In Palestine on April 23, a step was made towards peace as Hamas and Fatah, the two political groups that govern the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, respectively, signed an agreement in Gaza City paving the way towards a unified government. While described by Mustafa Barghouti, General Secretary of the Palestinian Nation Initiative, as an “end to the division between the Palestinian people,” it has angered Israel, who views Hamas as a terrorist organization.
The accord paved the way for elections and a unified government later in the year and is a step towards resolving the conflict between Hamas and Fatah, which dates back to elections in 2007 when Hamas won a majority, but the two groups failed to build a coalition government. This falling out led to the Hamas control of the Gaza Strip, and the period of conflict between the two groups that was finally ended with the signing of the accord. It is unclear from the accord if there will be any Hamas members of the unity government, which would result in the loss of funding from the United States and European Union because of Hamas’ designation as a terrorist group.
The resolution to their conflict and signing of the accord, was prompted by pressure placed upon both Hamas and Fatah. Hamas, with the loss of Muslim Brotherhood support from Eygpt, has been increasingly cut off from international support and is suffering from the shutting down of the numerous smuggling tunnels by the Egyptians. Fatah is suffering from the failure of the peace talks to produce solid results or any substantial progress that they promised the Palestinian public.
Israel, in outrage over the resolution, canceled a planned session of peace talks. Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, immediately responded to the accord by warning that the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas “has to choose. Does he want peace with Hamas or peace with Israel? You can have one but not the other. I hope he chooses peace. So far he hasn’t done so.” Speaking to the United Nations, the Israeli delegation further expressed its suspicion of the accord as they argued that “all those in the international community that are here today to commend and support this unity agreement are, in fact, lending legitimacy to terror attacks against Israel. Hamas makes no secret of its intentions. Its Charter calls for the destruction of Israel. Article Seven says (and I quote), ‘The Day of Judgment will not come until Muslims fight the Jews and kill them.’” Israel’s concern arises not only out of this, but also from the history of terror attacks executed by Hamas over the course of Israel’s history. While the Palestinian Liberation Organization/Palestinian authority (PLO/PA) has recognized Israel and looks for a two-state solution, Hamas has refused to do the same but appears open to a long-term truce. The PLO/PA has cooperated with Israel to some extent on security issues in the past, such as arresting Hamas activists.
Israel also carried out an airstrike against a target in the Northern Gaza strip after its suspension of peace talks, which injured 12, including children, and which Al Qirda claimed was a drone strike. There was further suspicion that because of the timing, it was partially an act of retribution against the accord. The Israeli military said it was a routine counter-terror operation but gave no other details.
Israel has also been accused of abusing this accord to back out of a peace process not beneficial to them. While Israel has shown a willingness for negotiation in the past, time spent away from the peace talks has furthered opportunities to continue expanding and building settlements, to solidify their position at the negotiating table and to appeas those citizens opposed to peace talks.
Israel’s condemnation of the accord has for the most part not been shared by the international community, which has largely welcomed the united Palestine the accord builds towards. Robert Serry, UN special coordinator on the Middle East Peace Process echoed this sentiment in his speech to the security council: “We urge all parties to refrain from measures that could turn a delicate situation into a full-blown crisis. We will be following developments closely in the period ahead and continue to believe that if unity is implemented on the terms described by President Abbas, it is not contradictory with continued peaceful negotiations, as the President himself has reiterated. As such it would be viewed as an opportunity, not a threat.”
Later, however, Serry also warned: “This can no longer be business as usual. Unrealistic and prescriptive timelines may be counterproductive, as can rushing the parties back to the table without having the necessary framework in place. I believe we must use the current moment of reflection for a discussion on a substantive basis for an early resumption of talks, building on the U.S. effort of the past nine months and relying on continued U.S. engagement.”
While this is a step towards peace in the Middle East, it is yet to be seen if this is a step for Hamas towards moderation or for Fatah towards fanaticism. Despite Israel’s condemnation, a united Palestine is a welcome step in the right direction for peace talks and brings the Gaza Strip’s one and a half million citizens into the process as well.