The unity deal signed between Fatah and Hamas in Cairo in May was a necessary first step towards renewing the popular legitimacy of the Palestinian leadership. There has been some progress since then, with both parties agreeing to release all political prisoners before the end of Ramadan in August. But if Fatah and Hamas fail to work together to resolve the numerous issues still outstanding, it is the Palestinian people who will continue to suffer.
Whenever I meet Palestinians I hear the same message repeatedly: what Palestinians want is an end to occupation. Yes, they want human rights, yes, they want democracy, but the demand on which everything else rests is the demand for self-determination, for an end to cruel dispossession and foreign control of Palestinian land. The vision of an independent Palestinian state requires not only an end to Israel’s policy of separation – reconnecting the geographical divide between the Gaza Strip, West Bank and East Jerusalem – but also a political unity that the main Palestinian factions have so far failed to achieve.
A first step towards unity
The Fatah-Hamas agreement promised to pave the way to reconciliation between them – as well as towards the reintegration of political authority in the West Bank and Gaza. It was a practical agreement with clear objectives: to allow for reconstruction in Gaza and to prepare for fresh legislative and presidential elections across the occupied Palestinian territory in 2012. Both are badly overdue.
Palestinians everywhere and their friends welcomed this development wholeheartedly. The factionalism that characterised the Palestinian leadership had been allowed to continue for too long – it had seeped into all aspects of public life, perpetuating or else creating new divisions among the Palestinian people. On the international stage, the lack of a unified Palestinian voice has seriously undermined the credibility of the Palestinians and their negotiating power.
Little change on the ground
For most Palestinians, sadly, the agreement has not yet translated into any real improvements. I visited Gaza with The Elders in October 2010 and heard from all sectors of society – students, women, activists, business leaders as well as political leaders – about their frustration with the poverty and lack of opportunity in Gaza. Yet, over nine months later, Gazans are still living in deplorable conditions; still there is no rebuilding programme. Israel’s illegal blockade continues to cut off Gazans from the outside world, their movements restricted, unable even to reconnect with their fellow Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. ‘Palestinian reconciliation’ will be meaningless to ordinary Palestinians unless it can deliver them real dividends: education, mobility, livelihoods, security, an end to the Gaza blockade, personal and collective dignity and hope of a better future that can come only with the end of occupation.
For the Palestinian leadership, signing an agreement – though not easy in itself – was straightforward compared with the real challenges to come. To realise the unity agreement, they must, amongst many other things, form a new, non-partisan government and merge their security forces. Together, they will also need to continue the institution-building programme begun in the West Bank. To hold credible elections next year – the only way to re-legitimise the Palestinian leadership – they will have to create the conditions under which election campaigning can take place without hindrance. This will be impossible without both Fatah and Hamas releasing political prisoners, removing the current constraints on freedom of association and expression, and halting arbitrary detention of suspected opponents.
Put the Palestinian people first
There are few conflicts that have owed so much – for good or ill – to external influences. Indeed, powerful parts of the international community bear a good part of the responsibility for creating the deep divisions between Fatah and Hamas, having spared no effort to keep Hamas out of the picture even after it was elected to power in the Palestinian territories in January 2006.
At this critical juncture, those who have fostered or tacitly gone along with this destructive factionalism have a choice to make: help create an enabling environment in which genuine reconciliation can take place, or see another opportunity to end the conflict with Israel through a two-state solution slip away.
It is not any more a decision about efforts (often half-hearted) to resurrect the peace talks, but a much broader question about supporting democratic transformation in the region. Governments who say that they are backing the popular protests elsewhere in the Arab world should, if they are to be credible, now apply the same logic and common sense to the Palestinians – undoubtedly the most serious test-case.
Ultimately, however, the responsibility lies with Fatah, Hamas and the other Palestinian political parties, factions, groups and personalities to move beyond past grievances and live up to their commitment to work together, independent of foreign influences. Their people have made it clear that they are tired of factionalism and infighting. It is time for Palestinian leaders to put their national cause first.