A Fatah-Hamas Agreement in the Shadow of Egypt

Does the rapprochement between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, drafted under the watchful eye of Egypt, have a better chance of uniting the Palestinian people than the previous attempts? This time, many factors militate in favor of a compromise, but there are still pitfalls ahead.

Cairo, 12th Oct, 2017. Saleh Al-Aruri, deputy chairman of the Hamas polit office (L) and Fatah’s lead negotiator, Azzam al-Ahmad (R) applaude after signing a reconciliation deal between Hamas and Fatah.
DPA/Alamy Live News.

All attempts to reach an understanding between Fatah and Hamas have systematically failed. Such is the observation shared by a great many specialists who no longer dare hope that a “reconciliation” between Palestinians will ever see the light of day. Initiatives launched by Egypt and Qatar—the Cairo and Doha agreements of 2011 and 2012 respectively—were never applied, since neither was widely accepted by the Palestinian rank and file.

Signed in Gaza at the home of Ismael Haniyeh, the Al-Shati agreement of May 2014 had raised greater hopes but these were soon dashed when Israel launched the military operation dubbed “Protective Edge.” Yet already under the terms of that agreement, Hamas had expressed its wish to withdraw from governmental affairs and hand over the keys to Gaza to Mahmoud Abbas.

On last 17 September Hamas restated this position when it announced the dissolution of its administrative committee, meant to be in charge of everyday business in the Gaza Strip since 20141. At present solutions are on the table for each of the litigious issues which made the previous agreements inoperative: Hamas would accept the early retirement of its civil servants, allow the Palestinian Authority (PA) to take over the main border-crossing checkpoints and finally agree to the fusion of its civilian police in Gaza with that of Ramallah2.

The agreement reached on Thursday 12 October provides a temporary solution to all these points: Hamas civil servants will receive 50% of their wages, European observers will return to the Rafah border-crossing and 3 000 security agents will return to duty in the Gaza civilian police force. These advances are only a first step on the road to a reconciliation which is still very fragile. But the fact remains that efforts have been made on both sides to reach an agreement, especially on the part of Hamas, since the Party has indeed abandoned the administration of the Gaza Strip.

How should we interpret this turnabout which looks on the face of it like unconditional surrender? Of course these concessions are not unrelated to the setbacks encountered by the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the region. However, to understand them completely, they must be contextualized within the local and organizational dynamics of Hamas itself.

An Honorable Way Out

For several months now, Egypt and Hamas have undertaken a significant rapprochement. While Ismail Haniyeh’s visit to Cairo on September 9 was widely publicized, the first impetus was given much earlier. Musa Abu Marzuq, an unsuccessful candidate for the chairmanship of Hamas against Ismail Haniyeh, was in charge of relations with Egypt and had always been careful to maintain good relations with Egyptian authorities. When Khaled Mashal, during a visit to Doha, made public a new political document which made no mention of any affiliation with the Brotherhood, this too was seen as a gesture of compromise on the part of the Palestinian movement. Ideological considerations aside, Cairo has a two-fold interest in developing this partnership. From a national security point of view, the aim is to reduce Islamic State (IS) influence in the Sinai; and on the diplomatic plane, Egypt wants to resume a key role in the reconciliation between Palestinians, following the withdrawal of Qatar and Turkey.

While competition between the different Egyptian intelligence agencies plays a part in this development and in Khaled Fawzy’s over-investment in the matter, it is clear enough that Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi sees Donald Trump’s plan for a regional peace settlement as a golden opportunity to assume the stance of a key mediator. His last speech to the UN General Assembly, a plea for peace between Israel and the Palestinians was a perfect illustration of this. Regular meetings between Egyptian security personnel and Hamas resulted in President Sisi’s delivering several thousand liters of oil to Gaza where there was a power shortage following Mahmoud Abbas’ failure to pay the fuel bills.3

In any case, Cairo’s initiative would explain not only the concessions made by Hamas, no longer capable of providing its population with basic services and which has jumped at this chance for a way out offered by the Egyptians, but would also explain the acceptance of those same concessions by Mahmoud Abbas who is worried about this rapprochement between Hamas and Cairo. All the more so, as this rapprochement was made possible by Abbas’ “intimate enemy”, Mohammad Dahlan who has been trying to gain a foothold in Palestine via his numerous networks. Thus it was also and especially with an eye to countering what he saw as a major threat, a “new axis” between Cairo, Hamas and Dahlan, that Mahmoud Abbas undertook this reconciliation with Hamas in order to recover control of Gaza before it fell into Dahlan’s hands.

The agreement reached on October 12 seems to have left Mohammad Dahlan out of the picture. And yet it was he who facilitated the restoration of relations between Cairo and Hamas. Be that as it may, his plan to use his Gazan relays to take power in Palestine is still on his agenda. In this respect, he has the steadfast support of the United Arab Emirates and of Egypt as well, where he is regarded as a “back-up plan,” a means of last resort to be reactivated in case the reconciliation process should fail.

