x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

The rally in Gaza was a call for Palestinian unity

The big Fatah rally in Gaza is a first step towards a new spirit of leadership unity, something the Palestinian people need desperately.

The yellow banners of Fatah, rarely seen in Gaza since the bloody 2007 collapse of the Palestinian national unity government, signalled a new hope on Friday.

Although tens of thousands attended the rally, the significance was largely symbolic: Hamas still runs Gaza, just as Fatah runs those parts of the West Bank not staked out by the Israelis. Hamas permitted the mass rally as a reciprocal gesture after two pro-Hamas demonstration were allowed in the West Bank last month.

The rallies signal a thaw in the bitter Fatah-Hamas dispute that began in June 2007, when more than 160 people were killed during Hamas's seizure of power in Gaza.

That bloodshed, and the wasted years since, began in a sense with the elections that Hamas won in 2006. But Hamas's mandate has long since expired, as has that of President Mahmoud Abbas. A new election that includes both sides is the best way forward for Palestinian unity - although that remains a distant prospect despite thawing relations.

Seven years ago this month, almost 75 per cent of those eligible to vote did so, electing a new Palestinian Legislative Council. Hamas, which had boycotted the previous elections a decade earlier, won a majority of seats - which led immediately to international donors, particularly in Washington, threatening to cut off aid. Talks in Mecca produced a unity government, but ideological tensions and personal ambitions doomed it; three months later it collapsed as Hamas took over Gaza by force.

Since then, Israel has ruthlessly exploited the disunity, changing the facts on the ground with ever-more West Bank settlements. But Israeli intransigence is a losing strategy: Palestinians increasingly understand that unity and statehood are twin tools that can mobilise world opinion against Israel, through international institutions and through projects such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

But how can Palestine's divided leadership get past the personal disputes and political logjams that have made unity so elusive? The answer, plainly, lies in putting the question to the Palestinian electorate. The West Bank municipal elections in October were a poor substitute because of Hamas's boycott, and the low turnout proved Palestinians' scepticism.

To be sure, major Hamas-Fatah differences persist, and the two have made - and ignored - numerous "peace accords" in recent years. But this sterile stalemate has lasted too long. The Palestinian divide has undermined the resistance against occupation that has grown more burdensome by the day.