At Egypt summit with Fatah, Hamas chief calls to exploit Israeli ‘internal divisions’

With low expectations for reconciliation between rival Palestinian factions, PA President Abbas claims he intends to hold elections in near future; Islamic Jihad boycotts gathering

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas leads a meeting of reconciliation talks between Fatah and Hamas in Egypt on July 30, 2023. (WAFA)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas leads a meeting of reconciliation talks between Fatah and Hamas in Egypt on July 30, 2023. (WAFA)

Palestinian factions kicked off a meeting in Egypt on Sunday to discuss reconciliation efforts between rival groups as violence in the West Bank surges.

During the summit, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh urged Palestinians to exploit the “window of opportunity” provided by the “unprecedented internal divisions” in Israel over the judicial overhaul, as well as Israel’s “tense international relations” with its allies, and its inability to break the will of the Palestinian people and their “escalating resistance.”

“We are facing an exceptional stage in the course of the conflict, which requires us to think collectively and take exceptional decisions on how to confront [Israel’s] policies and rein in these extremists,” Haniyeh said.

Hamas and Fatah, the main groups attending the meeting in Egypt on Sunday, have been split since 2007. With repeated reconciliation attempts having failed, expectations for the one-day meeting were low. According to the official Palestinian news agency WAFA, the gathering in the Egyptian city of el-Alamein on the Mediterranean Sea was aimed at discussing “ways to restore national unity and end the division.”

The meeting comes amid soaring violence in the West Bank, where Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah group are based and exert limited self-rule. Israel has been staging near-nightly raids in Palestinian areas of the territory in what it says is an attempt to stamp out terrorist activity, especially in areas where Abbas’s security forces have less of a foothold.

In his opening speech, Abbas defined the division between Fatah and Gaza as the new “nakba,” or disaster, which befell the Palestinian people, and called for an immediate end to the schism. He also stated that the PLO is the sole legitimate and internationally recognized representative of the Palestinian people.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas (left), Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (center) and Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh meeting in Ankara, July 26, 2023. (Turkish Presidency)

The meeting in Egypt was chaired and initiated by Abbas, and presents the aging and longtime Palestinian leader with a chance to portray an image of control and statesmanship to both Palestinians and the international community at a time when he is deeply unpopular at home and his room for maneuver is constrained.

In his speech on Sunday, Haniyeh said that the starting point for rebuilding national unity is a “political partnership based on free democratic elections, or consensus.” Elections, which according to recent polls would largely favor Haniyeh over Abbas, have not been held in the Palestinian Authority since 2006.

In his own remarks, Abbas claimed that he intends to hold presidential and parliamentary elections in the near future, as long as Palestinians in East Jerusalem can participate. He called on the international community, led by the United States and the European Union, to guarantee their participation against Israeli efforts to impede them. The missing participation of East Jerusalem voters was the purported reason why Abbas called off elections in April 2021, the first national elections that were scheduled to be held in 17 years — although analysts suggested that flagging polling numbers were the real motivator.

Fatah and Hamas have been in intense rivalry since Hamas violently routed forces loyal to Abbas in Gaza in 2007, taking over the impoverished coastal enclave. Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on the territory to limit the terror group’s ability to arm itself. For Hamas, joining the meeting was an opportunity to show Gazans that it was making an effort to mend the rift, even if little changes as a result.

Another key group playing a central role in the fighting with Israel, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, boycotted the gathering to protest the detentions by the Palestinian Authority of its members, according to the group’s leader, Ziyad al-Nakhala. At the summit, Haniyeh sided with the terror group, asserting that Palestinians should not be detained for “participating in the resistance to the occupation” or for their “political affiliation.”

At a press conference in Gaza on Sunday, PIJ member Khaled al-Batsh said that his organization will respect the results of the Egypt meeting “as long as they don’t affect our approach in the conflict with the Zionist enemy.”

Egypt has for years acted as a mediator to try to end the infighting between Palestinian factions, with little success. It also helped broker truces in multiple rounds of fighting between Israel and Hamas.

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