Rub your eyes in disbelief (part 1): Yahya Sinwar, the Gaza leader of Hamas (essentially the terror group’s defense minister), stands next to the Palestinian Authority’s intelligence chief, Majid Faraj, a close associate of Mahmoud Abbas and Sinwar’s sworn enemy, and the two of them celebrate together, while Hamas and Fatah officials nearby sign their Palestinian reconciliation accord at the Egyptian intelligence headquarters in Cairo on Thursday.
The signers themselves are Azzam al-Ahmad, the Fatah representative, who has signed several such agreements in the past, and the deputy Hamas political chief, Saleh al-Arouri, who has spent the past few years attempting to orchestrate more and more terrorist attacks on Israel from the West Bank, notably including the kidnapping and killing of the three Israel teens in June 2014 — the act that torpedoed the previous Fatah-Hamas reconciliation deal and triggered that summer’s Hamas-Israel war.
Faraj, who stands immediately behind Arouri during the signing ceremony, has been responsible in recent years for thwarting dozens of the terror attacks Arouri was seeking to carry out.
As these individual histories underline, Thursday’s deal may have been formalized by the representatives of movements and parties and factions, but it’s future will depend to a large part on negotiating some very personal obstacles.
If “chemistry” has indeed been achieved between such bitter enemies as Sinwar, the Gaza strongman, and Faraj, Abbas’s right-hand man and one of the West Bank’s key strongmen, then that will play a critical role in tackling the problems that will inevitably spring up.
One example: Will Hamas and Arouri now stop their West Bank terrorist activities? Nothing was said about that during Thursday’s festive ceremony. Yet it is central to any genuine reconciliation.
Did Faraj and Fatah demand a halt to West Bank terrorism? And if so, did Hamas agree?
And what if they did, but Arouri or one of his people plots a terror attack nonetheless, and the Palestinian Authority gets wind of it? Would the PA try to thwart it, as it has thwarted hundreds of such attacks in the past decade? Will it transfer concrete intel on such plans to Israel, as it has done so often to date? And how would any of that impact the Palestinian reconciliation process?
Rub your eyes in disbelief (part 2): Israeli diplomatic sources on Thursday afternoon published a rather laconic response to the unity agreement. The bottom line: Israel will watch how this plays out on the ground, and act accordingly.
If one compares that initial Israeli response to Israel’s reaction to the previous unity deal, in April 2014, the difference is dramatic indeed. Three and a half years ago, the Israeli leadership castigated Abbas for daring to sign a deal with Hamas. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Avigdor Liberman (then the foreign minister, today the defense minister) and even major American Jewish organizations made plain that Abbas was signing a deal with the devil, was evidently no peace partner, and would be treated accordingly.
Thursday’s first Israeli response, by contrast, was cautious and measured. Someone on the Israeli side apparently decided that this time, the move should not be categorically rejected, and that maybe, just maybe, Palestinian reconciliation could prove useful to Israel and might even stave off the threat of further conflict. (On the other hand, it might be that the initial reaction, issued during the festival of Shemini Atzeret, will yet be followed by a harsher Israeli response.)
The US Administration has also been cautious in the run-up to Thursday’s announced deal, and even intimated a certain support for internal Palestinian reconciliation.
It may be that there was some advance coordination between Cairo, Jerusalem and Washington, in which case it would have been Egypt that encouraged Israel to give the move a bit of a chance. Understandably so.
If indeed, Thursday’s agreement actually goes into effect, and responsibility for the Gaza border crossings is transferred to the PA, the Gaza economic situation would likely improve dramatically. For a start, there’ll no longer be a blockade on the Egyptian border. Gazans will be free to come and go. There’ll also be a huge jump in the supply of electricity to the Strip. Water supplies will improve too. Jobs are likely to be created.
All of these shifts would reduce the likelihood of Gaza-Israel conflict.
But the key problem — in the past and today — is the Hamas military wing. There was no reference to the fate of this terrorist mini-army in the agreement and the ceremonies on Thursday.
It would appear, as far as is known right now, that Abbas capitulated gloriously and accepted civilian responsibility for the Strip, even though Hamas will continue to control it militarily. That would mean the digging of tunnels toward and under the border with Israel will continue. And so, too, Hamas’s relentless rearming and its rocket and missile development.
Indeed, Hamas would henceforth be able to focus more exclusively on its military arsenal, boosting its capabilities, while Abbas and the PA take care of the ongoing, financially costly needs of the Gaza citizenry.
Another problem that was not addressed in Cairo on Thursday: What is to become of the more than 40,000 Hamas government workers, hired when the terror group forced Fatah out of the Strip a decade ago? Did the PA agree to now pay their salaries? Officials on both sides said this issue would be resolved. We shall see.
