In Ankara on July 26 Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, hosted Palestinian Authority (PA) president, Mahmoud Abbas, and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in a “behind closed doors” meeting. Although nominally secret, details of the discussion seem to have been leaked to local media. Reports emerged that Hamas and the Fatah-dominated PA – at daggers drawn for decades – had agreed to hold talks aimed at reconciliation.
“Reconciliation”, often used in this context, is a misnomer. It implies that at one time two parties were unified, that they then split from each other but are now being brought back together. In the case of Hamas and Fatah, nothing could be further from the truth. From its earliest days Hamas saw itself as a rival to Fatah.
In the Islamist world – fierce, bloody and fratricidal – many of the extremist groups are in bitter conflict with one another, sometimes along the traditional Sunni-Shia divide. The Hamas-Fatah conflict is little concerned with religious doctrine, and not at all with basic political objectives. Both organizations are Sunni Muslim; both are pledged to restore to Islamic rule the whole of Mandate Palestine, including the area currently occupied by the state of Israel. Their fundamental disagreement is over the strategy for achieving their common purpose, and their struggle is a struggle for power within the Palestinian body politic.
Hamas is a child of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had gained a strong foothold in the Gaza Strip following the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948. The Hamas organization came into being in 1987, soon after the start of the first intifada masterminded by the Fatah leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Yasser Arafat.
Calling itself the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas aimed to create an Islamic alternative to Arafat’s secular nationalist movement. Its first communiqué, issued on December 14, 1987, spelled out the difference. It asserted that Palestine is a Waqf land held in trust for all Muslims till Judgment Day, and that no part of it can be ceded to Israel or any non-Muslim entity. It called for the liberation of Palestine through “holy jihad”.
Opposed to Israel’s very existence, Hamas had no time for peace talks in any form. It utterly rejected the first Oslo Accord agreement of 1993, appalled by the PLO’s recognition of the state of Israel. It regarded Arafat as a traitor to the Palestinian cause.
On 5 September 1993, shortly after the Oslo terms were announced, Hamas issued its Leaflet 102 condemning both the agreement and the PLO leadership:
“We will therefore insist on wrecking this agreement, and continue the resistance struggle and our jihad against the occupation power… The leadership of Arafat carries the responsibility for destroying Palestinian society and for sowing the seeds of discord and division among Palestinians.”
Hamas was unimpressed by the PA’s “play it long” policy of pressing for recognition of a sovereign Palestine within the pre-Six Day War boundaries, as the first stage in a strategy ultimately designed to gain control of the whole of Mandate Palestine. This strategy was, in fact, spelled out by Arafat in a secret meeting with top Arab diplomats in Stockholm’s Grand Hotel on January 30, 1996: “We Palestinians will take over everything, including all of Jerusalem,” he said, adding that the PLO plans “to eliminate the State of Israel and establish a purely Palestinian State.”
To win over world opinion to the Palestinian cause Arafat’s successor, Abbas, has given lip-service to the two state solution, but it is anathema to Hamas because it would consolidate Israel’s position on what they regard as Palestinian soil. Equally they have rejected all the efforts by Abbas to gain international recognition for a state of Palestine. In fact rejectionism is Hamas’s uncompromising stance. It will have no truck with any “step by step” strategy. Armed struggle is its policy. Any temporary truce must yield positive results.
This fundamental difference about the most effective route to reach their common objective lies at the heart of the perpetual Hamas-Fatah conflict. but there are others. Both are engaged in a battle for the hearts and minds of the Palestinian population, and Hamas makes no secret of its aspiration to replace Fatah as the governing body of the West Bank. Sometimes it chooses to acknowledge Abbas as Palestinian leader; sometimes it has refused to recognize him as PA president at all, on the grounds that his presidential mandate, granted in 2005, was for a four-year term which has long expired.
Hamas has, moreover, consistently attempted to undermine his PA administration by forming militant cells in the West Bank aimed at launching attacks on Israel. In this connection it vehemently opposes the security coordination between the PA and Israel in the West Bank – Israel’s guarantee of continued PA control – which Abbas once described as “sacred”.
To say there is a feeling of déjà vu about the announcement emanating from Ankara on July 26 is to say no more than the obvious. Wikipedia, in its on-line website “Fatah-Hamas reconciliation process”, lists no less than 15 separate efforts since 2005 to bring the two major Palestinian political groupings together.
Wikipedia chooses 2005 as its starting date because it was Israel’s pull-out from Gaza in August 2005 that initiated the process leading to Hamas’s takeover of the Gaza Strip and its truly decisive break with Fatah.
The Palestinian elections of 2006 rewarded Hamas with the largest share of seats. Abbas, representing the PLO – acknowledged to be “the sole representative of the Palestinian people” – attempted to form a unity government including Hamas. But when he asserted that his new government would be fully aligned with the requirements set out by the Quartet, Hamas pulled out. The Quartet, set up in 2002, comprised the UN, the EU, the US and Russia, and was mandated to help mediate Middle East peace negotiations. Their conditions required, among other things, recognition of Israel and a commitment to nonviolence, neither of which accorded with Hamas’s beliefs or intentions. Hamas chose instead to seize power in the Gaza Strip by initiating an armed coup, which saw Fatah officials and fighters ejected amid gunfire, with many killed.
History shows that the chasm between the two organizations goes back to the very founding of Hamas, and that not one of the innumerable attempts to bring them together has succeeded. PA-Hamas unity would become a reality on the day that the self-styled “State of Palestine” forfeits its standing in the UN by turning jihadist, or that Hamas decides to support the two state solution and recognize that Israel has a legitimate place in the Middle East.