x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Stalled peace process widens Fatah-Hamas divide

Though experts predicted the assault by Israel would unite Gaza and the West Bank within a matter of weeks, distrust and animus continues to fester in the tattered region.

A Palestinian fireman shouts in front of a burning building following an Israeli air strike in the Gaza Strip on December 28, 2008.
A Palestinian fireman shouts in front of a burning building following an Israeli air strike in the Gaza Strip on December 28, 2008.

GAZA CITY // Just under a year ago, as Israeli tanks rumbled out of a devastated Gaza Strip accompanied by a final volley of homemade rockets, it was hard to imagine that there could be any return to the political status quo ante or that the division between the West Bank and Gaza would continue for long.

Some even suggested that a reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas would be reached in a matter of weeks. Politicians from across the Palestinian political spectrum trumpeted the need for unity and Cairo stepped in to mediate. As an added incentive, international donors convened to pledge billions of dollars for the reconstruction of Gaza, while a new president in Washington declared he wanted to engage with America's foes, potentially clearing the way for a unity government that could include Hamas and not be sanctioned by the international community.

Barack Obama also raised Palestinian expectations vis-à-vis the peace process, appointing a Middle East envoy, censuring Israel for its settlement building and wringing the words "two-state solution" from a reluctant Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister. Today, however, the division between Gaza and the West Bank has if anything grown deeper and chances for unity more remote as Hamas and Fatah eye each other with ever growing suspicion and arrests continue on both sides. The Egyptian attempt at mediation resulted in a reconciliation proposal that only Fatah signed. Hamas does not trust Cairo's desire or ability to guarantee the agreement, nor its motives in mediating it.

Reconstruction never did get underway and Gaza remains in tatters, much like the peace process, where Washington failed to translate words into pressure. Mr Netanyahu's lukewarm acceptance of a two-state solution and the Israeli government's patently dishonest settlement construction "freeze" were hailed by US diplomats as a success. This undermined Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas, head of the PLO and president of the Palestinian Authority, who had announced that without a complete cessation of settlement construction he would not return to negotiations. Mr Abbas since said he would not seek re-election as president of the PA.

It is a testament to the animosity between the two main Palestinian factions that they cannot join forces at a time when the PLO is refusing to negotiate with Israel while Hamas is actively enforcing a ceasefire in Gaza and has all but formally accepted a two-state solution, positions that should have driven the two sides into each other's arms. The fact that some in the West Bank blamed Hamas for last year's war will not be forgotten quickly in Gaza, just as the ousting of Fatah security forces from Gaza in 2007 still reverberates strongly in the West Bank.

In addition, Israel's brutal offensive only reinforced the PLO view that armed resistance is futile and negotiations the only way forward. Conversely, the failure of Mr Obama - someone Palestinians considered the most promising US president in memory - to exert any pressure on Israel has hardened Hamas's opinion that negotiating will only buy Israel time to build more settlements. Publicly, officials continue to talk about the need for unity. Privately, neither faction is counting on a deal. Gaza and the West Bank look likely to remain politically divided for the foreseeable future.

Elections, which ought to be held at the end of January but will only happen once some kind of reconciliation agreement is reached, may be the only way out of the stalemate. But this will only hold true if both sides, as well as the international community, are committed to respecting their result. @Email:okarmi@thenational.ae