The Israeli raid of the Mavi Marmara on Memorial Day immediately directed international attention to the humanitarian crisis of the Gaza blockade. The incident incensed its close ally, Turkey, and indirectly legitimized and empowered Hamas, the very organization Israel aims to cripple. Indeed, Israel’s actions have strained relationships with its friends and neighbors, but it may have also thwarted progress toward Palestinian reconciliation, and ultimately, a two-state solution.
As round after round of talks between Hamas and Fatah continue to fail, Palestinians are more divided than ever. In June, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas urged Hamas leaders to agree to an Egyptian-brokered reconciliation and to construct a dual-effort transitional government. Even Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa visited the Gaza strip for the first time to push the agreement forward. According to Al Ahram, the Egyptian state-managed newspaper, Moussa stressed that Palestinian unity and the admittance of Fatah into Gaza are critical to the diplomatic process that could further ease the blockade. Fatah signed on to work together, yet Hamas refused to budge.
Why? The reason may lie in more than its historical confrontation with Fatah. As Turkey hardens its tone with Israel and opens its stance toward Hamas, it strengthens its political influence among Arab nations. Now that this powerful ally of Israel is having a greater impact on regional politics, Hamas is being presented with a unique opportunity to leverage international outrage at the blockade to achieve political legitimacy with its neighbors – including the PA.
A regionally-backed Hamas will be able to press Fatah to bend to its demands more than it has in the past. Egypt, the stalwart U.S. ally currently building an underground wall with American dollars designed to halt tunnel traffic under the border, shifting its stance toward Hamas. After Turkey’s fervent outcry against Israel’s blockade, it quickly responded in favor of Gazans by opening the Rafah crossing, and finally sent Moussa to speak with leaders Hamas leaders for the first time. Certainly, Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak is leery of the Islamist party’s connections with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which pose the greatest threat to his triple-decade rein. Nonetheless, if Turkey legitimizes Hamas on the global stage, Egypt and other Arab nations will face tremendous domestic pressure to do the same.
Yet for all of Hamas’ mulishness and even its new-found recognition, it is not responsible for Fatah’s continuing political decline in its own backyard. In addition to completely ceding Gaza to Hamas in 2007, Western-backed Fatah continues to lose ground in the West Bank. Municipal elections scheduled for July in the traditionally Fatah-dominant West Bank have been suspiciously postponed. Since Hamas declared its boycott because of Gaza’s omission from the process, some suspect the threat posed by independent candidates to Fatah’s performance is the cause.
True, voters have gradually turned away from the party of Yasser Arafat, but they are not immediately claiming loyalty to Hamas. The people of Gaza elected Hamas to power in 2006 because it served as the only alternative to the widely-perceived corrupt Fatah party, not particularly because they supported their tactics and mission. If voters increasingly rebuff Fatah, even though they may not directly support of Hamas, Palestinian unity could emerge under new leadership. Even if this were possible, however, a range of obstacles remain. Namely, as Carnegie Endowment Fellow Nathan Brown recently noted, “most Palestinian political institutions are in deep trouble and the most important ones are in a state of advanced decay.” A unity government cannot function democratically if the system designed to operate it is in complete disrepair.
The peace process toward a two-state solution—despite the wishes of U.S., Israel, and European nations—must include both Gaza and the West Bank. And in an ironic twist, Israel’s militant effort to retain an iron grip on Gaza backfired and Hamas has been given a stronger political voice. Unless Fatah is willing to listen and compromise with its foe, attempts by Washington to encourage talks will prove futile. Hamas may utilize its newfound position to stall Egyptian- mediated agreements until it achieves its goals and Fatah’s internal squabbles could leave the party impotent and in no position to bargain. A reconciliation agreement, though critical to achieving an independent Palestinian state, appears distant.
The photo in this article is being used under Creative Commons licensing. The original source can be found here.