Palestinian reconciliation efforts suffered a blow when Egypt postponed for at least two weeks long-awaited talks between 13 Palestinian factions.
Meeting of Palestinian factions postponed
RAMALLAH, WEST BANK // Palestinian reconciliation efforts suffered a body blow when Egypt postponed for at least two weeks long-awaited talks that were to have been held on Monday in Cairo between 13 Palestinian factions. Egyptian mediators took the decision on Sunday after Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement that controls the Gaza Strip, had threatened to boycott the talks citing the failure of the Palestinian Authority headed by Mahmoud Abbas, the president and head of Fatah, to release Hamas detainees in the West Bank. Yet there are also deep differences between the rival Palestinian factions that render the success of any reconciliation talks doubtful in spite of the seeming shared interest both have in unity. PLO and Fatah officials angrily rejected Hamas's position on prisoners and denied there had been any political detentions in the West Bank, arguing the Islamist movement was simply obstructing efforts to secure national unity because of regional (read Iranian) interests in exploiting Palestinian divisions. "Hamas's boycott is a result of regional forces that want to take advantage of the domestic Palestinian division as a bargaining card with the new US administration," Yasser Abed Rabbo, the secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, told reporters on Sunday. "I defy any person who claims that a detainee was arrested [in the West Bank] for political reasons or because of his affiliation with Hamas." Hamas says 400 of its members have been arrested in the West Bank in the past two months. The United Nations noted 30 such arrests in Hebron in October alone, similar to numbers recorded by the independent Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, which condemned "all politically motivated arrests". The arrests in Hebron followed a clampdown on Hamas-affiliated charities throughout the West Bank in September by the PA. But in Gaza, Hamas has also rounded up and fought Fatah members and closed down affiliated institutions, notably in September when 12 people were killed as Hamas security forces clashed with the Fatah-affiliated Dugmoush clan, and in August, when a teachers' strike saw Hamas security forces raid the offices of the Fatah-led Teachers' Union in Gaza. The strike continues. The release of 17 Fatah prisoners on Oct 30, however, caused Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas leader and former prime minister, to announce that the issue of what he openly admitted were political prisoners had been closed in Gaza. No similar gesture was forthcoming from the PA. "The main issue [regarding the postponement of talks] is the aggressive steps taken in the West Bank against our people and ordinary people," said Mahmoud Zahar, the Hamas foreign minister and one of the more hardline leaders of the movement in Gaza. "We said from the beginning that [reconciliation] will not work unless an end to these steps is called and prisoners are released." Yet while important, the issue of political prisoners masks a deeper divergence in the parties' understanding of how Palestinians can progress and what should be the next step, a divergence the talks in Cairo were meant to address. Mr Abbas and the PLO are wedded to the negotiations track. He reiterated that at the Sharm el Sheikh summit on Sunday in the presence of Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, Tzipi Livni, the Israeli foreign minister, and Tony Blair, the Middle East Quartet envoy. Hamas says direct negotiations with Israel have run their course and there is nothing to be gained from pursuing them further. Instead, the movement proposes a long-term ceasefire with Israel or resistance until Israel withdraws to the 1967 borders and serious reform of Palestinian institutions, both the Palestinian Authority's security agencies and the PLO to be made independently of any co-ordination with or pressure from Israel and the United States. Both parties claim public legitimacy for their positions. Mr Abbas is the elected president of the PA and heads the PLO, the body that since 1974 has been internationally recognised as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Hamas, meanwhile, holds a parliamentary majority in the PA that it secured in the 2006 elections. The current divisions largely date to the 2006 elections and their aftermath. Hamas claims Fatah was never willing to accept the result of that election, an outcome that left Hamas free to form its own government. The international boycott of that government and increasing inter-factional violence eventually forced an uneasy Saudi-brokered unity government upon both parties, which ultimately broke upon the rocks of the international community's unwillingness to end sanctions and finally ruptured in more violence when Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007. From then on Hamas and Fatah went their own ways in Gaza and the West Bank respectively, accusing each other of betraying Palestinian goals in favour of US or Iranian interests. Amid the accusations, officials from both factions publicly asserted national unity was a priority, but little if anything was achieved. The international isolation of Gaza, however, forced a reluctant Egypt to take on a more active role. Cairo does not want a repeat of scenes in January, when Hamas bulldozed the border wall between Gaza and Egypt and tens of thousands of Palestinians streamed across to stock up on much needed basic necessities denied to them by the Israeli closures. Egypt is also wary of Israeli attempts to make Gaza an Egyptian problem, just like Jordan in the West Bank. The Cairo reconciliation talks were thus meant to bring the two estranged Palestinian factions together by addressing five of the main issues that divide them - the creation of a new unity government, reform of the security services, a date for both presidential and parliamentary elections, reform of the PLO and the direction of the political programme of both the PLO and the PA. But most observers believe that the differences are simply too large to be reconciled. "On all the five major issues the parties are far apart," said Walid Salem, a political analyst. "All are problematic and I don't see agreement as possible." Ghassan Khatib, another political analyst, said he blamed Hamas for the postponement of the talks but it was not clear what the Islamist movement stood to gain from reconciliation in the first place. "I don't think Hamas is very interested in the dialogue. Reconciliation is about Fatah having a say in Gaza and Hamas in the West Bank. But Hamas believes that as long as the West Bank is under occupation, Israel will not allow Hamas to really have a serious role there, so there isn't much incentive." Mr Khatib said Egypt had succeeded in bridging the positions on some of the issues, like security control in Gaza, which would remain in the hands of Hamas at least until new elections. But crucially, Cairo cannot guarantee a new unity government would not face the same international sanctions. "The international community is not playing an encouraging role," he said. In this context, Mr Haniyeh's statement on Saturday that Hamas would be willing to accept a state based on the 1967 borders seemed to be an attempt to persuade the international community that it can drop its boycott of the movement. That statement, however, was qualified one day later by Mr Zahar, something Mr Khatib said suggested disagreements within the group. Cairo has announced it will try to reconvene the talks this month, but if mediation efforts fail it will likely lead to a hardening of divisions between Fatah and Hamas. Mr Zahar said without agreement, "according to the constitution, [Mr Abbas] will lose his official position in January 2009", a reference to the date Mr Abbas's presidency expires. What effect it will have should Hamas withdraw its recognition of Mr Abbas as president is not clear, but it is an eventuality that Fatah would be keen to avoid. Mr Zahar added, however, that Hamas was prepared to continue talks. "We have to strengthen ourselves. We can't fight in two parts. Our enemy is Israel." firstname.lastname@example.org