Appearances aside, Abbas hasn’t given up on disarming Hamas
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AnalysisAbbas merely hailed 'steps to end the division'

Appearances aside, Abbas hasn’t given up on disarming Hamas

In deal reached Thursday, the two estranged Palestinian factions agreed on the straightforward issues, but the celebrations will likely be brief

Dov Lieber

Dov Lieber is The Times of Israel's Arab affairs correspondent.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas gestures after delivering a speech on the second day of the 7th Fatah Congress in the West Bank city of Ramallah on November 30, 2016. (AFP/Abbas Momani)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas gestures after delivering a speech on the second day of the 7th Fatah Congress in the West Bank city of Ramallah on November 30, 2016. (AFP/Abbas Momani)

In the heart of Cairo, rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah signed a deal Thursday that supposedly ends 10 years of bitter conflict.

Yet nearly all the terms agreed upon have not been subjects of dispute for some time. The hardest issues, most notably whether Hamas will have to give up its estimated 25,000-strong fighting force and its weaponry, are still on the table, with no real solution in sight.

All that the deal addressed was the easy stuff, the civil issues — an excuse for both sides to celebrate and thank Egypt for its help.

Senior Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmad, center right, and Hamas’s representative, Saleh al-Arouri, center left, sign a reconciliation agreement during a press conference at the Egyptian intelligence complex in Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017. Thursday’s signing came after two days of negotiations in the Egyptian capital on the governing of the Gaza Strip as part of the most serious effort to date to end the 10-year rift between the rival Palestinian groups. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

Will Hamas recognize Israel?

Why the skepticism? Well, let’s start with what we know.

Keeping in mind that the full agreement has yet to be published, here are the publicized elements of the deal, either as announced in an Egyptian press release, stated during a news conference or reported by a source.

First, both sides agreed to enact the 2011 Cairo agreement, which mostly deals with setting up national elections.

Second, Hamas allowed the Palestinian Authority government to take over all ministries in Gaza. This was already a part of previous agreements, and in fact, the PA ministers already took back their offices in Gaza last week when a large PA delegation came to the Strip. What was new in Thursday’s deal was the deadline given for the takeover to take place — December 1.

The groups also agreed to meet again in Cairo on November 21 to discuss more issues.

One interesting note about the Egyptian press statement is that it said the reconciliation is being carried out in accordance with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi’s hope “to achieve an independent Palestinian state on the borders of June 4, 1967, with East Jerusalem as its capital and a return for Palestinian refugees.”

Hamas, while continuing to call for Israel’s destruction, suggested earlier this year that it might consider a state in pre-1967 lines as an interim option on the path to an Islamic state in historic Palestine, including what is now Israel.

If Egypt is in the driver’s seat, it may force Hamas to compromise and fully endorse a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. That would mean recognizing Israel’s right to exist, a key Israeli demand for the unity agreement and something Hamas has always refused to do.

A critical development is the agreement for the PA to take control of Gaza’s border crossings with Egypt and Israel. In a press conference, the leader of the Fatah delegation, Azzam al-Ahmad, said members of PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s presidential guards would be deployed along the Egyptian border.

Members of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of the Palestinian terror group Hamas, at a rally to mark Land Day near the Israeli border with east Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, March 30, 2017. (AFP/Said Khatib)

The Associated Press quoted officials close to the talks as saying the sides agreed to set up committees to work out the outstanding details. One committee would have four months to determine who among thousands of Hamas civil servants would be able to join the new government. Another committee would merge 3,000 PA loyalists into Gaza’s Hamas-run police force.

One gun, one law?

Notably, neither Hamas nor Fatah spoke on Thursday about the issue of the future of Hamas’s military wing. Before the talks, it was on the tips of all the Fatah and Hamas leaders’ tongues. Had the issued been solved, someone would have declared success.

Abbas was very clear before the talks began that he would not allow the terror group to keep its arms. “One gun, one law,” he said, even threatening to arrest anyone without guns outside the state system.

In a statement on Thursday, Abbas called what was agreed upon in Cairo “steps to end the division.” That division, he thereby casually acknowledged, hasn’t yet ended.

Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem, according to the Israeli daily Haaretz, admitted that the future of terror group’s military had yet to be discussed.

“The next phase of reconciliation will be a meeting of representatives of all the Palestinian factions in Cairo to discuss the major national issues — such as Hamas’s military wing, the issue of weapons and political positions,” he said.

Senior Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmad signs a reconciliation deal during a press conference with Hamas’ representative, Saleh al-Arouri, at the Egyptian intelligence complex in Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

Just before departing for Cairo on Monday, al-Ahmad, the Fatah delegation head, told the Palestinian news site Quds Press, “We have crystal clear agreements before and after the division, and there is no need to talk about unnecessary things such as the weapons of resistance and the employees. These are obstacles that aim to spread frustration and despair.”

Understandably, Hamas and Fatah, if they are serious about reconciliation, don’t want to start by immediately discussing the most difficult issue. And from an outsider’s point of view, the current reconciliation deal seems seem more serious than past attempts.

Ironically, Abbas is no stranger to this method of conducting negotiations, having been a party to various “historic agreements” with Israel that deferred to a later date thorny issues such as Jerusalem, borders and refugees. Yet, more the two decades since the signing of the Oslo accords, Israel and the Palestinians are no closer to solving the those issues.

The same is now true of Hamas’s military — there is no clear path to compromise.

Should Hamas refuse to give up its guns, it’s unclear how Abbas could walk back the emplacement of his government and thousands of policemen in the Strip. But the aging Palestinian leader surprised many this year by slashing funding for power, medical aid and government salaries in Gaza, bringing Hamas to its knees (and to the negotiating table) and proving that he can play hardball when he wants to — even if 2 million Gazans have to suffer for it.

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