As the Israeli military machine battered Gaza earlier this year, during weeks of the most ferocious assaults on Palestinians seen in decades, it seemed that a major and significant turning point had been reached in the struggle between Zionist expansionism and Palestinian resistance. Such was the international outrage at the murderous onslaught that it seemed to some that a sea-change must take place in the balance of power between oppressors and oppressed. Yet a few short weeks later, all seems to have settled back into a familiar routine of low-level conflict, talks about talks and political grandstanding.
All that has really changed is that the situation of people in Gaza, barely tolerable before the war as a result of years of economic siege, has become even worse as a result of Israel’s deliberate destruction of the region’s already ramshackle infrastructure. But their suffering was little noticed before the war, and is likely quickly to be forgotten again.
And yet, ironically, after months of stalemate created by the failure of the US-Israeli strategy of isolating and starving Hamas in Gaza, there is now a sense of renewed expectation of significant and genuine movement in political terms. Far from ending anything, Israel’s brutal and murderous tantrum in Gaza was in fact an expression of its recognition that its previous approach had failed and would have to be replaced by a different one; and having vented its anger and demonstrated its power, Israel is now preparing to do precisely what it had previously refused to do: accept that it has to deal with Hamas, however reluctantly.
As a result of this change in attitude from the Israelis, there has since the war been renewed energy in the two key parallel sets of negotiations, between Israel and Hamas concerning a new ceasefire, the lifting of restrictions on Gaza and other, longer-term issues, and between Hamas and Fatah concerning internal Palestinian politics. Before the war, both sets of talks had been largely stalemated, the Hamas-Israel one because Israel had decided to launch its war and had no interest in anything except creating the necessary pretext for it, and the Hamas-Fatah one because Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas was not authorised by his US and Israeli allies to reach agreement on any significant issue. Both those factors have now changed.
In terms of the dealings between Israel and Hamas, it appears that the Israelis, having had their temper tantrum, are now preparing for a more genuine ceasefire coupled with political talks. How these will develop remains to be seen, with no specific policy being formally announced until a new government is established in Tel Aviv; Likud leader and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been invited to form a coalition government, and now has until early April to do so. Meanwhile, dealings have continued under the current interim administration still led by Ehud Olmert, via the mediation of Egypt, which have involved two parallel sets of talks: regarding a ceasefire and the opening of Gaza to international aid after thewar, and on the release of prisoners held by the two sides. An attempt by Israel to link the two issues was rejected by Hamas and Egypt in mid-February.
The dealings between Hamas and Fatah on resolving differences within the Palestinian camp are less dependent on Israeli political developments, although Fatah and Abbas cannot afford to ignore signals from Tel Aviv. Fatah’s main fear is that, having failed to destroy Hamas in the three years since Hamas’s parliamentary election success in January 2006, they will now be considered irrelevant by the US and Israel. With Israel and the US now recognising that they will have to deal with Hamas, and limits its power politically rather than trying to destroy it, Fatah may find that its best hope for remaining useful to the Israelis is to demonstrate its ability to work with Hamas instead of trying to marginalise and exclude it.
This, however, depends on Hamas still being willing to deal with Fatah despite Fatah’s duplicity in recent years, and the fact that it has been largely discredited among Palestinians because of its dealings with Israel. That this cannot be taken for granted was confirmed last month, when Khalid Meshaal, head of Hamas’s politburo, gave a highly contoversial speech at an international conference on the Gaza war in Doha. In it he called for the establishment of a new umbrella organization to represent Palestinians as the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), the long-established umbrella body traditionally dominated by Fatah, no longer represents the Palestinian people and its leaders had become collaborators with the Zionists.
The speech sent shockwaves through Palestinian political circles, as it posed a direct challenge to the political framework through which Palestinian groups have coordinated their activities for decades. Few doubt that the PLO needs reforming, and that it cannot survive in its current form, but there is less consensus on what shape such reforms should take; and even some of Hamas’s closest allies, and some within Hamas, are wary of the implications of totally dismantling it. Instead, there have been calls for the implementation of the Cairo Agreement of 2005, by which the PLO was to be restructured and membership extended to include both Hamas and Islamic Jihad. At the time, this was seen as an effort by Abbas and Fatah to limit Hamas’s influence by constraining it within the PLO framework, which was abandoned as it became clear that Hamas was so powerful and popular that it could threaten Fatah’s position within the PLO.
Reaction to Meshaal’s speech was such that Abbas cancelled a proposed tour of Europe to fly to Cairo for talks with other Palestinian leaders instead. Hamas itself pulled back from the full implications of Meshaal’s statements, saying that it was not intended that any new organization should supplant the PLO. But the challenge to Fatah was clear and the tone of the debate among Palestinians had been set.
As Crescent went to press, talks between Palestinian leaders, dubbed “national reconciliation talks”, were due to open in Cairo on February 22. On the face of it, these are a continuation of talks that were due to take place last autumn but were cancelled when Hamas refused to take part unless Fatah authorities in the West Bank fulfilled the promises it had made to release Hamas political prisoners before the talks began. In hindsight, it is clear that progress on Palestinian reconciliation at that time was not convenient to Fatah and its backers as Israel was already committed to launching its war in December.
Now the situation is completely different, and the talks are likely to prove the first step of a new process, approved by the US and Israel, of drawing Hamas back into mainstream Palestinian political institutions while at the same time limiting its freedom of action within those institutions.
This strategy is likely to involve two separate strands. The first is of political negotiations involving pressure on Hamas from various Arab states, both directly, and indirectly, particular viaDamascus, host government of the Hamas leaders in exile. As well as Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the Arab League have all launched charm offensives towards both Hamas andDamascus in the aftermath of the Gaza war. The second, not unrelated, is of aid for the reconstruction of Gaza, which would be made available by the Arab states via Hamas provided they were satisfied with progress being made on the political front.
It is well established that any sort of political development in Palestinian affairs emerges only slowly and gradually; but the general shape of the new strategies that Israel and the West will pursue in the next stage of the Palestinian saga is already clear. Having failed to destroy Hamas either by their political manipulation or militarily, they will now try to render it impotent by dealing with it but limiting its freedom of action and effectiveness through political constraints and pressure from within the Palestinian movement and from Arab states such as Egypt,Saudi Arabia and Damascus. On the face of it, the new round of politicking may look little different from much of the politics already seen in recent years. But in fact, by first winning the parliamentary elections in January 2006, and then surviving the subsequent attempts to destroy it, Hamas has forced Israel and the West to accept them as leaders and representatives of the Palestinian people. In the talks to come, whatever form they may take, Hamas will be able to force Israel into making concessions to the Palestinians that Fatah could not even have demanded; which is why Israel and its allies tried so hard to destroy Hamas, preferring to deal with Fatah.
That itself is significant progress for the Palestinian people, a significant achievement for the Islamic movement in Palestine, and the answer to those who suggest that the sacrifices of the people of Gaza over the last few years, and in the recent war, were in vain.