High-level talks involving Israel, Hamas, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Egypt are in full swing. Sponsored by Egypt, the aim is to secure an effective truce between Hamas and Israel, putting a formal end to the Gaza conflict.
It is seven years since the last serious attempt to reach an accord on the perennial Israel-Palestinian issue – the peace talks sponsored by US President Barack Obama, which fizzled out in April 2014. Oddly enough they failed because PA President Mahmoud Abbas thought he had secured a deal with Hamas – an “historic reconciliation” he called it – together with an agreement to form a unified Palestinian government. As Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said at the time, Abbas could “have peace with Israel or a pact with Hamas – he can’t have both.”
Of course no joint Fatah-Hamas government ever emerged. Numerous attempts over the years to effect a reconciliation have failed, just like the current effort to hold legislative and presidential elections. The divide at the heart of the Palestinian body politic seems irreconcilable.
About 5 million Palestinians live in the Holy Land. Of these some 3 million occupy the West Bank, most of whom are under the civil administration of the PA. About 2 million in the Gaza Strip fell under the control of Hamas back in 2007, when it seized the territory, killed or expelled all Fatah officials, and set up its own administration.
That occupation is not recognized as legitimate by much of the civilized world, and certainly not by the EU, the US or the UK. The PA, which was formed in 1993 as part of the Oslo Accords, was established to administer agreed Palestinian-occupied areas in the West Bank and also Gaza. This was meant to be an interim step in the journey towards a final settlement of the Israel-Palestinian dispute – a journey that stalled early on and, despite many false starts, remains gridlocked.
Following persistent and effective lobbying by the PA, recognition has been granted by the UN General Assembly, other UN organs, and much of world opinion, to a State of Palestine on the West Bank and East Jerusalem, without any precise specification of what its borders are or, crucially, whether it includes Hamas-occupied Gaza. The same entities consistently advocate the two-state solution as the desirable outcome of the Israel-Palestinian dispute.
This strategy is anathema to Hamas and its leaders. Seeking a sovereign Palestine confined to the territories occupied by Israel in the 1967 war, is to acknowledge that the State of Israel exists legitimately outside those territories. The same logic applies to the two-state solution. If Fatah’s own charter, schoolbooks and propaganda are to be believed, two states are not the long-term intention of the PA, merely a holding position (“Long live Palestine, free and Arab” proclaims the charter). All the same, Hamas will have none of it. They did not support Abbas’s efforts to gain recognition for a State of Palestine, nor do they accept the concept of a two-state solution. Their whole raison d’être is to eliminate Israel and to occupy the former Mandate Palestine “from the river to the sea”.
It seems clear that before any resolution of the Israel-Palestinian dispute is possible, the gulf that divides the Palestinian body politic must be bridged, at least in part. The Biden administration has made its position clear. It does not recognize Hamas, nor its occupation of Gaza. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has just completed a tour of the Middle East. Briefing reporters before he left the States, a State Department official said that the administration sought to structure the delivery of aid to Gaza in a way that “begins a process of hopefully reintroducing and reintegrating the Palestinian Authority into Gaza.”
Hamas leaders were in no doubt that this approach was intended to by-pass them and weaken their grip, and they have no intention of allowing the Fatah-dominated PA a way back in. Yahya Sinwar, head of Hamas’s political wing, accused the US of seeking to widen the divide between Hamas and the PA. This is not Abbas’s view. He is reported to have told Egypt’s security chief, Abbas Kamel, on May 30 that any reconstruction plan for Gaza must be carried out in coordination with the PA.
An extended truce between Hamas and Israel is perhaps achievable, but to reach a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, Hamas will need to be out-maneuvered and politically neutered. The basis for any accord would almost certainly be the Three Principles set out in 2006 by the Middle East Quartet (the UN, the EU, the US and Russia) – principles endorsed by the UN Security Council in its Resolution 1850 and which Hamas would be unable to sign up to.
They are that a Palestinian state must
- recognize the state of Israel without prejudging what various grievances or claims are appropriate,
- abide by previous diplomatic agreements, and
- renounce violence as a means of achieving goals.
Hamas has its own game to play. It does not seek peace or reconciliation. It seeks to establish itself as the popular alternative to the PA as the champion of the Palestinian people. It has no desire for a two-state solution – or, indeed, any solution – to the long-running dispute. It seeks victory and the destruction of the state of Israel. If Hamas cannot be defeated in conflict, because of the unacceptable level of consequent civilian deaths and casualties, then it must be weakened, diminished and undermined by political and diplomatic means until the PA can reasonably claim to be negotiating on behalf of the Palestinian people as a whole.
An Egyptian-brokered truce between Israel and Hamas is the immediate goal, but a longer-term strategy aimed at spiking Hamas’s guns permanently and resolving the Israel-Palestinian issue needs to be devised and set in motion as a matter of urgency. It should be high on the new Israeli government’s agenda.