The possibility of reconciliation between the two main Palestinian political parties, Hamas and Fatah, is among the most tired refrains in Middle Eastern politics. The two political groups reached a tense impasse in 2007 over how to govern the Palestinian territories, and they have since met almost annually to tackle their differences. Rarely, however, have they achieved lasting results.
On Oct. 3, they will meet once again in a Palestinian Cabinet meeting. And while history suggests that familiar barriers may continue to stymie progress, the pressure driving both parties to the table is stronger than in the past, and there are already indications that negotiations will start off strong.
A Trite Tune
Hamas and Fatah have been at loggerheads for most of the last decade, since a 2006 electoral win upset the political landscape and forced West Bank-based Fatah to make room for Hamas in the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) leadership. Over the last two years, animosity between the two groups has become so intense that Hamas formed a separate administrative body designed to block Fatah, which holds the majority in the PNA, from performing its duties in the Gaza Strip. For Hamas, cultivating dominance in the Gaza Strip is crucial, both for recruiting to its militant arms (including the Al-Qassam Brigades) and for maintaining political support among civilians.
Today, both sides face familiar roadblocks that suggest real results will be slow to arrive and difficult to maintain. Hamas and Fatah deeply mistrust each other and have both insisted on administering the Gaza Strip's border crossings for the past decade. Additionally, neither group has backed down in its fundamental disagreements with Israel: Hamas stands behind its goal to destroy Israel and reclaim Palestinian territory, while Fatah is holding fast to a two-state solution and support for (sometimes bloody) resistance to West Bank settlements. So, even if Hamas and Fatah resolve some of their disputes this week and in the weeks to come, the two are still a long way off from being able to unify in advancing the issue of Arab-Israeli peace.
Still, negotiations may look different this time around. For one thing, Hamas is now under more pressure than ever to deliver domestically and to bend to the demands of patrons abroad. Internally, the Gaza Strip's economic decline has become aggravated to the point at which Hamas officials fear losing the public's trust, as Gazans complain of unusually long electricity blackouts and difficulty attaining water and energy supplies. On a regional level, hundreds of millions of dollars for reconstruction following the devastating 2008, 2012 and 2014 conflicts come from wealthier Middle Eastern countries Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Turkey. These countries face international pressure to bring Palestinian political parties to the negotiating table, and Hamas likely feels obligated to maintain healthy relationships with its benefactors.
Meanwhile, Fatah, the main governing party for the PNA, is feeling vulnerable because of the United States' recent heavy support for Israel rather than Palestine. And within the party, there is some discord, as factions push succession plans that could come at the expense of the current ruling cadre. Facing the threat of potentially losing power, current leaders may want to make progress on the group's relationship as a way of proving that they are a capable governing body.
And preparations for the Oct. 3 meeting indicate that Hamas and Fatah could be on the cusp of cobbling together a tentative yet functional power-sharing agreement. Fatah has brought in a top-level delegation to accompany its officials from the West Bank PNA to Gaza, an uncommon step that signals these meetings are being taken seriously. It's worth noting that this week's Palestinian Cabinet meeting is the first in three years to take place in Gaza and has taken substantial organizational efforts from both parties.
Furthermore, Egyptian officials are visiting the Gaza Strip this week as a part of a fledgling security agreement to increase Egyptian supervision in exchange for concessions for Hamas leadership, such as more frequent Rafah border crossings. Egyptian backing plays an important role in the stability of the Palestinian territories and their relationship with Israel, as the United States continues to favor Israel and Qatar faces international pressure to curtail its involvement with Islamist groups like Hamas. The Egyptian presence — and subsequent international attention — in the region this week indicates that Fatah and Hamas are more deeply committed to making progress than ever before. And Turkish officials are also present in the Gaza Strip this week to discuss economic aid, a critical component of Turkey-Gaza relations.
Hamas has also recently reshuffled staff at the highest levels of leadership. And though this decision did not change the group's grounding philosophy as a resistance movement against Israel, it has ushered in a new generation of leadership that wants to ensure the group's long-term survival, even if it means organizational changes. In its role as the Gaza Strip's major political entity, Hamas has evolved from a military entity with political capabilities into a political entity with military capabilities. And while the group would like to maintain both features, the reality of the current situation may find them more willing to negotiate with Fatah than ever before.