Hamas Unified

Hamas is also undergoing major organizational changes which further help to explain these concessions. The changes have to do with the balance of power between the different poles of decision dispersed between Israeli prisons, the West Bank, Gaza and the diaspora. While traditionally the latter was best able financially to control the Al-Qassam brigades, this situation has now been rendered obsolete since Gaza has amassed considerable resources of its own. The repeated military operations against Gaza have enabled the Al-Qassam brigades to gather strength and become independent from the leaders in exile. Their special relations with Iran also help to explain this, as the brigades have always enjoyed material support from the Iranians. The latter, on the other hand, have broken with the chairman of the Politburo in exile, Khaled Mashal, following a quarrel over the war in Syria. Gaza’s newly acquired weight in Hamas’ decision-making process partly explains as well the recent rapprochement with Fatah, no longer in danger of being amended or rejected by the Gazan leaders, as were the Cairo and Doha agreements.

These organizational developments also touch on the unification of power centers in Gaza, made possible by the election of Yahia Al-Sinwar on 13 February 2017. He was a founding member of the Al-Majd intelligence unit (ancestor of the Al-Qassam brigades), is closely connected with the armed wing of the movement and has its full support in bringing to completion his policy of rapprochement with Fatah in order to end the blockade. He also has considerable political experience, having played a leadership role among Hamas inmates of Israeli prisons before his release in 2011 and his election in 2013 to the movement’s Politburo. This double hating has placed him in a position to act as a broker between power centers with often conflicting goals. We must bear in mind that Al-Qassam was once firmly opposed to any reconciliation with Fatah.

Of course Sinwar’s concessions to Fatah were subjected to criticisms within Hamas. Some of these were posted on the social networks, such as one from Bassem Naim, a former minister on the administrative committee, who denounced the decisions of a “dictator” . . . without, however, running the risk of naming him. Indeed it has become unwise to proclaim loud and long one’s disapproval of Sinwar’s policy choices since the warning he issued during a meeting: “If anyone tries to disrupt the momentum of reconciliation, I will break his neck. We are prepared to make major concessions to put an end to this conflict.” Despite opposition from certain individuals, such as Fathi Hamad who is said to have been placed under house arrest, Sinwar is thought to enjoy the backing of Hamas’ top echelons, including the chairman of the Politburo, Ismail Haniyeh, and the commander of the Al-Qassam brigades, Mohammed Deif.

An Ambitious Political-Military Project

As soon as he became head of the Gazan executive, Yahia Al-Sinwar made a point of reviewing all the different possibilities open to Hamas before concluding that there was only one possible option: bring the PA back to Gaza in order to open the borders and allow for the entry of international aid. He is reputed to be prepared for any concession in order to achieve this goal, which has become a key strategic choice for Hamas. Indeed, Sinwar has in mind a plan which he considers far more ambitious: the formation of a Palestinian national army through the fusion of all the armed factions in Gaza. “From now on we should use our limited resources for our movement, politically and militarily. The future of Hamas is more important than the rest. We are mujahedin,” he declared in a private conversation.

This project has purportedly been approved by all the cells of the Al-Qassam brigades, including those in the West Bank, commanded by Sala Al-Aruri. Independently of political divisions, the chief task of this army would be to choose between war and peace. In fact Musa Abu Marzuq recently declared in an interview published by Al-Hayat, during his visit to Moscow: “War and peace are national issues and Hamas is ready to share the responsibility for these decisions with the PA.”

The recent “reconciliation”—better understood as an ad hoc agreement rather than as evidence of solidarity — is the result of several factors, both exogenous and endogenous. The good will gestures from Cairo have made it possible for Hamas, which has been paralyzed by new sanctions imposed by Mahmoud Abbas, to relinquish power to the PA in such a way that the choice does not appear to be unconditional surrender.

It is also due to the internal evolution of Hamas. While in 2014 the Party had already voiced a desire to be absolved of administrative obligations, this withdrawal is now seen as a lesser evil rather than a deliberate strategic choice. On the Fatah side, however, there is an evident lack of political commitment. There are many in Ramallah who regard this agreement as a trap that could prove fatal to them. The meeting of the Council of Ministers held in Gaza on 2 October still failed to lift the sanctions imposed on Gaza.

1For Hamas it was a matter of “overseeing the smooth operation of all public services”, a last resort in view of the national unity government’s neglect of its responsibilities. Fatah saw it, on the contrary, as an attempt by Hamas to turn Gaza into a separate State.

2In the past, Hamas has always insisted on its civil servants remaining in their jobs and on a shared control over the checkpoints. Until now, only the Rafah crossing was still under discussion, Hamas still insisting on maintaining some of its men in place.

3Since the Israeli military operation “Protective Edge”, the Gaza Strip had already had to deal with major shortages and a lamentable humanitarian situation.