By Victor Kattan
On October 12, 2017, Hamas signed a deal reconciling it with Fatah and its leader, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, after a decade of alienation and failed reconciliation attempts. Hamas agreed to disband its shadow administration and form a government of national unity with the Palestinian Authority (PA) because it had little choice. President Abbas’ decision to tighten the screws on Gaza over the summer, and the isolation of Qatar, Hamas’ main financial backer, is what brought Hamas to the table. What clinched the deal though, was the recognition that Abbas also needed to reach an agreement.
After a decade of Hamas rule, the cumulative effects of a series of indignities were taking their toll on Gaza’s already fragile society: the ten-year blockade of the Gaza Strip, the closing of the commercial crossing between Gaza and Egypt, three devastating wars, the slow pace of international reconstruction efforts, daily electricity blackouts, increasing levels of poverty, high youth unemployment and surging suicides. All these problems preceded the isolation of Hamas’s main financial sponsor Qatar by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia in June, which only compounded matters. The isolation of Hamas’ main financial backer was further aggravated by President Abbas’ decision to cut the salaries of PA officials living in Gaza (estimated at $45 million a month), thereby reducing the amount of taxes that Hamas could collect from these salaries. This has been particularly debilitating as Hamas has no alternative sources for making up the shortfall.
To be sure, President Abbas had reasons of his own for securing a deal. Rumours that Hamas was seriously entertaining the imminent return of Mahmoud Dahlan, former PA strongman and Abbas’ arch rival, flush with UAE cash to the Gaza Strip, were reason enough. According to reports, Dahlan had been planning to head a Palestinian Joint Liability Committee and the UAE had agreed to compensate each Palestinian family who lost loved ones during Palestine’s civil war (2006-2007) with $50,000. The UAE also agreed to provide $15 million a month to support humanitarian and development projects in Gaza. With discussions taking place between Hamas and Dahlan about the latter’s return, Abbas knew he needed to act quickly for there is no one person that Abbas dislikes more than Dahlan. Palestine’s admission to Interpol, the International Police Organization, in September should be seen in this light: it will now enable Palestine’s law enforcement agencies to issue red notices to other countries to arrest Palestinians convicted of crimes. (Whether Interpol countries will respect Palestine’s red notices is another matter.) At the top of President Abbas’s list of criminals is Dahlan, who was convicted of embezzlement by the Palestinian Corruption Crimes Court in absentia in December 2016, sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, and a $16 million fine.
Abbas realises that he is running out of time. According to a report in Ha’aretz, Abbas—who is 82—was treated for prostate cancer a decade ago, but has cardiac problems as well, and was hospitalized in July. Abbas’ envisaged successor chief Palestinian negotiator Sa’eb Erekat’s health concerns are even more serious than Abbas’, and potentially more destabilizing, as Abbas has come to rely on Erekat, one of his closest confidants, for advice in recent years. Although a spritely 62, Erekat is suffering from pulmonary fibrosis, a serious condition, and recently underwent a lung transplant in the US. There does not appear to be a transition plan for a new leader. Even if there is a plan, there is no guarantee that the plan would proceed smoothly, especially as the PA’s legitimacy is being increasingly questioned following Abbas’ draconian and heavy-handed response to Palestinian civil society activists who have been imprisoned for criticising his leadership or for voicing support for his rival.
Unlike previous attempts to secure a national unity government, this attempt is not being opposed by Israel. It allowed Prime Minister Rami al-Hamdallah to travel to Gaza to seal the deal. It appears that Egypt’s General Intelligence Directorate is helping Israel with negotiations with Hamas to return the bodies of Israeli soldiers killed in Gaza in 2014 and to return two civilians being held captive in Gaza. Nor is the formation of the unity government being opposed by the United States or the EU, which unlike Russia and most Arab countries, still designate Hamas as a prohibited terrorist organisation. This is an intriguing development, which suggests that the deal might be linked to wider efforts to secure greater regional stability, perhaps as part of a package deal preceding an Arab-Israeli regional peace agreement. In a pre-recorded speech addressed to Fatah and Hamas, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said that he was ‘confident’ that the world’s major powers would help realise peace, should the dialogue between Fatah and Hamas produce results.
