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Hamas and Fatah Edge Closer

JERUSALEM, Dec 6 2012 (IPS) - After successfully upgrading their status at the United Nations, and securing what has been locally deemed a victory in eight days of fighting between Israel and the Gaza Strip, Palestinians are taking on their next difficult challenge: bridging the long-standing rift between the major Palestinian political factions.

“In Gaza, people are optimistic about reconciliation and they would like to see reconciliation achieved. Over the course of the last few days, we witnessed some new positive spirit in this regard,” said Hamdi Shaqqura, deputy director of programmes at the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) in Gaza City.

Shaqqura told IPS that Fatah party members – the political party that forms the majority of the Palestinian Authority (PA) government in the West Bank – has held rallies openly in Gaza, a sight that was almost unthinkable only a few weeks ago in the Hamas-governed territory.

“That was very important and positively in the right direction,” Shaqqura said. He added that Egypt’s role in mediating between Hamas and Fatah would be crucial in securing any truce between the rival groups.

“I hope this will provide more pressure on both parties to go ahead in terms of real and serious steps,” he said.

Following Hamas’s victory in the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections, tensions grew as the Palestinian Authority refused to acknowledge the new Hamas government amidst pressure from the international community and Israel to discount the results.

After the two sides failed to come to a power-sharing agreement, violence quickly ensued – including a bloody coup attempt in the Gaza Strip in 2007. The occupied Palestinian territories were thus divided along political lines, with the PA controlling the West Bank and Hamas governing Gaza.

Palestinian political institutions have been paralyzed as a result of the split.

“We are looking for one government, one judiciary, one legislature, and functioning institutions. There is a need for elections,” Shaqqura said. “And we need to join forces to confront the real challenge: to end the occupation, face settlement expansion in the West Bank and lift the closure on the Gaza Strip.”

Palestinian news agency Ma’an reported that 12 Fatah members returned to the Gaza Strip Monday after Hamas vowed to allow them to return safely without harassment. Approximately 450 Fatah members left Gaza when violence erupted with Hamas in 2007.

“We are strugglers. We left for blood not to be shed and today we come back to our homeland after five years,” Fatah member Mahmoud Musleh who returned to Gaza through the Rafah crossing with Egypt told Ma’an. “The happiness is mixed with pain because we left our friends in Egypt but we’re happy to go back to Gaza.”

In 2011, a group of Palestinian youth publicly called for an end to the division and held demonstrations in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Known as the ‘March 15’ movement, referring to the date of the group’s first protests, the activists were met with violence in both areas by government supporters.

While its overall impact was minimal, the movement did contribute to forcing Palestinian leaders to at least talk about Palestinian unity. Indeed, Fatah and Hamas signed a reconciliation agreement in May 2011, but discussions over how to implement the plan – and crucially who would lead it – quickly disintegrated.

Hamas representative Khaled Meshaal signed a new agreement with PA President Mahmoud Abbas to end the division in February 2012, but this too amounted to nothing.

According to Dr. Sami Awad, professor of political science at Birzeit University in the West Bank, Israel will not be happy if Palestinian reconciliation is successful this time around, since this would place pressure on the Israelis to negotiate with a united Palestinian leadership.

“The situation is going to be very difficult for Israel, so Israel is going to block reconciliation between the Palestinians. They are going to say that since Abu Mazen (PA President Abbas) is meeting with Hamas, then Abu Mazen is responsible for terrorism,” Dr. Awad told IPS.

He said that this, coupled with the fact that many Palestinians – including political leaders and individuals operating the tunnel trade in and out of the Gaza Strip – are benefiting from the division, made him pessimistic that an agreement would be reached.

“Institutions (were) created in the West Bank and Gaza so that some actors will benefit from the division and the segregation. I think that those people who benefit from the division are going to fight for it,” Dr. Awad said.

“But Hamas and Fatah right now feel that they need to bring together some real achievement. The division between the West Bank and Gaza cuts into their victories. They need to show the people of Palestine that they are serious enough and that they are able to close that book of division between the Palestinians.” (END)

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