What happens to Hamas-Fatah reconciliation after Gaza conflict?

Smoke and fire from the explosion of an Israeli strike rise over Gaza City, Wednesday, July 30, 2014 (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)
Smoke and fire from the explosion of an Israeli strike rise over Gaza City, Wednesday, July 30, 2014 (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa) AP

Nabil Shaath, an adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas who’s considered the architect of the April agreement that reunited Hamas and Abbas’ Fatah movement in a unity Palestinian government, paused as he contemplated his groundbreaking deal in the wake of Israel’s crushing campaign in the Gaza Strip.

Then he acknowledged that the situation might be different had Hamas not taken the course it did.

“Why the hell spend all this money and effort just showing off?” Shaath asked during an interview with McClatchy. “Hamas did not want this war. . . . They just needed a promise that at the end of the cease-fire there would be a normal life for Gazans. But by not throwing rockets, maybe they could have avoided giving excuses to the Israelis.”

Shaath’s comments, made Sunday as the Palestinian death toll passed 1,000, underscore the deep differences that remain between the freshly reconciled Palestinian factions, even as Israel and Hamas fight. Fatah and Hamas split violently seven years ago when Hamas wrested control of the Gaza Strip from Fatah in fierce fighting. The movements remained bitter rivals until they signed the reconciliation pact in late April.

During the years they were split, Fatah and Hamas viewed each other with acrimony. Under Abbas, Fatah pledged “nonviolent resistance,” meaning diplomatic pressure on Israel. Hamas, on the other hand, is the flag bearer of forceful resistance, including firing rockets at Israel, mostly without effect, and burrowing tunnels under the Gaza-Israel border to enable attacks.

A U.S. diplomatic cable leaked in 2010 described Israel consulting with Fatah and Egypt before Operation Cast Lead, an Israeli military incursion into Gaza in the winter of 2008 and 2009. The cable suggested that Israel and Abbas were colluding against Hamas. At the time, officials in Ramallah denied they had advance knowledge of the operation.

The current operation in Gaza is challenging the Fatah strategy, according to Alaa Rimawi, an expert on Islamic politics.

“The message of Hamas was always that Israel will never give you a state, and it seems the Hamas prediction was right,” Rimawi said. “Fatah is in crisis. . . . Fatah and Hamas are now presently on the same track.”

Shaath is intimately familiar with the tensions between Hamas and Fatah. During the long hostility between Hamas and Fatah, he was instrumental in shuttling from the West Bank to Gaza to hammer out an agreement. Under the unity deal signed in April, the two sides were to form an interim government within five weeks and hold parliamentary elections six months later. So far the interim government hasn’t been formed because of the campaign.

Shaath said some Fatah members still harbored bad feelings toward Hamas. “Yes, there are some of us who still think of the fraternal enemy more than they think of the real enemy,” he said. However, many of these Fatah members have been galvanized against Israel by the spiraling death toll in Gaza, he said.

A turning point came last week, when Abbas adopted the Hamas demands for a cease-fire with Israel, including opening border crossings with Israel and Egypt and building an airport and seaport.

Shaath didn’t endorse violence against Israel. In fact, he said, Palestinian police continue to check for weapons at rallies and to keep a tight lid on what could escalate into violent protest and lead to a third “intifada,” the term used to describe previous prolonged periods of anti-Israel violence.

However, he noted that “the word intifada does not mean violence. An intifada is an uprising, its people saying ‘no’ to the occupation. . . . If Israelis continue in Gaza, there will be an intifada, and my duty will be to steer that in a nonviolent direction.”

Political scientist Sameeh Hammoudeh, who teaches at the West Bank’s Birzeit University near Ramallah, said the unity government between Fatah and Hamas probably would survive the conflict. Support for Hamas is up, he said, but Palestinians also are aware that they can’t beat Israel militarily. “So still, the political road Abbas is leading has its own legitimacy,” he said.

For Shaath, the reconciliation with Hamas, however awkward, has provided an opportunity to address the shared concerns of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank: the Israeli military operation and what Shaath describes as American bungling on resolving the crisis.

Secretary of State John Kerry “is going back and forth, but he’s not showing any real displeasure at what Israel is doing,” Shaath said. “His insistence that both sides should do this or that _ there’s no sense of anger or urgency in his statements.”

In Ramallah, Fatah seemed rejuvenated by its clearer line against Israel. Shaath squeezed in the interview after meeting with Russian diplomats and British dignitaries. His office director was one of the planners of a large protest at Qalandiya last week in which thousands took part.

Others in Ramallah were less sure. Abu Samaha, a worker in a sandwich shop, marched in last week's demonstration that began in his neighborhood, the al Amari refugee camp.

“May God give power to Ismail Haniyeh and Gaza,” he said, speaking of the Hamas leader. “Abbas is a mayor, not a president. His decision-making is not in his hands.”