GAZA CITY // Hamas's announcement this week that it is on the verge of signing a reconciliation deal with Fatah may be a reaction to rising sentiment on Gaza's streets - and even among its own ranks - that it is time for the Islamist movement to reconcile with its secular rivals in the West Bank.
The group's political chief, Khaled Meshaal, based in Damascus, said this week in Saudi Arabia that his movement is in the final stages of reconciliation with Fatah, after three years of division split the Palestinian territories into two enclaves run by the respective movements. "We have made a lot of progress in the negotiations conducted in Cairo since the beginning of last year," Mr Meshaal told reporters after meeting Prince Saud al Faisal, Saudi Arabia's top diplomat, according to the Reuters news agency. "And we are close to an agreement."
Mr Meshaal also assured Saudi Arabia that the movement is loyal to Arab states, a reference to Iran, a strong regional backer of Hamas. "Meshaal insisted that Hamas was an Arab movement and that the Palestinian question was an Arab issue," Prince Saud said yesterday. Because of sealed borders with Israel and Egypt as part of an economic blockade, Gaza's 1.5 million people are sinking deeper into poverty, particularly after an Israeli military assault that brought widespread destruction to the territory last winter. And Gazans are growing impatient.
"The situation we're living in, it isn't normal," said Nidal, a Hamas policemen from the Jabaliya refugee camp that was targeted heavily in the war. "The division [between Hamas and Fatah] affects us every day." A long-time rivalry between Hamas and Fatah climaxed with a series of bloody street battles on the streets of Gaza in 2007. Hamas, which had won an upset victory against Fatah in the Palestinian legislative elections of 2006, routed Fatah forces aligned with the Palestinian Authority (PA) to seize control of the territory.
Since then, with Hamas in control of the Gaza Strip and Fatah of the West Bank, Egyptian-mediated efforts at reconciliation have failed to produce an agreement to bring the factions together in a Palestinian unity government. Negotiation deadlines imposed on the parties by Egyptian mediation officials came and went, and Palestinian elections previously set for this month were postponed indefinitely.
But the recent draft of an Egyptian-sponsored document that, if signed, would pave the way for elections in 2010 and ultimately lead to the formation of a unity government this year, has breathed life back into the possibility of reconciliation between the bitter Palestinian rivals. Fatah, led by the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who announced he would not run for re-election, signed the document in October. Although Hamas has so far refused to sign the document, saying it has reservations, Mr Meshaal's comments may signal a Hamas willingness to overcome their demands.
According to Hamas sources here, the document focuses on several key issues, including future presidential and legislative elections, the creation of a non-partisan Gaza reconstruction committee, and a joint Hamas-Fatah security force. "It's our obligation here, in Gaza, and in Ramallah, to unify our people," said Ahmed Yusuf, a political adviser to Hamas's prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh. "Any agreement that would create a transitional government and prepare us for the next elections is absolutely necessary."
Recent polls indicate Gazans may now place the blame of their economic despair on Palestinian infighting, rather than on Israel and Egypt's tightening of their borders. According to the polls, the majority of Gaza's inhabitants, 80 per cent of which depend on international food aid, are worse off now than before Israel's offensive on Gaza a year ago - and resolving the Hamas-Fatah divide is the best way to solve their crisis, they told the Palestinian Centre for Survey and Policy Research (PCSR) released last June.
In a poll taken by the research firm Angus in November, 40 per cent of Palestinians said Hamas was mostly responsible for the absence of a national reconciliation pact, while only 22 per cent blamed Fatah. Despite the rhetoric of unity from both sides, however, including Mr Meshaal's recent announcement that his movement is ready to reconcile, analysts say it is not as easy as signing a document in Cairo.
"With all these negotiations, we have not attained anything," said Mukhaimar Abusaada, a Gaza-based political analyst at Al-Azhar University. "It's because of this culture of hate in Palestinian politics: Hamas calling Fatah collaborators, and Fatah accusing Hamas of working for Iran. It's a disaster." Ahmed Abu Taha, a waiter at a coffee shop on the Rafah border, said he regretted voting for Hamas, whose control over the Rafah crossing with Egypt, which has turned the once booming passenger traffic into just a trickle, has ruined his business.
"I didn't really know what I was choosing," he said. "Shouldn't they care about us, the business owners and the people, rather than trying to stay in power because of a few disagreements over negotiations?" @Email: email@example.com * With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse