From Le Monde Diplomatique, 3 May 2011. Translation mine.
Egypt Behind The Hamas-Fatah Agreement
On Wednesday 4 May, representatives of thirteen Palestinian factions in Cairo will meet to sign the agreement they've reached. This ceremony follows an understanding that was reached a few days ago between Hamas and Fatah, under the aegis of Egypt.
The text provides for the formation of a government of technocrats or independents, the holding of presidential and legislative elections within a year, the reform of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and a solution to the division of the security forces. As provided by the Oslo Accords, the PLO and it alone is empowered to hold peace talks with the Israeli government (read "Palestinian factions sign reconciliation deal," Al-Jazeera, May 3.)
This text will undoubtedly further the Palestinian Authority's campaign for recognition by the UN General Assembly of an independent Palestinian state in the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. For this reason, it elicited an immediate rejection by the Israelis - who have already begun to take retaliatory measures, including stopping the payment of taxes they collect on behalf of the Palestinian Authority - and has received a very cold reception from the U.S. administration. It is still unclear how it will be implemented, but the text reflects the profound changes affecting the region.
The agreement between Fatah and Hamas took by surprise everyone who has been watching the two sides negotiate for years without success. The reasons for this agreement are numerous, some relating to the Palestinian situation, others to regional developments, particularly changes in Egypt.
The motivation for Fatah and Hamas
Since the revolutions in the Arab world, both sides have faced the rise of a real, if limited, protest movement. Here, the goal was not "the fall of the regime" but "the fall (i.e. the end) of the division." Both responded with a mixture of pressure and repression, but also by making the popular demands their own.
More broadly, the two organizations are at a strategic impasse. The peace process is dead, and the entire Fatah/PA policy of negotiations has been met with solid rejection by the Israeli government. Likewise Hamas, which speaks of resistance, but in practice seeks to maintain a cease-fire with Israel and even to impose it on other Palestinian factions.
The frustration of Mahmoud Abbas is well illustrated by the Newsweek article (Dan Ephron, 24 April) "The Wrath of Abbas." Most notably, he recounts his conversation with Barack Obama, who asked him to withdraw from discussion in the UN Security Council the draft resolution condemning Israeli settlement. He denounced the pressure and even threats of U.S. President. Remember that this resolution was defeated by one vote (with veto power), the United States, against the votes of all fourteen other member states. It's also apparent that the Palestinian president had to take account of developments in Egypt - to which I'll return below.
Hamas is also struggling on the ground. In addition to the strategic stalemate, it faces Salafist groups, some linked to al-Qaida, which accuse Hamas of failing to resist and of not bringing about sufficient Islamization of society. On the other hand, the continued Israeli blockade and the daily difficulties of the population have partly undermined its strength in Gaza.
But other reasons, also related to the Arab Revolt, have pushed Hamas towards compromise. The demonstrations in Syria and their violent repression by the regime weaken one of their main allies, an ally which has hosted the external leadership of Hamas since its expulsion from Jordan. The fact that Sheikh Youssef Al-Qardhawi, one of the most popular preachers in Sunni Islam, who is seen as linked to the Muslim Brotherhood (from which Hamas is an offshoot), has strongly condemned Assad only lead the organization to distance itself, although it has denied any intention to settle elsewhere. (On the situation in Syria, read the article in Le Monde Diplomatique's May edition by Patrick Seale, "Fatal blindness of the al-Assad in Syria") . On the other hand, events in Bahrain and the violent anti-Shiite propaganda issuing from the Gulf countries, have exacerbated tensions between Shiites and Sunnis in the region. Hamas is not only part of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, but also receives some of its funding from wealthy Gulf businessmen, who do not have look at all favorably upon its alliance with Iran. Under these conditions, a reconciliation with Fatah and especially with Egypt is a necessity for Hamas.
Changes in Egypt
The agreement between Hamas and Fatah reflects above all the new Egyptian foreign policy. Cairo - without breaking with the U.S., and without jeopardizing the peace treaty with Israel - is extricating itself from the policy of submission to American and Israeli interests. Mubarak opposed unity between Fatah and Hamas, mainly because he feared the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in his country. He saw Gaza as a security issue, and participated in its blockade. Now that the Muslim Brothers are preparing to participate in the September elections in Egypt, and perhaps even in government, such fears are no longer appropriate. Especially since the democratic climate in Egypt allows for stronger expressions of popular solidarity with the Palestinians and massive rejection of the blockade, which the government has to take into account.
The Egyptian foreign minister has insisted that the Rafah crossing point be opened, calling the Israeli blockade "shameful" (read "Egypt to throw open Rafah border crossing with Gaza", Ahram online, 29 April). Almost more important is the statement by Egyptian Chief of Staff Sami Anan, who warned Israel against any attempt to interfere in Cairo's decision (Egypt warns Israel: Don't interfere with opening of Gaza border crossing, Haaretz, 30 April). Another Israeli source reported him saying: "The Israeli government must show restraint when it discusses peace talks. It must refrain from intervening in internal matters of Palestine". ("Egypt to open Rafah crossing", Y-Net, 29 April).
This turnaround is reflected in Egypt's relations with Iran, where there is talk of restoring diplomatic relations between the two countries. Tehran, like Damascus, has welcomed the inter-Palestinian agreement. "There's a new feeling in Egypt, that Egypt should be respected as a regional power," said an Egyptian specialist in international relations, quoted by David Kirkpatrick, "In Shift, Egypt Warms to Iran and Hamas, Israel's Foes", New York Times, April 28, 2011.