Palestinian factions edged closer to reconciliation Thursday with the selection of a prime minister to head a still hypothetical unity government: current premier of the Palestinian National Authority Rami Hamdallah. The new government will also include 15 technocrat ministers that are not affiliated with either Fatah or Hamas, which govern, respectively, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
The announcement comes one month after Fatah and Hamas leaders agreed to a unity deal that would end seven years of sparring and reunite the divided Palestinian territories. It is the first concrete step towards that reunification and follows a largely symbolic one, i.e., the resumed circulation of banned newspapers throughout the West Bank and Gaza. However, international reaction to the Fatah-Hamas deal has been largely negative. Already fragile U.S.-brokered peace talks collapsed as Israel vowed never to negotiate with a Hamas-backed government. Washington and Brussels have both warned of possible consequences on funding if the two camps reunite.
Nonetheless Hamas has a huge incentive to push ahead with the deal. The Gaza leadership has seen its regional standing buckle in recent years as it lost its main backers in Damascus and Tehran after backing the Syrian opposition. Hamas also burned a major bridge in Egypt after the ouster of the pro-Hamas President Mohamed Morsi, not to mention a critical economic lifeline when Cairo destroyed the majority of smuggling tunnels leading to Gaza. (Egyptian army chief, and likely future president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi hinted last week at a possible rapprochement with Hamas.) The result: major financial hardship and the first signs of public unrest in the Gaza Strip. Now, reconciliation with Fatah could pave the way not only to international credibility – though, with Hamas still labeled a terrorist organization by the United States and Europe, this remains a hard sell – but access to needed international aid.
Fatah, too, has reasons to play nice with Hamas, namely a desire to bolster its reputation among a population frustrated with the long running conflict with Gaza’s leaders, and to show the United States and Israel that Palestinians are not dependent on the U.S.-mediated negotiation process, much like Fatah’s recent signature of international treaties was meant to demonstrate.
Despite the shows of good will however, the unity deal remains fragile. International pressures notwithstanding, the most immediate challenges look to be domestic. Past unity deals – and there have been several – have disintegrated over practical issues like the composition of a future unity government or the integration of public services in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as ideological concerns – namely relations with Israel. While Fatah has adopted a moderate approach to Israel, Hamas has maintained a more aggressive stance, recently noting, “the Zionist enemy is the main cause behind Palestinian division.” Other potential deal breakers are the fate of Hamas and Fatah prisoners detained by each camp, and social reconciliation between Gaza and West Bank residents.
If the main players can overcome these obstacles, we may be looking at an unprecedented unity government by the end of the month, when the deal is scheduled to be fully implemented. But if past is prelude, Hamas and Fatah’s deal will fall apart before it gets off the ground.