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Far from unity, the Palestinian deal has led to implosion

The Hamas-Fatah unity deal has evaporated and both sides are now in some danger of splintering.

The much-anticipated unity pact agreed last month by rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas is in tatters already - a failure all too familiar from previous reconciliation efforts by the movements.

Last week, the Palestinian Central Elections Committee admitted that there was no hope of holding national elections - one of the goals of the rapprochement - by the intended date of May 4, or in the foreseeable future. Hamas is reported to have blocked efforts to prepare for the vote in Gaza.

Things looked very different last month when Khaled Meshaal, leader of Hamas, and Mahmoud Abbas, head of both Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, shook hands in Qatar in an attempt to patch up the movements' differences since a power struggle split them territorially in 2007.

But the reconciliation quickly began unravelling. During follow-up meetings in Cairo, Hamas reversed its agreement to a Palestinian government of technocrats and insisted on control of key ministries.

The officials behind the U-turn were from Gaza - and for good reason. They want the interior ministry, responsible for Palestinian security services, to ensure Hamas's grip on Gaza is not loosened.

Hamas's receptivity to merging its security operations with Fatah's - another main aim of the unity deal - will have been reduced even further after a weekend of clashes in which Israeli strikes on Gaza left at least 20 Palestinians dead and dozens wounded.

The Palestinian goal of reconciliation now looks likely to remain out of reach for some time, and with it any hope of improving the international climate for a Palestinian statehood bid.

The solution agreed upon in Doha had appeared to make a major breakthrough: it removed the prime minister, Salam Fayyad, an Abbas appointee loathed by Hamas. In Mr Fayyad's place, Mr Abbas was to have steered the power-sharing government through the transition period before the movements refreshed their long-exhausted electoral mandates.

But far from paving the way to reconciliation, the deal appears to have accelerated a process of splintering within each movement. It has revealed the intractability of several pressing issues, particularly the need to merge the two sides' security forces and to bring Hamas into the Fatah-dominated PLO, the official body representing the Palestinian people.

In truth, the Qatar-brokered reconciliation is less one between Fatah and Hamas than between Mr Abbas and Mr Meshaal, both cornered into signing by regional developments that have weakened them personally.

The problem is especially acute for Mr Meshaal, whose authority appears now to extend little further than the wing of Hamas in exile. In recent weeks, he and his advisers have scattered from Syria, as the regime brutally cracks down on protests there, leaving him desperately looking for a new patron. Late last month, Hamas publicly severed its ties with Damascus.

Mr Meshaal has a pressing incentive to end his movement's international isolation and find new sources of funding other than Iran.

In a sign of Mr Meshaal's troubles, he announced in January that he was stepping down as Hamas leader, possibly as soon as next month. His reasoning is unclear: he could be bluffing; it may be his entry ticket back to Jordan, which bans Hamas political activity; or he could be seeking to reinvent himself as a Palestinian unity leader. Whatever his motives, the move is likely to precipitate a Hamas leadership crisis.

Meanwhile, the power balance in Hamas appears to be tipping in favour of its Gaza leaders. Most are in no hurry for elections, which may reveal their declining popularity after years of oppressive rule in the enclave, or to submit to an Abbas government that may be less temporary than claimed. Many are also uncomfortable with Mr Meshaal's statements abandoning violence.

They prefer to bide their time as the regional tide turns their way, especially in Egypt, where fellow Islamists now have a taste of power.

The other side of the Palestinian equation - Fatah - is also susceptible to schisms. Mr Abbas's chief difficulty arises from his inability to win a single significant concession from Israel. He cannot have forgotten that his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, briefly lost the initiative in 2000 to Fatah's Tanzim militias, which launched the armed second intifada following his failure to return from the Camp David peace talks with a deal on Palestinian statehood.

Like Mr Meshaal, Mr Abbas has lost his principal sponsor in the Arab world - the ousted Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. Mr Abbas must now battle with Hamas for influence in Cairo and elsewhere in the region.

The effects on Fatah's cohesion are not yet clear. But signs of trouble are evident in the explosion into public view last year of a long-simmering feud with Mohammed Dahlan, the former Fatah strongman in Gaza. Mr Dahlan is seen as representing a younger guard keen to grab power. Sensing the danger, Mr Abbas expelled Mr Dahlan from Fatah last summer and forced him into exile in Dubai.

The factionalism in both movements is likely to continue hampering reconciliation efforts for the time being. But ultimately it may herald an even worse fate for the Palestinians.

A political analyst in the West Bank warned recently of the danger of what he termed Palestine's "Afghanistanisation". He feared that incessant feuding, spurred on by Israel, could lead to the total degeneration of Palestinian politics. In the end, he argued, Palestinian leaders might become little more than local warlords, fighting to preserve their tiny fiefdoms.

 

Jonathan Cook is a journalist based in Nazareth

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