What a couple of weeks it's been. As news of hurricanes became de rigueur, a massacre in Nevada, a Hollywood scandal and fires in California swept the headlines. "Yes, we are fine," a friend who lives outside Los Angeles texted me. "The fires are 400 miles north of us. If the fires burned this far south we would all be doomed." Then her tone got gloomy. "What is happening to the wine country is devastating. I have been grateful for the Harvey Weinstein scandal just to get my mind off the natural disasters we have been experiencing, not to mention war and health care. Otherwise, we're all fine."
But rather than the Weinstein scandal, what turned my head from the world's myriad disasters was a sliver of hope: Palestinian parties Fatah and Hamas signed a deal on Oct. 12 that may bring their people closer together. I could be utterly disillusioned by what happens next in this sociopolitical series; the past is often prologue, but what if it were to work even a little?
A People Long Divided
A countdown to the formation of a unity government between the two parties may be underway, hailing an end to years of political division among Palestinians. Splits within the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) date back to its inception in 1964. At the time, communist and socialist philosophies competed with Yasser Arafat's dominant faction, Fatah, for control of the PLO. More recently the parties have been riven along secular and religious lines. The Islamic Resistance Movement (better known by its Arabic acronym, Hamas) that emerged in 1987 during the first intifada now poses the greatest threat to Fatah's preeminence in the Palestinian Authority. In the Middle East and elsewhere, it is not unusual for religious movements to rise when secular movements seem to fail in creating the solutions people seek.
For the past decade, Hamas and Fatah have been caught in a heated conflict over administrative control of the Gaza Strip. The Oct. 12 declaration includes an agreement allowing a unity government administrative control over the Rafah border crossing point between Gaza and Egypt, albeit with some Egyptian supervision. The hope is that Cairo will reopen the crossing and allow goods through that may help to alleviate the humanitarian crisis on this isolated strip of land along the Mediterranean Sea, between Israel and the edge of Sinai. Gazans have struggled to repair homes and find food, water and medical supplies since Hamas took control of the territory in 2007 and three wars with Israel ensued. A favorite fortune cookie wisdom applies here: It is hard to negotiate on an empty stomach. This reconciliation agreement is hard-won.
What sequence of events led to last week's reunion?
In January 2005, the Fatah party won its expected majority in the Palestinian parliament. A boycott of the elections by Islamic Jihad and Hamas supporters meant that only half of Gaza's eligible voters participated in them. PLO Chairman and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas became president.
Within a year of Fatah's executive victory, however, another round of legislative elections took place. People voted, granting Hamas 56 percent of the seats in the Palestinian parliament. The Palestinian Authority experienced what the U.S. government has known off and on for decades: One party held the executive branch while the other dominated the legislature. Under those circumstances, it's hard to get anything done.
Hamas didn't win seats in parliament because of popular support for its anti-Israel rhetoric. Although we outside observers are primarily aware of Hamas' categorization as a terrorist organization that is dedicated to the elimination of the State of Israel (its founding covenant of Aug. 18, 1988, declares, "Our struggle against the Jews is very great and very serious"), Hamas was best known in Gaza for the quality of social services it provided to residents, including soup kitchens, schools for orphans and community programs for disabled Palestinians.
That's because along with its stern rejection of Israel, the covenant also declares:
"Mutual social responsibility means extending assistance, financial or moral, to all those who are in need and joining in the execution of some of the work. Members of the Islamic Resistance Movement should consider the interests of the masses as their own personal interests. They must spare no effort in achieving and preserving them." (Article 21)
"Hamas doesn't have much in the way of resources, but they have a big network of charity working in order to reduce the suffering of the Palestinian people," a Hamas spokesman told the Los Angeles Times in March 2006. "People feel the credibility of Hamas, and its ability to make change through the charity organizations that it runs."
"To ignore the significant network of services offered by Hamas would be a mistake," wrote Lara Pham for the World Policy blog in August 2014. She continues,
"Haim Malka, deputy director and senior fellow of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, found that Hamas' extensive social and welfare programs have an annual budget between $50-70 million. Built by Gaza's citizens, the same tunnels that were used to smuggle weapons to attack Israel were originally used to transport life-saving medicine, clothing, food, fuel, and other basic supplies."
The Carter Center and other international observers that had monitored the elections declared them fair, and following governance protocol, then-Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and his Fatah-based Cabinet resigned so that Hamas could form the next Cabinet. Abbas, elected a year earlier, stayed on to complete his four-year term.
But a peaceful transition of government was not to be.
Service Provider or Terrorist Group?
The United States and Israel vowed not to work with Hamas, even though it was elected to a political majority, because they defined the group as a terrorist organization. In fact, the United States actively worked against the success of the new party in power.
An in-depth Vanity Fair article by David Rose called "The Gaza Bombshell" describes a meeting between Fatah and George W. Bush's secretary of state, Condoleeza Rice, as well as the American consul general in Jerusalem, Jacob Walles. Walles left behind a memo that revealed the United States was pressuring the Palestinian Authority.
"Hamas should be given a clear choice, with a clear deadline … they either accept a new government that meets the Quartet principles, or they reject it. The consequences of Hamas' decision should also be clear: If Hamas does not agree within the prescribed time, you should make clear your intention to declare a state of emergency and form an emergency government explicitly committed to that platform."
Rose notes that "Walles and Abbas both knew what to expect from Hamas if these instructions were followed: rebellion and bloodshed."
And that's what they got: Palestinian civil war. It started with a shortage of funds to pay civil servants, then grew with an influx of arms. Israel responded to the Hamas victory by refusing to return collected taxes to the Palestinian Authority, slowly strangling the finances of the newly elected government. (The arrangement was a result of the Oslo Accords, which stipulated that the Israeli government would collect taxes on behalf of the Palestinian Authority.) The online magazine Slate reported in 2006, "According to the Protocol on Economic Relations, the PA gets back more than three-quarters of the money withheld from the paychecks of Palestinians who work across the border" in Israel.
Slate describes the process:
"On the 20th of each month, representatives of each government get together to go over recent transactions and determine the total rebate. The final number reflects the indirect taxes owed to the PA, minus anything the Palestinians owe for Israeli utilities like electricity and telephone service. Once the two sides have sorted through the bills and receipts, Israel is supposed to hand over the rebate within six days."
Payments amounted to roughly $50 million per month, accounting for about half of the Palestinian Authority's total operating expenses. Those payments ceased altogether with the Hamas victory in January 2006.
What's a government to do? It can't pay police, teachers or first responders. Discontent leads to civil unrest. But the scarcity and violence that lasted from 2006 to Oct. 12 is history.
"Since the election victory of Hamas in January 2006, the United States and Israel have worked to isolate and damage Hamas and build up Fatah with recognition and weaponry," reported The New York Times in June 2007. While people were suffering a lack of social services — the ones for which Gazans had approved Hamas — there was no lack of weaponry coming to Fatah. In a covert operation in late 2006 designed to help Fatah defeat Hamas militarily, the United States not only helped supply arms to Fatah but also offered to "pay the salaries of security personnel," according to Rose in Vanity Fair.
Putting Palestinians First
Palestinian leaders signed last week's reconciliation agreement against this backdrop. The deal is an important step for Palestinians, given the past decade's litany of tax payment cutbacks, weapons deliveries and political betrayals both external and internal.
If the agreement holds, perhaps social stability will allow for the reconstruction of the deeply damaged Gaza Strip. One day, maybe its flower markets and industry will bloom again. Infrastructure development is badly needed in the West Bank's Area A, which the Palestinian Authority administers. Rubble and trash are eternal eyesores at the checkpoints through which workers pass to travel to their jobs in Israel proper. Roadways need cleaning and repair. Fledgling olive oil and almond farm cooperatives, like Canaan Fair Trade, Zaytoun and Alard need support. Investing in cultural tourism could help stimulate the Palestinian economy and its international image. Much more can be accomplished with accord than with discord.
Political parties are not a problem until the people elected forget that their job is to protect and defend the binding principles of their nation — not to protect and prolong the existence of their parties.
Nayef Hawatmeh, who founded the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine in 1967, who has been involved in the Palestinian liberation movement for 50 years, and who is the sole remaining leader from the original PLO, welcomed the agreement. He called on both parties, Fatah and Hamas, "to shoulder their national and moral responsibilities" for the damage that division has wrought over the past decade. Political parties must "put aside partisanship for the benefit of the people," he told me in an interview. He is among many who hope this accord may "move the Palestinian situation to a new stage."