The preliminary deal struck in Mecca this week for a Palestinian unity government was greeted with a good deal of fanfare and a lot of questions. First and foremost among those questions was whether the deal would be “acceptable” to Israel and the United States and be adequate to lift the economic blockade those two countries have imposed on the Palestinians since Hamas’ election last year.
As was the case with the Prisoners’ Agreement last year, the question misses the point.
The primary goal of the unity agreement was just that–to create Palestinian political unity and to end the horrible fighting that has marred the Gaza Strip (and to a much lesser degree, the West Bank) in recent weeks.
That’s not to suggest that the US-Israel reaction was not a significant factor, but it wasn’t the primary one.
Under this agreement, Hamas and Fatah will each have 12 representatives in the 25-person Palestinian cabinet. The 25th will be a bone of contention and could derail the agreement.
That 25th position is the Minister of Interior, who has a great deal of control (along with President Mahmoud Abbas) over the security forces. The post is supposed to be appointed by Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas Prime Minster, but is supposed to be an independent person from neither party, who will also meet with Abbas’ approval.
Contrary to some initial reports, there is also no agreement on the disposition of Hamas’ militia forces. It was at first thought they would begin a process of being absorbed into the overall Palestinian security apparatus, but this has not yet been agreed to.
These are important sticking points, and could well derail the entire agreement if they are not settled. But balancing that is the fact that both Haniyeh and Abbas are increasingly being blamed for the continuing internal Palestinian violence, and it will serve neither of them well if that fighting resumes.
Abbas in particular has realized that the fighting needs to stop. His American support has further tarnished his image and has created a perception in the Occupied Territories that he is doing the US’ work for it in trying to further de-stabilize the Hamas government. This is why he is now accepting the unity government he rejected a year ago.
Still, even if the unity government is formed, that doesn’t guarantee that it will be able to stop the violence in Gaza completely. People living in Gaza are destitute, frustrated and largely hopeless at the moment. The same security forces that would, whatever the arrangement, be charged with imposing order have, to varying degrees, been involved in the fighting. Many lives have been lost in recent weeks, and that is going to leave many family members angry and some will want revenge, a formula all too familiar in Gaza.
Additionally, while mainstream media has understandably focused almost exclusively on the Hamas-Fatah clashes, some of the violence has to do with other political, local or family rivalries. All of this means that stopping the violence is not so easy as just signing a piece of paper and rearranging governmental bureaucracy.
I’ll deal with the question of the international reaction to the Mecca Agreement in Part 2 of this piece. I’ll conclude here by saying that even if the unity government is successfully cobbled together, this will not mean the end of the Fatah-Hamas rivalry. While Fatah has been forced to compromise here, it is sure to continue to seek ways to restore its former position as leader of the Palestinian national movement. In this, it will be supported by the US and Israel, both overtly and covertly. While Hamas will share power, it remains in control of the Legislative Council and an equal partner in the Cabinet. The US, Israel and others will continue to work to see that Hamas cannot function in that role.
The unity agreement is a positive step for the Palestinians. But it is not a panacea.