x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Is Palestinian handshake much ado about nothing?

It seems many observers - both Palestinian and Israeli - are unimpressed with a recent accord between Fatah and Hamas in Qatar.

JERUSALEM // After Hamas and Fatah agreed to form a unity government and hold elections, you would think their rapprochement would be cause for optimism among Palestinians.

But just ask Mohammed Youssef.

He flatly dismissed Monday's accord as nothing more than a ruse between Fatah's chairman and the Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas and outgoing Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal to quell public anger over the slow pace of their reconciliation.

"Fatah and Hamas have done this thing in Qatar because they were forced to do it, and that's it," said Mr Youssef, 23, one of thousands of activists from Gaza who, emboldened by the Arab Spring uprisings, demonstrated last year in favour of ending the division.

That optimism has since dissipated, he said.

If the feuding factions were interested in unifying the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip with the Fatah-run West Bank, they would not have bickered and dithered so much after the initial announcement of their reconciliation in May.

He and others had hoped an end to more than four years of Hamas-Fatah division will help the Palestinians present a credible front against Israel.

The squabbling between Hamas and Fatah even turned some Palestinians to groups such as Lebanon's Shiite Hizbollah in anger and frustration.

At Monday's agreement, Mr Meshaal and Mr Abbas pledged to present a united front against Israel and to meet again to finalise legislative and presidential elections and the details of an interim unity government.

For many, however, the news from Doha, where the accord was signed, has only presented more questions.

One issue left unresolved was what Hamas and Fatah would do with their competing security operations, said Abdul Sattar Kassem, professor of political science at Al Najjah University in Nablus.

This was especially problematic since the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority security forces still coordinated with Israel in arresting members of the Islamist Hamas Group.

"This is the primary reason why they're still feuding, and if you don't deal with it, then you don't deal with the root of the division," he said.

Another problem is the contradictory positions the factions have on recognising Israel: Fatah hopes negotiations with Israel will create a Palestinian state living in peace beside it.

Hamas' charter calls for wiping Israel off the map.

He did not think the factions could unite without incurring a backlash from the United States and Israel.

Both consider Hamas a terrorist organisation and demand it officially recognise Israel and abandon violence.

Mr Kassem doubted Hamas would comply, which he added could invite crippling financial sanctions on Mr Abbas' Palestinian Authority.

Israel responded like this after the factions announced their reconciliation deal in May, temporarily withholding the disbursement of tens of millions of dollars of tax revenues it collects on behalf of the PA.

But it would refrain from such retaliation for now because it does consider the reconciliation agreement credible, said Dan Scheuftan, the head of Haifa University's National Security Studies Center.

"Most Israelis understand that nothing of real significance has happened," he said.

He said the government of Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, doubted Mr Abbas would ever allow Hamas control over his security forces.

"Is Hamas in Gaza committed to fighting terrorism like [Fatah] in West Bank?" he said. "Of course not."

Still, not everyone was so glum.

Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation's Executive Committee, welcomed the Doha agreement.

But she remains concerned, mainly about Mr Abbas becoming the prime minister of the interim government. He already heads Fatah, the PLO and the PA.

"I would have preferred either maintaining Salam Fayyad or finding a substitute candidate who doesn't have so many jobs," she said. Mr Fayyad is the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority.

Others, such as Shirin Abu Fanouneh, 25, of Ramallah, criticised Mr Abbas's consolidation of power as against the spirit of the Arab Spring.

She and fellow youth activists have mocked the agreement on Facebook.

"Mahmoud Abbas has eight positions or something as one person, and this smells," she said.

hnaylor@thenational.ae

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