By: Cameron Becker
On April 27th 2011, following a bitter 4-year split, the rival Palestinian factions of Fatah and Hamas signed a reconciliation agreement that sets out parameters for diplomatic participation and an eventual Palestinian election that will include both Hamas and Fatah on the ballot. In 2006, following the unilateral disengagement of the Israeli military presence from the Gaza Strip, Western-backed Palestinian elections were held in the West Bank and Gaza. The elections saw Fatah retain control of the West Bank while Hamas made considerable gains in the Gaza Strip. Deadly clashes between Fatah security forces and Hamas militants ensued and, as a result, Hamas successfully expelled Fatah from the Gaza Strip. In the years that followed, the Palestinian cause became increasingly polarized as Hamas and Fatah consolidated their control over Gaza and the West Bank respectively. While Fatah has upheld a moderate pro-western stance, Hamas has supported Islamic extremism and militant resistance to Israel. As Israel and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority began direct peace negotiations in 2010, rocket fire from the Gaza Strip drew a massive response by the Israeli military which killed an estimated 1,400 Palestinians. But with reconciliation between the two parties, upcoming Palestinian elections could create a new reality in Palestinian political life.
Following a breakdown in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations – due in part to Israel’s refusal to re-impose a 9 month freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank – the Palestinian Authority has announced that it intends to unilaterally declare independence at the United Nations General Assembly in September in an attempt to gain international recognition of statehood. Reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah is widely understood to be a necessary precondition for future Palestinian statehood. Israel has, however, responded to this unification with apprehension, reiterating that it will not negotiate with any Palestinian government that includes Hamas.
Unification and Settlements: Is Unilateralism the New Name of the Game?
The reconciliation of Fatah and Hamas comes on the heels of significant changes within the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. As the peace process has been put on hold, both Israel and the Palestinians have undertaken unilateral means of attaining divergent goals. Many fear that including Hamas in the political process will deal a major blow to peaceful Israeli-Palestinian relations. While reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah may strengthen the Palestinian Authority’s bid for independent statehood, their ability to engage in bi-lateral talks with Israel could become significantly more difficult. The day following the signing of a unity deal between Fatah and Hamas, Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak emphasized that Israel would not negotiate with any Palestinian government which includes Hamas, citing Hamas’ consistent use of violence against both civilian and military targets. In response to this reconciliation, Israeli also blocked the transfer of $103 million Euros of tax revenue to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. This move has been met with widespread international criticism.
How this reconciliation agreement affects Israeli-Palestinian relations will ultimately depend on how Hamas reacts to its inclusion in the political process. If Hamas gains more support in the West Bank and refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist, it could weaken Fatah and encourage further violence against the state of Israel. If on the other hand, Hamas loses support through the upcoming elections or drops its militant resistance to Israel, then peaceful negations would be more likely to advance. If Hamas accepts a moderate disposition, Israel would come under pressure to cease building settlements in the West Bank and end their blockade of the Gaza Strip.
However, even if unification between Hamas and Fatah has a detrimental effect on Israeli-Palestinian relations, this does not necessarily mean an end to the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process. While Israel states it will not negotiate with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas, it must be understood that Hamas is a reality that will not disappear if ignored.
If Hamas successfully joins the Palestinian government, the peace process will only survive if Israel and Hamas reconsider their refusal to negotiate with one another and recognize each other as enduring entities. What this entails is a rejection of violence by Hamas and Israel alike. While many in both Hamas and Israel feel this will never be a possibility, the same was said by members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Israeli government in the years following the Oslo Accord.
Moving Forward in a New Regional Reality
With uprisings spreading across the Middle East and North Africa, regional factors are beginning to play a larger role in the future of the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process. On the 22 of February, only days after the fall of the Mubarak regime, Egyptian authorities allowed the passage of two Iranian warships through the Suez Canal. On the 28 of April, Egypt’s Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces announced that Egypt would be opening the Rafah crossing, connecting the beleaguered Gaza Strip to Egypt, ending a blockade that has lasted nearly four years. Both of these decisions by the interim Egyptian government have made the Israeli government rather uneasy. The Mubarak regime had been a steadfast ally of Israel, supporting the Gaza Strip blockade and silencing Islamist groups in Egypt. With the removal of the Mubarak regime, the dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process have changed.
Prior to the Arab Spring in early 2011, the impasse between the Israelis and the Palestinians represented a less serious threat to Israeli security. As recently as six months ago Israel enjoyed relative calm along its borders with the exception of periodic attacks emanating from Gaza. Regional uprisings have, however, changed this reality. On May 15, Palestinian Refugees living in Syria managed to cross the border between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights during protests marking the Palestinian Nakba (or Day of Catastrophe). This event compounded fears that unrest in the Arab could jeopardize Israeli security. With regime change in Egypt and civil unrest in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, it could be argued that reengaging in peaceful dialogue with the Palestinians is integral to Israeli security as such measures would preempt domestic unrest in the Palestinian territories.
With unrest threatening some of Israeli’s strongest supporters and creating an increasingly dynamic regional situation, denying democracy and self-determination to the Palestinians is not conducive to security. For Israel to maintain its own security and for the peace process to have any hope of survival, Israel must support peaceful democratic change and consolidated governance in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In so doing, Israeli would encourage positive relations with its regional neighbours and breathe new life into the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process.
Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Atlantic Council of Canada.