On Monday, Palestinian parties Fatah and Hamas — the latter of which many governments classify as a terrorist group — announced that they had successfully formed a new “government of national unity,” a significant step toward ending the divisions between the two most prominent Palestinian factions. Since a short but brutal civil war in 2007, Fatah has ruled the West Bank while Hamas has controlled Gaza.
As I wrote when the unity deal was first announced, it’s important to recognize the extent to which internal Palestinian political dynamics have driven this move. Facing broad popular discontent with their division, the creation of a unity government offers a political advantages for both factions. Reconciliation is hugely popular amongst Palestinians. In March 2011, tens of thousands turned out in both Gaza and the West Bank to call for an end to the division. An April 2013 poll by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center found that over 90 percent favored reconciliation between the two factions.
Amid what its leaders proclaimed an “Islamic Awakening” in the region, Hamas had until recently taken a bullish view of its prospects, assuming they would benefit from what they saw coming wave of Islamist-dominated governments. Its fortunes have turned sharply over the last year, most significantly in July 2013, when the Egyptian coup removed the supportive Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government of Mohammed Morsi, (Hamas was founded as the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood, and initially tolerated by the Israeli government as an alternative to Fatah). Egypt’s new military government has closed down the majority of the smuggling tunnels along the Egypt-Gaza border, severely diminishing the blockaded strip’s access to the outside world and removing a key source of revenue for Hamas, which levies taxes on the tunnel trade
With the negotiations with Israel (which he entered against the wishes of the majority of his own party) ended for the moment, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas clearly saw reconciliation as something to boost his flagging popularity and at a time when he is in a relatively stronger position vis a vis Hamas.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called upon the international community not to accept the new government, since it is supported by Hamas, who both Israel and the United States classify as a terrorist group. The new Palestinian government “doesn’t bolster peace, it bolsters terror,” Netanyahu said in comments on Israel Radio.
The U.S. had initially taken a cautious wait-and-see approach to the reconciliation. On Monday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that, as the new government does not include Hamas members, but rather is made up of unaffiliated technocrats, and therefore does not run afoul of U.S. law, the U.S. intends to work with it. “Based on what we know now we intend to work with this government but will be watching closely to ensure that it upholds principles that President Abbas reiterated today,” Psaki told a briefing. “But we will continue to evaluate the composition and policies of the new government and calibrate our approach accordingly.”
The U.S. and its partners in the Middle East Peace Quartet (the United Nations, EU, and Russia) have held that, in order to join a Palestinian government, Hamas must meet three conditions, known as the “Quartet principles”: Recognize Israel, accept past agreements signed by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and renounce terrorism.
It’s worth noting here that, in recognizing the new Palestinian government, the U.S has joined its Quartet partners, all of whom have welcomed the reconciliation. “The EU has consistently called for intra-Palestinian reconciliation behind” President Abbas, EU spokesman Michael Mann said in May. Mann said the agreement was “an important element for the unity of a future Palestinian state and for reaching a two-state solution.”
While past efforts at reconciliation have fallen apart quickly, this current effort appears, for the moment, to have legs. A key outstanding question has to do with the future of Hamas’ armed wing, the Qassam Brigades. A Hamas source said last month that they would not disband their militia, but instead envisioned a “Hezbollah model” in Palestine, which sounds encouraging to no one. A monopoly over the use of force is regarded as the defining feature of a state, and the record on governments whose parties maintained their own armed forces is not a good one.
One of the most important goals of the new unity government: to prepare for Palestinian national elections, which have not been held since 2006. Given that Palestinian division has often been cited as a reason why no peace agreement can be signed, ending that division and bolstering the Palestinian Authority’s legitimacy through elections could also create new opportunities. “Stability in the Palestinian political system can work in Israel’s favor,” wrote Israeli analyst Ido Zelkovitz in May. “If reconciliation is actually reached, any political process led by Abbas with Israel would also bind Hamas.”