x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Release of prisoners paves way for Palestinian unity negotiations

Yet again a breakthrough emerges in efforts to bring the estranged Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, back to unity negotiations.

RAMALLAH // Yet again a breakthrough in efforts to bring the estranged Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, back to unity negotiations appears to have been made. On Saturday, in what the Palestinian Authority said was meant as a goodwill gesture for Ramadan, 12 Hamas prisoners were released from jail in the northern West Bank town of Qalqiliya. This follows a decision by the president, Mahmoud Abbas, to release 200 prisoners during the holy month and a similar decision by Hamas authorities in Gaza to release 50 Fatah detainees.

The Palestinian Authority is based in the West Bank. With the issue of prisoners held in the two Palestinian areas a crucial obstacle to the resumption of unity negotiations, the move may pave the way for renewed talks between the factions. Such talks, mediated by Egypt, have been long frozen as mutual recriminations and tit-for-tat measures, including the arrest of members of both factions in the two Palestinian areas, instead ratcheted up.

The question now is whether, if talks are renewed, the atmosphere is more conducive to some kind of unity agreement. The lack of unity is widely seen as a major obstacle towards progress on the wider Palestinian-Israeli front and consistently polls as the main priority for the Palestinian public. In addition, leaders and officials from both Hamas and Fatah have regularly expressed their belief that unity is crucial to the Palestinian cause even if they have equally regularly blamed the other for the lack of progress.

But while the issue of prisoner releases is important, this was never the main stumbling block in actual negotiations, where the issues of negotiations with Israel, government legitimacy, elections and control over security forces are much more divisive. The factions' positions on these issues remain far apart, but there are some signs of softening. On Saturday, Mohammad Dahlan, a newly elected member of Fatah's ruling Central Committee, a much-reviled figure in Hamas circles and the head of the PA security forces when they were ousted from Gaza, said unity was crucial to Palestinians and Hamas and Fatah formed the basis of the Palestinian "political order".

With Mr Dahlan one of three former security chiefs, the others being Tawfiq Tirawi and Jibril Rjoub, likely to head the Gaza file for the new-look Fatah leadership, his comments may be seen as a sign that Fatah is now willing to seriously re-engage with Hamas. Mr Dahlan was expected to take a hard line on Gaza, but these comments would seem to put him more in the camp of Mr Rjoub, who has long advocated reconciliation with Hamas.

The recently held Fatah general conference may prompt Fatah to energetically pursue negotiations with Hamas in a bid to ensure that presidential and parliamentary elections will take place in early 2010. There is certainly a sense in Fatah, bolstered by recent opinion polls, that the movement is in a favourable position to win such elections. That might, of course, be a reason for Hamas to resist calls to back elections in 2010. However, the Islamist movement also needs to change the current dynamic, most importantly by ensuring that the much-needed reconstruction of the Gaza Strip, devastated after Israel's offensive there this year, can begin. That will only happen if the international community pressures Israel to open crossings and begins making good on promises to provide significant assistance to Gaza, more likely with a unity agreement.

Moreover, if Fatah feels sufficiently confident that it can win new elections, it may be willing to grant Hamas other concessions in unity negotiations that the Islamist movement cannot refuse, including composition of any unity government. That might mean Fatah could withdraw its demand that Hamas abide by international conditions and recognise Israel, renounce the armed resistance and agree to previously signed agreements with Israel.

Both factions can argue that a de facto ceasefire with Israel is in force around Gaza, that Israel itself is not abiding by previous agreements and that recognition must be mutual. Any such move would seek to take advantage of an administration in Washington that seems to understand that Palestinian unity is a necessary precursor to serious progress on the Palestinian-Israeli front. It would be premature, however, to expect reconciliation efforts to bear fruit soon. Egypt yesterday announced that it was postponing further efforts at convening reconciliation talks until after Ramadan. Between now and then the success of confidence-building measures such as prisoner releases will be crucial. Promises to release detainees have been made and broken before.