The swearing in of the new Palestinian unity government Monday is a historic moment for the Palestinian people, at least symbolically. In theory, the ceremony in Ramallah ended the longstanding rift between Hamas and Fatah, between the West Bank and Gaza: What began as a bloody and brutal Hamas coup in June 2007, leaving more than 160 Fatah men dead, came to an end after almost seven years with the Islamist group losing the government, but not the power to govern.
And this is essentially where the trap lies, from the perspective of Israel and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The Hamas prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, on Monday afternoon indeed announced his resignation, and Abbas even phoned him to congratulate him on his efforts toward unity. But Abbas’s (and Israel’s) main problem is that the decision-maker in Gaza remains Hamas, even though it doesn’t head the unity government — or have a single cabinet minister.
For Hamas, the day-to-day governance of the Strip has become an unacceptable burden. Still, in practice, Hamas’s military wing, with tens of thousands of armed members, will continue to manage Gaza on the security front.
The reconciliation can be seen by the Palestinian public as an immediate and major victory for both sides. Abbas, who failed in his efforts to bring a significant achievement in talks with Israel, managed to carry out his promise for a national reconciliation, on his terms. Even though Hamas won parliamentary elections in 2006, Haniyeh has resigned and his place will be filled by Rami Hamdallah, considered Abbas’s clear choice.
The makeup of the government also shows how well Abbas managed to tie Hamas’s hands. All the central ministries were handed to Abbas cronies. (At the last minute, Abbas agreed to let the Ministry of Prisoner Affairs remain, under Shuki al-Issa.) No Hamas (or Fatah) members will sit in the new government, and it will recognize Israel and past agreements as well as renouncing violence and terror.
So far, Abbas got everything he asked for. So why did Hamas agree to the deal? Because it is on the verge of bankruptcy. Its financial and public standing shaky, it can now spin its relinquishing of power as a step “in the name of unity.”
But Hamas did not give up any power or authority — just government. The group expects to see the results in the voting booth, even though both sides have sounded pessimistic that elections for parliament and president will actually take place within the next six months as scheduled.
Hamas and not Hamdallah
The new government is expected to encounter innumerable obstacles. Firstly, every government office will have both Hamas and Fatah officials. How exactly will that work and who will pay their salaries? And what about Hamas’s armed forces in Gaza? They will continue to act as if nothing has changed, taking their orders from Hamas and not Hamdallah, who will be the new interior minister as well as prime minister.
This is a ridiculous situation. Should an armed group in Gaza decide to fire rockets at Israel, the new government won’t be able to stymie the fire — only Hamas, which, not being in the government, may well not want to. The bottom line: The test for the new government isn’t the fact that it got established, but its (questionable) ability to govern.
Israel’s true fear
Israel’s knee-jerk threats to cut off ties with the unity government hide more than its preference to have Hamas and Fatah divided, and Hamas ruling in Gaza. The group had cracked down on the rogue Kassam launchers. That, plus the fact that it wouldn’t accept the existence of Israel, meant Jerusalem had a perfect excuse for not making peace with the Palestinians. Now, a single government has been formed in Gaza and the West Bank which says it will accept all the conditions set by the Quartet for Mideast Peace (recognizing Israel, keeping to previous agreements and renouncing terror).
Israel immediately declared that “Abbas has made a pact with a terror group.” True. But Israel forgets that Jerusalem has had its own agreements and understandings with Hamas aplenty, and the new government (at least theoretically) will accept everything that Israel has demanded for years. And though Israel is expected to boycott or cut ties with the unity government, the problem is that the international community and even the US have not been convinced by Israel’s claims.
Against all this, tensions in the territories continue to worsen. The hunger strike declared by administrative detainees has gone on for 40 days and dozens of them have been hospitalized. More and more prisoners are joining the strike and the Palestinian street is showing the first signs of uprising.
The creation of the unity government will indirectly buttress the discontent in the West Bank, along with the potential for a conflagration.