Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas hosted a meeting in Ramallah Thursday night which included the leaders of terror groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
The meeting focused on reconciliation efforts among the Palestinians and on the United Arab Emirates’ decision to normalize ties with Israel last month.
Senior members of all 14 main major Palestinian factions were in attendance for the first time in nearly a decade. Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh and Islamic Jihad leader Ziyad al-Nakhalah joined by video conference from Beirut.
“We will work to end division, achieve reconciliation, and hold general legislative elections… Know that we are one people,” Abbas said in a speech opening the meeting. Abbas’s PA has said it seeks co-existence alongside Israel; Hamas and Islamic Jihad avowedly seek Israel’s destruction.
Abbas called for a “follow-up committee” to be formed as well as for “national dialogue… to create mechanisms to end the division.”
“We want it to be over,” he said, referring to the schism between the Palestinian factions. “It’s enough. We’re one people.”
The Palestinian Authority had previously announced that Palestinians would hold their first legislative elections in 14 years in 2020, but such plans appear to have been scrapped since the advent of the coronavirus pandemic.
Abbas castigated the UAE’s decision to normalize ties with Israel as “a poisoned dagger.” He called for an emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers to condemn the decision.
Such a meeting seems unlikely, however, as some Arab countries have praised the agreement.
“We are the only legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. We are those who speak for the Palestinians… Either you help us, or stand aside,” Abbas said.
As part of the deal with the UAE, Israel agreed to indefinitely suspend plans to annex parts of the West Bank, an achievement Abu Dhabi has highlighted in explaining why it sought the accord.
But Abbas rejected this narrative, claiming it was the PA that thwarted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declared plan to annex the 30% of the West Bank allocated to Israel under the Trump peace plan.
“It was us who have stopped annexation to this point,” he said.
In late May, Abbas announced that the PA would not longer coordinate with Israel on security matters as a result of Israel’s declared annexation plans. As part of ending coordination, the PA began refusing to accept tax revenues which Israel collects on its behalf, which constitute over 70 percent of the Palestinian budget.
Abbas acknowledged that the Palestinian Authority was facing economic issues due to its refusal to accept the tax revenues, but stressed that the PA would not change its opposition to annexation and normalization. He lamented the lack of help provided by Arab countries in response to PA pleas for loans.
“We asked for loans from all across the world,” Abbas said, but without any response.
Abbas repeated that he was ready to negotiate, but not on the basis of US President Donald Trump’s controversial peace plan (known colloquially in Arabic as ‘The Deal of the Century’) which he asserted would not give the Palestinians a state (though the plan does call for one). Rather, he demanded an international conference in which the US would be only one of several mediators.
“We want international law. I do not want to hear ‘come negotiate on this deal,'” Abbas said, referring to Washington’s repeated calls for Palestinians to use its proposal as a basis for talks. “We’re not asking for the impossible. We’re asking for international law, what the rest of the world is asking for… I will not sit at a table on which is laid the ‘Deal of the Century.'”
Abbas opened the meeting by reciting a Quranic verse for Daoud Khatib, a Palestinian security prisoner who died Wednesday from a heart attack in an Israeli prison.
Despite the rhetoric of unity, Haniyeh’s speech at the event made it clear that deep divides remain between the two parties. The Hamas leader made plain in his address that Hamas would not countenance surrendering “one inch” of historic Palestine, i.e. sovereign Israel.
“We as Hamas will not recognize Israel, and will not renounce on inch of Palestinian land, and Israel will remain our enemy. Our choice is one of total resistance to it,” Haniyeh said.
While Abbas stressed the Palestinian Liberation Organization as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, Haniyeh said that Hamas would offer “an alternative” to the PLO. Haniyeh added that the Fatah-dominated PLO ought to be reformed so as to more effectively include Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Nonetheless, Haniyeh said that “a national plan of action” was required going forward, without specifying what steps that would entail.
“Our plan is national unity, total resistance, and building an Arab and Islamic alliance which supports our cause,” Haniyeh said.
Although no concrete steps towards resolving long-held disagreements between the two groups were announced on Thursday night, both Fatah Secretary General Jibril Rajoub and PLO chief negotiator Saeb Erekat released statements promoting the event as an important step toward national unity.
“[The meeting] is a turning point for the Palestinian people, led by President Mahmoud Abbas and all [of the] factions and forces, to declare its readiness to stand steadfast and persevere in the face of all challenges that target the Palestinian cause,” Erekat said in a statement on Wednesday.
The last time Haniyeh and Abbas met in person was in Qatar in October 2016, although the two leaders occasionally speak over the phone. Palestinian officials have conducted several reconciliation negotiations since Hamas violently expelled Fatah from the Gaza Strip in 2007, all ultimately unsuccessful.
Despite grand statements about the importance of reconciliation, this summer’s round of press conferences and meetings between Hamas and Fatah has borne little fruit. Many Palestinians have learned to be skeptical of unity announcements from their leadership.
At a joint Fatah-Hamas press conference in July announcing that the two factions would work to coordinate anti-annexation activities, Rajoub brushed aside palpable skepticism among journalists in the room.
When he was asked whether Hamas and Fatah would take concrete steps towards political unity, Rajoub was clearly irritated. “I hope your bad attitude straightens itself out. Calm down,” Rajoub replied. He later emphasized: “Trust us this time, believe us.”
But the promised “on-the-ground cooperation” to thwart Israeli intentions to annex parts of the West Bank failed to materialize.
In his speech at the event, Abbas acknowledged that such statements “have been repeated again and again,” but said that the Palestinian cause had entered “a critical phase.”
Fatah and Hamas seem to be coordinating somewhat on another issue entirely — facing a renewed coronavirus outbreak in the Gaza Strip. Palestinian Authority Health Minister Mai al-Kaila will lead a delegation of health officials from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip Friday, according to the Palestinian Authority Health Ministry.