive result in a national referendum, would strengthen Ramallah’s hand.

The incidents of the past month have also given rise to a third power. Public opinion, independent leadership and non Fateh and Hamas factions have been playing a bigger role in pushing the two large factions to close this nasty file of internal bickering and fighting. The strong reaction from these groups following the mutual arrests produced quick results, both in President Abbas’ call for the immediate release of Hamas leaders and the positive response by the Gaza powers.

Politically both groups have failed in realising their goals. Hamas’ military approach has failed as it has agreed to the Tahdida ceasefire.

Fateh leader Abbas has also failed in producing the coveted peace treaty through political negotiations.

Both Hamas and Fateh leaders have been weakened considerably as a result of the internal fighting. For Hamas the experience of running a government, even a reduced one, has had a humiliating result. Fateh’s arrogance, which failed to allow it to honestly and fairly deal with a rising competitor, has also learned a lesson or two in the past two years.

Palestinian leaders of all colours and shades are convinced that the continuation of the violent rivalry between the Islamic and nationalist leaderships will continue to have disastrous effects on the Palestinian people.

While anti-unity radicals in both groups continue to exist, the voice of the silent majority seems to be gathering steam. It has been argued that Palestinians are approaching critical mass that would push for a different, political resolution to the present madness.

For better or worse, there is an acceptance that a legal process, the rule of law and democratic processes are the only rational way to solve differences. As the end of Abbas’ presidential tenure and the near end of the Haniyeh-led Palestinian parliament term approach, elections loom as the publicly accepted way to answer the question of who should be in charge of Palestine.

But elections will not happen without the consent of both Hamas and Fateh. In order to agree, both sides must be convinced that the process will be free and fair and they need to have a true chance at winning. Some argue that Hamas, which has been hurt by being in power, might actually prefer to return as a strong opposition and with a guarantee of legitimacy, rather than in power without freedom of movement and continued local and international ostracism.

The lessons of Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Jordan and Egypt show that choosing not to win an overall majority (even if they think they can) is a more sane policy that fighting for total power and finding yourself totally isolated.

National unity among Palestinians is certainly a Palestinian as well as an Arab demand now. Failure to achieve genuine unity that can be translated on the ground will undoubtedly lead to even further Arab and international interference in Palestinian affairs. The chance that Arab troops will be asked to enter Gaza is more possible now than at any previous time. For Palestinians, who boast of their independence and abilities to solve problems by themselves, this could be a sad day.

Unity, therefore, is the only choice for Palestinians.

7 August 2008


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