Everyone wants democracy in the Middle East except when it comes to Palestine, divided since 2007 between Fatah (nominally in charge in the West Bank), and Hamas (designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and many other countries, in charge of Gaza). The Arab Awakening and changing political alignments brought Egypt into the act last May, when it pressed Hamas and Fatah to reconcile. For months afterward the effort stalled, in part because of intense pressure on Fatah from the United States, Israel and others not to make a deal with Hamas until it renounced its official policy of violent destruction of Israel.
While Fatah had then been the reluctant partner to reconciliation, it became clear to me in a recent trip to Gaza that the equation has changed: Fatah is eager to make a deal and Hamas is playing hard to get. Why?
Hamas is stronger now, Fatah is relatively weaker and both are ready to defy the United States and Israel. “The US told [Palestinian Authority president and Fatah leader] Abu Mazen to choose between the US and Hamas. But he now knows there is no hope that Israel will give him anything in the years to come,” said Huda Naim Naim, a member of the Hamas politburo and the Palestinian Legislative Council.
“Hamas is stronger now due to Bibi [Netanyahu], and in the wake of the Shalit deal, is more popular,” said Fatah official Husam Zomlot, referring to the Israeli prime minister’s hard line in negotiations and the recent agreement to exchange some 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. According to most of the people I spoke to, both sides, for their separate reasons, have signaled that they are ready to accept the results of elections, win or lose.
The most difficult and contentious unification issue is the integration of security forces—neither side wants to turn over its guns to the other. But Hamas has also raised new “price tags,” such as the location of a unity government, which some officials suggested should be based in Gaza and not in Ramallah, which would significantly empower Hamas.
Since the shootout between Hamas and Fatah in 2007, when Hamas seized power in Gaza after many months of clashes between the two factions following Hamas’s January 2006 victory in parliamentary elections, Fatah officials have rarely, until quite recently, come to Gaza. One recent visitor, Zomlot, was pleasantly surprised that he had been in Gaza for a week and Hamas had not stormed his offices. “They are now using soft power because they want to show good will,” hetold me, adding, “They have implanted fear for so long that the people know the consequences of opposing them—they know that if they oppose Hamas, they will be crushed.”
There’s another reason Gaza is attractive as a base: Fatah officials based in Ramallah can’t go abroad or come home without Israel’s approval (which Israel usually gives, but still). Hamas officials in Gaza, however, can now go to Egypt pretty easily whether Israel likes it or not and, from there, to any country in the world that will let them in (which remains a problem “because Hamas is on a blacklist,” said Naim, who was waiting for permission to travel to Tunisia). In light of the Arab Awakening and the probable entry of Islamists into many Arab governments, Hamasniks expect to be on fewer blacklists. “For Hamas, reconciliation will legalize its past, normalize it and give it protection. The US will speak to the [Muslim] Brotherhood [in Egypt], and once Hamas is in the Parliament, the US will speak to Hamas too,” said Omar Shaban of the Gaza-based think tank PalThink, who is attempting to form a secular democratic party in Gaza.