Significantly, Hamas’ new leader, Yahya al-Sinwar, has distanced himself from the Muslim Brotherhood, perhaps to placate Egypt, given Hamas’ links with former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi, whom Sisi overthrew in a coup four years ago. It has been suggested that Sinwar is more interested in the Palestinian national project than he is in a Muslim Brotherhood project, although one must treat such reports with a degree of scepticism, given Hamas’ longstanding links with the movement. However, since he became Hamas’ leader, Sinwar has emerged as a unifying figure, and coming from prison after such a long time gives him legitimacy on the Palestinian street. He has moved to establish closer ties with Egypt by providing Cairo with information about Salafi groups active in the Sinai, and by creating a buffer zone on the border to prevent the movement of Salafi fighters to and from the Sinai Peninsula. According to a report in the Middle East Eye, the Egyptians have said ‘in private talks that the security performance of Hamas in the war against extremist groups in the Sinai has proven very effective’.
One can assume that Israel is not opposing these efforts, for the same reason that Egypt is promoting them. Any move to limit violent activity by transnational terrorist groups will be welcomed by Israel, especially if they are operating on Israel’s borders, and especially if the deal comes with a ‘sweetener’ in the form of the release of Israeli captives that Prime Minister Netanyahu can present as a painful compromise to his party and to the Israeli public. Israel is also concerned about the dire situation in Gaza and does not want to be blamed if the humanitarian situation there deteriorates further. The real question though, is whether Hamas, given all this pressure, will abide by Israel’s demands that it recognise the Jewish state, abide by agreements concluded between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel, and disarm. President Abbas backs these demands, and insists that Hamas will not be allowed to become part of the PLO until it agrees to ‘one state, one regime, one law and one weapon’ in the Gaza Strip, as he told Egyptian TV station CBC.
Hamas desperately needs friends. On September 18, 2017, an important delegation comprising of senior Hamas leaders, including Mousa Abu Marzouk, Hamas’s leader in Egypt, and Saleh al-Arouri, Hamas’s leader in Turkey, and Mohammed Sawalha, visited Moscow for talks with high-level officials. Hamas wants Russia’s help in restoring ties with Syria, where Hamas once had a bureau, before it was relocated to Doha due to civil war. Russia in turn needs to improve its image in the Muslim world, which took a battering following its support for the Assad regime. Moscow may believe that brandishing its ties with Hamas is one way of doing this. Russia also has close ties with Egypt and with Israel, which may also explain why these countries are allowing senior Hamas figures to travel through the border crossings (although Israel has prevented the Hamas delegation in the West Bank from travelling to Egypt for the talks). Moreover, President Abbas has close ties to Moscow: he studied there and speaks the language. Moscow believes that a national unity government will be better for talks with Israel, because it would be easier to achieve an agreement when the Palestinians are united.
Abbas understands that the Palestinians need to be unified before any Palestinian leader can sign a peace deal with Israel. This is why elections to PA institutions are part of the deal. Abbas had previously announced that he would not contest the next elections; he is now saying that he will run ‘if the people want him to’. According to an opinion poll conducted by the Jerusalem Media and Communication Centre and Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, if elections were held in the Gaza Strip, and if Abbas did not contest the election, 27 per cent of those polled would vote for Marwan Barghouti; 17 per cent for Ismail Haniyeh; and 18 per cent for Dahlan. In contrast, in the West Bank, 26 per cent of those polled would vote for Barghouti; 9 per cent would vote for Haniyeh; and only 1 per cent would vote for Dahlan. It is unlikely that Israel will release Marwan Barghouti who is in prison. Accordingly, unless President Abbas contests the election, and proves to be as popular as Barghouti, it is not inconceivable that Haniyeh, Hamas’ political chief, could win the vote in the West Bank. The irony is that Haniyeh could lose the vote in Gaza to Dahlan—if Dahlan were allowed to run, and assuming that the election was free and fair. But what if Dahlan is not allowed to run in the Gaza Strip? Haniyeh could win both the West Bank and Gaza. Then there is Sinwar, who is increasingly popular, and who could decide to throw his towel into the race. What if he were to run?
