Hamas hopeful of retaining influence over Gaza in upcoming talks with Fatah

China next week to host 3rd meeting between Palestinian factions since October 7; experts say terror group set to demand technocratic government it can influence behind the scenes

People wave Palestinian, Hamas and Fatah flags during a march in support of the people in the Gaza Strip, in the West Bank city of Nablus on October 26, 2023 (Zain JAAFAR / AFP)
People wave Palestinian, Hamas and Fatah flags during a march in support of the people in the Gaza Strip, in the West Bank city of Nablus on October 26, 2023 (Zain JAAFAR / AFP)

Rival Palestinian groups Hamas and Fatah are due to sit down in China for reconciliation talks in mid-June, according to five unnamed sources who spoke to Reuters this week.

The meeting follows two recent rounds of talks, one in Russia in March and one in China in April. China’s foreign ministry declined to comment on reports that it will also host the next round.

Hamas understands it cannot be part of any internationally recognized new government of the Palestinian territories when fighting in the enclave eventually ends, one of the sources said Wednesday.

Nonetheless, it wants Fatah to agree to a new technocratic administration for the West Bank and Gaza as part of a wider political deal, the source added.

Senior Hamas official Basim Naim, who attended the previous round of China talks, said in an interview quoted by Reuters that the goal of the talks is to achieve “political partnership and political unity to restructure the Palestinian entity,” but that Hamas does not expect to remain in the power seat.

“Whether Hamas is in the government or outside it, that is not a prime demand of the movement and it doesn’t see it a condition for any reconciliation,” Naim said.

File – Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (left) shakes hands with China’s President Xi Jinping after a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on June 14, 2023. (Jade GAO / POOL / AFP)

Meanwhile on Wednesday, the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority — which is dominated by PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party — said in Baghdad that the PA is ready to re-establish “unified” Palestinian leadership after the Gaza war.

“We are ready, as Palestinians, to assume our responsibilities from the day after [the Gaza war ends] in order to help… restore the unity of the Palestinian people and leadership,” Mohammed Mustafa said during a news conference with Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein.

“We also need to be well prepared for the creation of a [Palestinian] state and the responsibilities that this entails,” he added.

Attempts at reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah have been ongoing for years, The latest round of negotiations before October 7 was held in Egypt in late July 2023. At the time, the prospect of a joint government was a remote possibility.

However, following Hamas’s shocking October 7 onslaught in southern Israel, in which terrorists killed some 1,200 people and took 251 hostage, it is today practically unthinkable that the terror group will retain any official role in the enclave.

“Hamas knows that what was valid before the war in the context of the intra- Palestinian reconciliation process is not valid any more,” said Nidal Foqaha, director of the Palestinian Peace Coalition, a partner organization of the Tel Aviv-based Geneva Initiative, in a conversation with The Times of Israel.

“They also know the stance of several regional and international players who are unwilling to see Hamas part of any future Gaza administration.”

Still, the terror group enjoys widespread support in Palestinian society. A recent poll has shown that 59% of Palestinians (64% in the West Bank and 52% in the Gaza Strip) would like to see Hamas remain in power in Gaza.

Palestinian demonstrators wave Hamas flags and shout slogans during a protest following the killing of top Hamas official Saleh Arouri in Beirut, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, January 3, 2024. (AP/Mahmoud Illean)

Consequently, many experts believe that the terror group is likely to remain a political player and will attempt to shape the postwar order in the Palestinian territories and influence decisions.

“Hamas would like to see a Palestinian technocratic government, in which it would contribute to nominating some of the members, in order not to be vetoed or obstructed in Gaza,” Foqaha surmised.

Despite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s war goal of destroying the Iran-backed group, most observers agree Hamas will exist in some form after a ceasefire. An offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, the movement has a deep reach and ideological roots in Palestinian society.

“Hamas will never give up its control over Gaza,” Michael Milshtein, head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at Tel Aviv University, told The Times of Israel. “It’s the most important strategic achievement in the history of the movement.”

While governance of the Strip may not remain nominally in its hands, Hamas will lurk “behind the scenes,” Milshtein said. “It will have broad military and civil infrastructure and will undoubtedly be the hegemonic party in Gaza, Hezbollah-style,” he said, referencing the control exerted by the Shiite terror group over southern Lebanon.

“Let’s not develop the utopian illusion that Hamas will leave the Gaza Strip, the way the PLO did in Lebanon in 1982,” he added, referencing the year when thousands of members of the Palestine Liberation Organization were driven out of Beirut by the IDF and moved their headquarters to Tunisia.

FILE: PLO chief Yasser Arafat, in keffiyah, photographed by an Israeli sniper, leaving Beirut in 1982 (Oded Shamir)

The postwar conundrum

The prospect of Hamas surviving as an influential political player is a thorny issue for Western states.

The United States and EU oppose any role for Hamas in governing Gaza after the war. Still, some US officials have privately expressed doubt Israel will eradicate the group. A senior US official said on May 14 that Washington thought it unlikely Israel could achieve “total victory.”

Killing every member of Hamas is unrealistic and is not the goal of the Israeli army, but destroying Hamas as a governing authority is “an achievable and attainable military objective,” said Peter Lerner, a spokesperson for Israel’s military.

