New Status, New Friendships

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gestures as he arrives to address the crowds in the West Bank city of Ramallah as Palestinians celebrate his successful bid to win UN statehood recognition.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gestures as he arrives to address the crowds in the West Bank city of Ramallah as Palestinians celebrate his successful bid to win UN statehood recognition.

As rain pours down over the 360-square kilometer Gaza Strip, the memory of last month’s Israeli military assault still fresh in the minds of many in Gaza, a ray of hope may yet break through the clouds. Only a week after the 21 November ceasefire was brokered, the Palestinian territories were making headlines for very different reasons. On 29 November, Palestine was granted “non-member observer state” status at the UN General Assembly (UNGA). The new status is proving to have positive consequences for Palestinian unity.

For the Palestinian territory of the Gaza Strip, this upgrade in status, from observer entity to observer state, means several things. Now that Palestine has a chair at the UN—the same kind as the Vatican—Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the movement governing Gaza and a Gazan militant group respectively, might become friendlier with the West Bank-based Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The PLO, a multi-party confederation headed by Mahmoud Abbas (who made the UN statehood bid), is currently the only organization representing Palestine internationally.

To achieve this, Hamas and Islamic Jihad may join forces in their attempt to win PLO approval. We may also witness a softening in their stance towards Israel. Hamas might want to tone down its speech so as to be able to take part in the PLO and to make itself heard on an international level, which would certainly help them shake off the stigma of being branded a terrorist organization by its neighbor Israel, the US, and the EU, amongst others.

The forecast for Palestinian unity is looking far more positive than it did this time last year. In contrast to this year’s successful UN bid, Palestine failed to obtain membership at the UN last year—and when Palestine was granted full membership in the UN’s cultural body, UNESCO, the United States decided to withdraw its funding. This year’s status is the closest Palestine can get to the “birth certificate” Abbas has been demanding.

The victory at the UNGA is first and foremost a victory for President Abbas and his party, Fatah, which is the largest party in the PLO. The successful bid improves Abbas’s somewhat-stained legitimacy—and Hamas’s members are hoping that some of this legitimacy rubs off on them. Ateef Abu Saif, one of Fatah’s leaders in the Gaza Strip, thinks that “Hamas needs legitimacy, especially with the Arab Spring, they understand they can’t go on like that forever—and they can get it only through the PLO.” For this reason, and because of the solidarity Fatah displayed during the Israeli offensive on Gaza, the longtime rivals are calling for reconciliation—perhaps more seriously than before. Reconciliation is a win-win situation for both sides: Hamas needs the PLO and Abbas needs Gaza. “Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah is also looking for legitimacy, and [for that] they have to be present in Gaza,” added Ateef Abu Saif.

The two movements have renewed promises of reconciliation between their parties, and between Gaza and the West Bank more generally. This amounts to a considerable step forward, considering it was only five years ago that Hamas kicked Fatah out of the Gaza Strip. In June 2007—eighteen months after it won the 2006 elections—Hamas had Fatah forces jailed or ousted in a week-long street battle. In the intervening years, Fatah has equally not shown much love for Hamas.

Yet, at the end of last month, local members of Fatah in Gaza attended a ceremony organized by Hamas to commemorate the victims of the recent crisis. At the ceremony, the Gazan Prime Minister Ismael Haniyeh said, “We have to trust each other and set our doubts aside, and reconcile our strategies of resistance.”

[inset_left]Khaled Meshaal, Hamas’s leader-in-exile, recently stated that “Hamas can’t live without Fatah and other factions; neither can Fatah live without Hamas.”[/inset_left]

According to Taher Al-Nunu, a Hamas spokesman, the Israeli attack on Gaza last month marked a turning point in relations between Fatah and Hamas: “Fatah has changed with this last attack. In the previous war, they were against us, hoping we’d lose; this time, they were with us.” Hanan Al-Qassas, the Gaza-based chief of Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades (its militant wing), said that there was a measure of goodwill between the two parties after their military forces fought side by side during the last assault.

Both the Gaza and West Bank governments pledged to set free any political prisoners who do not have blood on their hands. In Gaza, Hamas is thinking about releasing eighty prisoners. The Interior Ministry in Gaza has also allowed the safe return of Fatah delegates abroad to the Strip.

For the first time, the Fatah-dominated government in the West Bank authorized the assembly of mass rallies to celebrate Hamas’s twenty-fifth anniversary on 8 December. Fatah representatives in Gaza also have the go-ahead for their own anniversary event next month, for the first time since the 2007 ousting.

It is not all smiles and sunshine: when it comes to building a common government together, things get more complicated. Hamas prefers a unity government first, whereas Fatah is holding out for elections—not to mention the previous attempts at national unity that culminated in failure, such as the recent effort brokered by Egypt in April and May 2011. It has yet to be seen whether the recent Gaza crisis and the UN bid can secure a lasting reconciliation.

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