Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Palestinians close ranks, but not very much

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Few sights could have been more pleasing to the Palestinian people, craving an end to the bitter division between their two squabbling movements, the Islamists of Hamas in Gaza and the Fatah nationalists in the West Bank, than the celebrations at the end of Israel's eight-day offensive on Gaza last month.

A multicoloured sea of flags from every faction, including a raucous contingent of Fatah loyalists rarely seen on Gaza's streets since Hamas ousted Fatah forces in 2007, filled the courtyard of Gaza's legislative council to celebrate the ceasefire. From the front steps of the building that Hamas has dominated since its takeover five years ago, Nabil Shaath, Fatah's envoy, praised "the resistance" for its victory over "the enemy."

"The war has turned Hamas into a legitimate partner for Fatah," he said.

A few days later, President Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader who presides over the Palestine Authority in the West Bank, returned to his headquarters at Ramallah, proudly armed with Palestine's upgraded status at the United Nations in New York. He then invited all factions, including Hamas, to discuss the way ahead.

Proposals that were floated included asking the UN secretary-general to invite Israel and Palestine to initiate state-to-state negotiations and applying to join more UN bodies, such as the International Criminal Court and the International Monetary Fund, which previously has declined to make loans to the PA because it was not a state.

Both Hamas and Fatah recently have bolstered their support for intra-Palestinian reconciliation with tentative gestures, cutting back on their habit of arresting each other's members and proposing amnesties for the detainees held by each faction. On Dec. 3 the Gazan government allowed 12 of the 450 Fatah officials who had fled when Hamas took over the enclave to return. It also has set up a committee to ponder whether to free 56 Fatah members it is holding, most of whom have been kept in solitary confinement since Hamas took Gaza.

Although the Gaza war helped the Palestinians to close ranks, divisions have yet to be resolved. Shaath left Gaza with no clearer notion of who might head a national-unity government, who might take part in it or what its policies might be.

Behind the scenes, the old power struggle is likely to ensue. Only two weeks before the Gaza fracas, Abbas dismissed Hamas' rockets as "follies." During the war he evaded demands that he visit Gaza, which he still claims under his jurisdiction as head of the PA. He also called for the Palestinian people to choose its leaders in long-postponed elections before forging ahead with a unity government.

Hamas officials responded in kind. They cold-shouldered Abbas' foreign minister, Riad al-Malki, when he joined an Arab League delegation that entered Gaza during the war, noting that Abbas' choice of delegate suggested that he was treating Gaza as a foreign country. When Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu of Turkey shed tears at the hospital bed of an injured child, a Hamas spokesman pointed at Malki and said, "This is your doing," a reference to Hamas' charge that Fatah people from Gaza cooperated with the Israelis planning the attack.

Moreover, Hamas is itself divided on the question of reconciliation with Fatah. Hamas officials in exile tend to favor it, and praised Abbas' bid for an upgrade of Palestine's status at the UN. Hamas ministers in Gaza, afraid that they may lose their jobs in a unity government, pooh-poohed Abbas' success at the UN, lest it restore his centrality to Palestine's fate.

While Abbas in his UN speech reiterated his call for peaceful resistance, Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister in Gaza, praised the Palestinian fighters as they returned in their fatigues, balaclavas and camouflage helmets from where they had dug in, expecting an Israeli ground offensive.

"Udrub! Udrub! (Strike! Strike!)," cried the brother of Ahmed Jabari, the Hamas military commander assassinated by Israel at the start of the offensive.

"Tel Aviv! Tel Aviv!," the crowds cried in response.

Indeed, Hamas may now try to build on its claimed success against Israel by once again competing for influence in Fatah's West Bank fief. Haniyeh reached over the head of Abbas, calling political leaders in the West Bank to thank them for organizing solidarity protests during the war. He also said that Abbas' American-backed program of security coordination with Israel should be dropped.

"The Dayton project has begun to collapse," says Wesam Afifa, editor of the Hamas newspaper al-Risala, referring to the American Gen. Keith Dayton, who oversaw it.

President Muhammad Morsi of Egypt has said that he is ready to normalize trade with Gaza -- once Hamas and Fatah are reconciled. The regional climate may favour Hamas' entry into the fold. As it moves into the diplomatic orbit of America's regional allies, Qatar and Egypt, and perhaps starts to negotiate with Israel, initially through intermediaries, Western powers, including America, may set aside their reservations about a Hamas-Fatah coalition, particularly if the more amenable Khaled Meshal, Hamas' leader in exile, decides not to step down.

Still, Hamas leaders in Gaza will expect to retain their positions and to reduce Fatah to a junior partner. Both in Cairo and during the Gaza celebrations, they treated Shaath as little more than a cheerleader and Fatah's armed wing in Gaza, the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, as a faction under their command.

As Omar Shaban, who runs a Gaza-based think-tank called Palthink, says, "The war has transformed Hamas into the leader of the Palestinian political project."

Despite his UN success, Abbas still will struggle to restore his and Fatah's ascendancy among his own people.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 10, 2012 A11

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