Shaky Palestinian unity at risk?
Beirut - The resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians was not the only item on the agenda of French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius in Ramallah and Jerusalem.
True, Fabius wanted to know, behind closed doors, whether the Israeli leadership would accept international sponsorship for peace talks, should such negotiations resume.
The Palestinians were not surprised by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s rejection of the French proposals, for the Israeli prime minister has been a vocal critic of the relatively new Palestinian strategy of resorting to the international community to diplomatically fight the 48-year-old Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the ongoing blockade on Gaza.
“Clearly, [Netanyahu] prefers a tête-à-tête with us that can drag on forever and that will allow him to impose his diktat without being reminded of the international law and resolutions, such as the illegality of the Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian land,” a Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) official said.
But Fabius did not leave the region totally empty-handed. Following his Ramallah meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, he declared that the next Palestinian cabinet would not include parties that do not recognise Israel or refuse to renounce violence, in a reference to Hamas.
The satisfaction displayed by Fabius might sound awkward at a time when there are reports of indirect contacts between Israel and Hamas aimed at strengthening the current truce and softening the blockade on Gaza. According to senior Palestinian officials, such talks are being mediated by Qatar. A special Qatari envoy named Mohammed al-Emadi is shuttling between Gaza and Israel with the stated aim of helping with the reconstruction of battered neighbourhoods in the Gaza Strip. Some $500 million have been pledged by Qatar in 2013 following two previous wars on Gaza.
The contacts between Hamas and Israel aim apparently at strengthening the ceasefire in Gaza. The Israeli blockade would be eased and Israel would recognise de facto the Islamist movement rule in Gaza, laments privately a senior Palestinian official in Ramallah who spoke on condition of not being further identified.
This, of course, would weaken the Ramallah leadership, though consolidating the Gaza truce is good news for the strip, as donors were reluctant to fund the reconstruction of neighbourhoods that might be destroyed by Israel in future fighting.
In any case, Palestinian officials in Ramallah suspect the Israelis are negotiating with Hamas an extension of the truce to the West Bank. Hamas would have to stop all armed actions there as well. This might also give a say to Hamas in the West Bank.
The news of such Israeli-Hamas contacts, which weaken Abbas’s authority, have irked the latter to the point that he willingly accepted a request by Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah to reshuffle the existing so-called national unity cabinet with the aim of having national elections within six months.
The latest resignation move by the outgoing Palestinian prime minister — yet not officially confirmed — was aimed at getting rid of a few ministers he did not get along with, starting with his finance minister. Abbas, who wants to terminate the relationship with Hamas, apparently accepted the resignation, but any reshuffle might come at a high cost, warn many Palestinian members of the PLO Executive Committee, the highest executive Palestinian body to which Hamas is no party.
They point out that Hamas has threatened not to recognise any new Palestinian cabinet that will not be set with its approval. “This reshuffle will be the last nail in the coffin of Palestinian national unity,” a senior PLO official said as the next cabinet might be representative of the West Bank only. The link with Gaza — already separated geographically from the West Bank by Israeli territory — would be severed politically.
For the time being, the Palestinian political scene seems fragmented as other Palestinian organisations within the PLO, such as the secular leftist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), are asking Abbas for a new national unity cabinet that will also include Hamas.
Abbas might also expect trouble from the friends of Mohammed Dahlan, his arch-rival within Fatah. The former head of a powerful Palestinian security apparatus in Gaza left Ramallah a few years ago for the Emirates, after being charged by Abbas of corruption among other things. He remains popular in Gaza, especially among Fatah members of the Palestinian legislative council.
Despite the current potential for inner political fragmentation, there is one piece of good news.
It is with the backing of all Palestinian parties that a delegation led by Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki headed to The Hague to submit three files of information to the International Criminal Court, hoping it will decide to investigate alleged Israeli war crimes regarding Jewish settlements, the treatment of Palestinian prisoners and the 2014 war against Gaza.