Meanwhile, Abbas said that 3,000 PA police officers would deploy in the Strip. But what, then, of the 19,000 Hamas security personnel, including military police, emergency services staff and others?
Rub your eyes in disbelief (part 3): When the signing ceremony began, Egypt’s Minister of Intelligence, Khaled Fawzy, indicated to officials from Fatah and Hamas to come stand in a line alongside him. They all quickly did as they were told by their host.
If there is an answer to the question of why this agreement might just be different to all previous (failed) agreements, then therein may lie the key. Egypt, under President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, has placed its prestige on the line with this hole-filled agreement. Egypt — which until recently considered Hamas an enemy of the people, an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood — has now embraced Hamas and overseen the formulation of an agreement that will ensure Hamas survives in the Strip, and with its military wing intact.
The Egyptians wanted a reconciliation deal, however symbolic, even if it leaves key problems unsolved. And they got it.
Egypt’s interests are clear. First, it wants to signal to all Arab and Muslim nations that it is the Arab heavyweight, when it comes to the Palestinians, and more generally. That it is the most important Arab state in the region.
Second, it wants to ensure quiet for itself and for Israel where Gaza is concerned, and this agreement, it believes, will hobble Hamas, and prevent it from embarking on dangerous military escapades. Is this an incorrectly calculated gamble? Time will tell.
Fatah and Hamas, for their part, recognized that were they to torpedo the negotiations, they would find themselves directly at odds with Cairo. Hamas, seeking its survival in Gaza, certainly had no desire to do that. Fatah, or more accurately Abbas, has known ups and plenty of downs in ties with Egypt, and the unsubtle messages from Cairo in recent months evidently made his mind up for him. The word for Egypt was that if he didn’t take over civilian responsibility for the Strip, then there was an alternative player who would: Abbas’s rival Mahmoud Dahlan.
In fact, Egypt’s ostensible wooing of Dahlan in recent months now looks like one of the smarter pieces of tactical play en route to winning over Abbas to Thursday’s agreement. The Egyptians hosted Dahlan’s people in Cairo more than a month ago, to discuss reconciliation with Hamas officials, while Abbas was left kicking his heels in Ramallah. That helped prompt Abbas to send his people to Gaza, and engineered the compromises that led to Thursday’s signing. Dahlan is Abbas’s nemesis, and the very thought of a deal between Dahlan and Hamas had the effect the Egyptians desired, leading Abbas to agree to terms he had rebuffed in the past.
Rub your eyes in disbelief (part 4): A great deal can still go wrong between now and December, when Abbas is supposed to take civilian control of Gaza, and after that date, too. There will doubtless be fresh surprises and obstacles on the way to actual Palestinian unification.
And yet who would have believed that Hamas would act in the way that it has? Yahya Sinwar, the Gaza Hamas chief, was until recently not only a bitter enemy of the PA, and of Israel, but even of the relative moderates within his own Hamas. But Sinwar became one of the key facilitators of the unity deal, leading Hamas to the dramatic, historic relinquishing of its civilian control of the Strip. That amounted to an admission of Hamas’s failure to run Gaza effectively.
So, too, Saleh al-Arouri, who has been living under Hezbollah and Iranian protection in Beirut, now bows his head to the Egyptians and gives them the achievement they sought.
And what of Ismail Haniyeh, the new Hamas political chief? Haniyeh has for years led a more compromising line on Palestinian reconciliation. He was ready in the past to give up civilian control of the Strip. But the most extreme factions in Hamas, notably including the military wing, always prevented this. Now, his approach has prevailed.
Like Abbas, Hamas has apparently agreed to terms it would not previously have accepted.
Will any of this work? Will Palestinian unity actually come to pass? We will have to wait and see. But Thursday’s events demonstrated that even extremely unlikely scenarios do sometimes come to pass.
You get Israel news... but do you GET it? Here's your chance to understand not only the big picture that we cover on these pages, but also the critical, juicy details of life in Israel.
In Streetwise Hebrew for the Times of Israel Community, each month we'll learn several colloquial Hebrew phrases around a common theme. These are bite-size audio Hebrew classes that we think you'll really enjoy.
We’re really pleased that you’ve read X Times of Israel articles in the past month.
That’s why we come to work every day - to provide discerning readers like you with must-read coverage of Israel and the Jewish world.
So now we have a request. Unlike other news outlets, we haven’t put up a paywall. But as the journalism we do is costly, we invite readers for whom The Times of Israel has become important to help support our work by joining The Times of Israel Community.
For as little as $6 a month you can help support our quality journalism while enjoying The Times of Israel AD-FREE, as well as accessing exclusive content available only to Times of Israel Community members.