x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Palestinian reconciliation on a knife-edge

Hamas leaders outline possible follow-up measures to build up trust, but anger among followers of two factions still runs deep.

Nabil Shaath, left, a member of Fatah's Central Committee, held talks with Ismail Haniyeh and other senior Hamas leaders in Gaza last week.
Nabil Shaath, left, a member of Fatah's Central Committee, held talks with Ismail Haniyeh and other senior Hamas leaders in Gaza last week.

GAZA CITY // Said Ossama was pessimistic about prospects for reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. The 37-year-old former Palestinian Authority intelligence officer, who did not want his real name to be published, said a lot of bad blood remained in spite of recent developments suggesting that unity efforts between the two main Palestinian factions might be gathering momentum.

Last week, Nabil Shaath, a member of Fatah's ruling Central Committee, became the most senior Fatah member to visit the Gaza Strip and hold talks with Hamas officials since Hamas ousted Fatah-led PA security forces in June 2007. The visit, described yesterday as a "breakthrough" by Ahmad Yousef, a senior Hamas official in Gaza, has raised hopes for the stalled efforts to reconcile the Palestinian factions.

Neither Fatah nor Hamas officials have gone into much detail about the scope of the talks, and so far there have been no tangible results from the visit. Nevertheless, Mr Shaath's trip, sanctioned by Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Fatah, indicates that at least in some quarters within the two movements there is some serious movement toward reconciliation. In this context, the visit must be seen as a first, confidence-building step.

"The visit can change the course of Fatah-Hamas relations," said Mr Yousef yesterday. "We both have certain issues of concern, but people are now talking." Mr Yousef was unambiguous about the need for Palestinian unity. The current division, he said, had served only Israel. "It has been almost three years of impasse now. If this division continues, our national project is heading for disaster." He did not however, as reported in some quarters, say he believed unity was "imminent", and pointed to a shooting in the West Bank town of Qalqiliya on Sunday night when unidentified gunmen opened fire at the offices of Emad Nofal, a Hamas lawmaker.

"I hope there is momentum for reconciliation. But there are people who will fight against it. Whenever we are close to unity, there are those, on both sides, who will try to spoil our efforts." There are certainly many obstacles. Mr Yousef mentioned several areas of possible confidence-building measures, including the opening of Fatah's headquarters in Gaza, a release of prisoners, a combined effort to keep universities free of tension, and an effort by Fatah to pressure Israel to allow enough fuel through for Gaza's sole power plant, which as of Sunday was reduced to running only one generator as a result of a lack of fuel combined with a spike in demand as winter temperatures began to bite.

Of these, however, Mr Shaath already publicly rejected one on Sunday: the creation of co-ordination committees, which he said overstepped the Egyptian unity proposal that Fatah has already signed. Moreover, obstacles to reconciliation are not just political, especially in Gaza, where the violence in 2007 not only claimed lives but severed relationships throughout the area. Mr Ossama would be the first to admit that his own experience of the division has been far from as harrowing as it has been for some. As a former employee of the PA, he still receives a salary from the West Bank authority. He lost neither limbs, nor were any relatives harmed in the violence.

He was however "betrayed", he said, by someone he had once called a friend. And while that person remained a neighbour, relations between the two had ended completely, and he would not countenance repairing them should there be a unity agreement. "Unity will go some way toward healing," Mr Ossama said on Sunday night outside his home in the Jabaliya refugee camp. "I had many friends in Hamas before and there is no reason why I can't again. But this man betrayed my trust and our friendship. I will never even let my children play with his children."

Such personal scars will take a long time to heal, said Mr Ossama's father, Abu Said, who sits on a reconciliation committee dealing specifically with restitution for the families of victims of the violence in 2007. But Abu Said, 58, said he did not share his son's pessimism. From his own experience, he said, it was becoming clear that as time passed a "rational discussion" was becoming possible again with victims' families. A unity agreement between political leaders, he said, was a "necessary" first step to eventually repair broken relations. But a lot, he added, also depended on other factors.

"Unity comes first, but then we need economic and social development. We need to work and build our lives. Then healing will come, even for those who were most badly affected." okarmi@thenational.ae