Many activists in Hamas still do not trust Dahlan— ‘the man who burnt our beards and tortured us’ when he was head of Arafat’s Preventive Security Force. Yet Sinwar and Dahlan are childhood friends, and although they went their separate ways, they may be able to work together more closely than Hamas has been able to work with Abbas. But so long as Abbas is head of the PA, Hamas will need to settle its differences with him. At the Fatah Congress in December 2016, Abbas excluded followers of Dahlan, preventing them from being a part of the elections to Fatah institutions. Only a deal between Hamas and Abbas – who heads the international recognised government in the West Bank and Gaza – would be able to provide the ground work that is necessary for holding national elections; only a deal with Abbas could alleviate conditions in Gaza by bringing in more foreign investment and trade through the reopening of the crossings with Egypt and Israel, which are to be placed under the control of Abbas’ Presidential Guard; and only a deal with Abbas will inject the massive amount of cash that Gaza so desperately needs from the EU and USAID (and that would amount to far more money than the UAE is currently providing Dahlan to send to Gaza). A deal between Hamas and Abbas will also be acceptable to the ‘Arab Quartet’ (the UAE, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt). So long as Abbas is alive, Dahlan will find it difficult to wrest control of the PA from him. Given this rift, Dahlan’s return to the Gaza Strip would only further divide the Palestinians at this moment in time.
The New York Times reports that under the terms of the deal, Hamas and the PA will form a joint police force of at least 5000 officers and merge their ministries. This does not, however, meet Israel’s conditions, which will be subject to a later agreement. According to Israeli sources, Hamas’s armed wing in Lebanon has reopened channels to Tehran and is rearming. Little has been heard of from Khaled Mish`al, Hamas’s previous leader. Presumably, he is laying low in Doha. Then there is Turkey, whose government has longed backed the Muslim Brotherhood, and where several Hamas leaders have moved to from Doha, after Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia called on Qatar to cease supporting Hamas. Abbas travelled to Ankara on 28 August for talks with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seeking his help on the reconciliation talks with Hamas, as Abbas does not fully trust Egypt’s role in Gaza, given the assistance it gave to Dahlan there.
If anything, the imminent return of Dahlan appears to have had, in the short term, the opposite effect of what may have been intended by his supporters. Rather than give Dahlan a foothold in the Gaza Strip, which he could have then used as a springboard for realising his political ambitions, it brought Fatah and Hamas together. Perhaps this demonstrates that when push comes to shove, the Palestinians, of whatever faction and whatever their differences, will always put their interests before others.
Victor Kattan is a Senior Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore. He is the author of the critically acclaimed book From Coexistence to Conquest: International Law and the Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict 1891-1949 (London: Pluto Press, 2009).
 See the description in Sara Roy, ‘If Israel were smart’, 39(12) London Review of Books (15 June 2017), pp. 19-20.
 Yossi Mekelberg, ‘Palestinian unity closer now than at any time in the last decade’, Arab News, 11 October 201.
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 ‘Chief negotiator Saeb Erekat undergoes lung transplant operation in a US hospital’, Wafa news agency, 12 October 2017.
 Daoud Kuttab, ‘Palestinian succession gets more complicated’, al-Monitor, 18 July 2017.
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 ‘Palestinian cabinet convenes in Gaza in move to reconcile with Hamas’, Middle East Eye, 3 October 2017.
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 Interview with Elena Suponina, an advisor for the director of Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, 12 October 2017.
 Menachem Klein, ‘Give the people what they want: Palestinians take a step towards unity’, +972 Blog, 3 October 2017.
 Poll No. 90 - Pessimism towards Trump administration’s role in negotiations; Fall in trust in factions, Increase in popularity of Marwan Barghouthi, JMCC, 6 September 2017.
 Beverley Milton-Edwards and Stephen Farrell, Hamas: The Islamic Resistance Movement (Polity Press, 2010), p. 280.
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 Rasha Abou Jalal, ‘Abbas turns to Turkey for Fatah-Hamas reconciliation help’, al-Monitor, 11 September 2017.