The Palestinian Territories May be the Next Egypt
Political fault lines in the Palestinian territories are shifting – altering the landscapes both on the streets and in the halls of government.
At the state level, there has been a sudden flurry of activity by Palestinian leaders – particularly those in the Palestinian Authority – activity that appears to be inching both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority towards some form of reconciliation (likely to be limited in scope).
However, those first four words – at the state level – are the operative ones, for as Amira Hass noted in a recent Haaretz feature, Palestinians on the street are conflicted about how the rift dividing Hamas and the PA should be addressed.
While there is an element of young activists actively pushing for, and supporting, reconciliation between Hamas and the PA, it seems that many Palestinians view their leaders’ reconciliation efforts as nothing more than a distraction from the conflict with Israel. True unity, they argue, should manifest itself through a cooperative struggle against a common enemy rather than through bargaining sessions and internal reconciliation efforts.
It is a different group, though, that may end up having the greatest influence on the political landscape in the territories, a group largely uninterested in this prospective PA-Hamas unity. This group, comprised of a growing number of Palestinians and inspired by what they witnessed in Cairo, is pushing to jettison Hamas and the PA for an entirely new leadership, one that can represent all Palestinians, including those living in the West Bank, Gaza, Israel and abroad.
Which begs the question: could Palestine be the next Egypt?
Significance of the PA-Hamas Division
Currently, there is a deep and serious divide between ruling factions in each of the Palestinian territories. Given the current political structure, with Hamas controlling Gaza and the PA governing the West Bank, this divide acts like tourniquet, effectively cutting off any chance at the formation of a Palestinian state.
Why? Simple geography. For even if Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the PA were able to broker some type of two-state agreement with Israel, such an agreement wouldn’t (as things currently stand) be recognized by Hamas, which represents over 1.6 million Palestinians living in Gaza, one of the two territories designated for inclusion in a prospective state.
Support for a PA-Hamas Reconciliation on the Street?
Protest groups have sprung up in the West Bank calling for reconciliation between the PA and Hamas, some having set up Tahir-style tents in Ramallah’s central square. However, it appears that these protest groups don’t necessarily agree on how this rift should be bridged between Gaza and the West Bank.
Some in the West Bank view the current reconciliation efforts being undertaken by Abbas and Hamas as positive, necessary steps, as the best way to unify both groups. But it seems a great deal more believe that this focus on reconciliation between Hamas and the PA is a waste of energy. Instead, the two groups should unify not by talking, but by together focusing their energies on resisting Israel’s military occupation.
This latter view has real political implications, for Abbas certainly understands that there are streams of supporters in the West Bank which view his efforts to reconcile with Hamas as misdirected, as a waste of political time and capital. Hass brings the following scene as a representative example of this dynamic:
The protest tent calling for an end to the political split between Gaza and the West Bank – erected more than two weeks ago by young people who fill it night and day – has become part of the landscape at Ramallah’s al-Manara Square. But some feel the tent’s presence has become a burden. Last Wednesday evening, a group of muscular young men, which happened to appear at the square at the same time as Fatah’s Shabiba (youth activists), assaulted the protesters.
That pro-reconciliation protesters in the West Bank are being assaulted by Fatah youth (Fatah being the PA’s political wing) is something Abbas cannot ignore. He knows that, on the street, particularly amongst young activists, there is little support for reconciliation efforts with Hamas. The question is this: will Palestinians living in the West Bank, who think efforts to reconcile with Hamas are a distraction from the true struggle, influence Abbas at the precise moment he tries to do just that?
It’s difficult to see Abbas being swayed, for his quest to end the split with Hamas is principally being motivated by his desire to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state through the U.N. in September. Given this, it is unlikely he will be moved by such popular sentiments.
However, as an Arab Spring continues to bloom throughout the Middle East, he does so at his own peril.
Removing the PA and Hamas Altogether
What Abbas cannot ignore is this: there is a growing movement – inspired by the idea of Cairo – now calling for a newly-created governmental structure. This is a movement looking to get rid of the PA and start over with a true, reformed democratic institution.
Activists are currently planning to travel to every town and refugee camp in the territories to further this idea, and have already consulted with former PLO members living abroad about creating new elections. One such activist told Hass:
“The demand for new elections says to everyone, from Abu Mazen [Abbas] all the way to Ismail Haniyeh, that we’ve had enough…Leadership that does not succeed in moving us toward liberation will be asked to step down.”
Abbas is planning a trip to Egypt for discussions with senior military officials about the prospect of reconciliation between Hamas and the PA. As he does so, activists in the West Bank will be traveling from village to village, essentially asking fellow citizens, Do you want to be the next Egypt?
Reconciliation may be in the Palestinians’ future, a reconciliation that is required if they are to attain a state of their own. However, which political institutions will be left standing when such reconciliation happens, and whether Abbas will be standing among them, remains to be seen.