IDF soldiers seen operating in Gaza in this handout photo released for publication on May 22, 2024. (IDF)

Western states support the idea of postwar Gaza being run by a revamped PA, the administration that has limited self-rule over parts of the West Bank.

Based in Ramallah, the PA is broadly acknowledged globally as representing the Palestinians and receives security assistance from the United States and the EU.

The PA also ran Gaza until 2007, when Hamas drove Fatah from the enclave, a year after defeating Fatah in parliamentary elections — the last time Palestinians voted.

Despite the talks, the factions’ enmity means odds remain low for a deal to reunite the administration of the Palestinian territories.

“My expectations of rapprochement are minimal or less,” said Yezid Sayigh, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, in a conversation with Reuters.

Illustrative: A handout picture provided by the Palestinian Authority’s press office (PPO) shows (L to R) Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas (2nd-L) meeting with Algerian President Abdelmajid Tebboune (2nd-R) and with Palestinian Hamas movement’s leader Ismail Haniyeh (R) during Abbas’ visit to attend Algeria’s 60th independence anniversary in Algiers, July 5, 2022. (Thaer Ghanaim/AFP PHOTO/HO/PPO)

Despite 143 countries recognizing the State of Palestine, including recent additions Ireland, Spain and Norway last week, hopes for a sovereign nation have been diminishing for years, and the Hamas-Fatah split further complicates the goal.

The factions hold deeply diverging views about strategy, with Fatah committed to negotiations with Israel to bring about an independent nation while Hamas backs armed struggle and does not recognize Israel.

The bitterness spilled into the open at an Arab summit in May, when Abbas accused Hamas of giving Israel “more pretexts” to destroy Gaza by launching the October 7 attack.

Hamas said the remark was regrettable, calling October 7 a crucial moment in the Palestinian struggle.

Hamas’s 1988 founding charter called for Israel’s destruction. In 2017, Hamas said it agreed to a transitional Palestinian state within frontiers pre-dating the 1967 war, though it still opposed recognizing Israel’s right to exist, a position it has restated after October 7.

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

Fatah unlikely to agree to demand for new government

In March, Abbas swore in a new PA cabinet headed by Mustafa, a close Abbas aide who oversaw Gaza reconstruction during a previous stint in government from 2013 to 2014. Though the cabinet is made up of technocrats, Abbas’s move angered Hamas, which accused him of acting unilaterally.

Senior Fatah official Sabri Saidam told Reuters that appointing a new government would amount to wasting time.

A second senior official familiar with Fatah’s terms for the China talks said it wants Hamas to acknowledge the role of the PLO as the Palestinians’ sole legitimate representative, and to commit to the agreements the PLO has signed.

This would include the Oslo Accords signed 30 years ago, under which the PLO recognized Israel and which Hamas violently opposed.

The official said Fatah would want the government to have full security and administrative control in Gaza — a challenge to Hamas’s sway there.

Hamas politburo leader Ismail Haniyeh said in mid-May that any postwar plan for Gaza that excludes Hamas will be rejected by the terror group: “[Hamas] will decide, along with all national factions, the administration of the Gaza Strip after the war.”

This handout picture provided by the Iranian foreign ministry on December 20, 2023, shows Qatar-based Hamas politburo leader Ismail Haniyeh speaking to journalists as he welcomes the Iranian foreign minister (not in the picture), in Doha. (Iranian Foreign Ministry / AFP)

Fundamentally at odds with the PLO over Israel, Hamas has never joined the body but has long called for elections to its governing institutions, including its legislative body known as the Palestinian National Council (PNC).

Haniyeh said on Friday that in addition to a government of “national consensus,” the group wants elections for the PA presidency, parliament and the PNC.

Ghassan Khatib, a lecturer at Birzeit University in the West Bank, told Reuters that Hamas is interested in reconciliation only on its own terms, maintaining its politics, security apparatus and ideology, which he said would risk plunging the PLO into international isolation.

“Abbas cannot accept them with their politics, because that would jeopardize the only PLO achievement — international recognition,” he said.

File: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, and then-Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas in Gaza City, March 18, 2007. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra, File)

A deal as cover to rearm

Despite this, Fatah official Tayseer Nasrallah told Reuters that Fatah viewed Hamas as part of “the Palestinian national fabric and part of the political fabric also.”

Senior Fatah official Saidam said to the news agency that consensus was necessary to manage aid and reconstruction in Gaza. Fatah has made clear it would not return to Gaza “on the back of an [Israeli] tank, but rather we will come in agreement with everyone,” he added.

Israeli government spokesperson Tal Heinrich said the PA’s willingness to work with Hamas was “unfortunate.”

Two experts consulted by Reuters said that Hamas’s willingness to engage in negotiations with its Palestinian rival does not imply it will lay down its arms.

Ashraf Abouelhoul, managing editor of the Egyptian state-owned paper Al-Ahram and a specialist on Palestinian affairs, said Hamas was more interested in a deal than Fatah, because reconciliation could give the battle-weary organization cover to rebuild.

Mohanad Hage Ali of the Carnegie Middle East Center said it was difficult to imagine Hamas embarking on any military action that would prompt large-scale Israeli retaliation in the foreseeable future.

But, he said, reconciliation would be a “transitional phase that would allow Hamas to slowly rearm.”

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