No Signs of Hope

The head of the Gaza government, Ismail Haniyeh, was very serious while dealing with the funeral of Major General Amin Al-Hindi, member of the Fatah Revolutionary Council (FRC) and former chief of the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) intelligence agency, who recently died in Amman. The residence in Hindi’s hometown in Gaza where his family held the wake received special attention from Haniyeh’s government, by assisting the family and providing a security force to protect VIPs who came to pay their respects. Haniyeh himself headed a large delegation from the Hamas government and leadership at the funeral.

Journalists and commentators were keen to stay for long stretches during the wake in the hope of overhearing any conversations between Hamas and Fatah members during the event. Reporters confirmed a number of encounters on the sidelines, including one between Haniyeh and Sakhr Bassisso, member of the FRC, who travelled from Ramallah to Gaza to represent President Mahmoud Abbas at the funeral. Once this meeting became public, Haniyeh gave a speech calling on Fatah’s leadership to hasten holding a dialogue with Hamas to end divisions in Palestine. Bassisso responded with immediate agreement to hold a bilateral meeting between the two groups soon.

The scene was almost surreal because only hours before Al-Hindi’s death was announced, an unprecedented war of words had erupted between Hamas and Fatah. Haniyeh had accused the PA of waging war against Islam and all its symbols in the West Bank. During his address at a Gaza police ceremony, Haniyeh listed the forms of war that Salam Fayyad’s government is waging against Islam. These include a decision banning calls for prayer at mosques located in areas close to Jewish settlements, in order not to disturb the settlers.

Haniyeh also harshly criticised Fayyad’s government for preventing Sheikh Hamed Al-Bitawi, a member of parliament who also heads the Palestinian Islamic Scholars Association, and leading Hamas figure, from giving the Friday sermon at Al-Aqsa Mosque. He further noted that Fayyad’s government fired thousands of preachers and banned them from giving sermons and administering religious lessons, leaving around 1,000 mosques without leaders and shutting down 1,000 centres teaching the Quran in the West Bank. At the same time, zakat (alms) committees were closed and religious figures were arrested, hunted down and fired from their jobs. “They will not remove religion from the hearts of people and will not succeed in their war against Islam because it is a war against God,” Haniyeh added in anger.

Mahmoud Habbash, minister of religious endowments in Fayyad’s government, denied Haniyeh’s accusations in the presence of President Abbas, equating Hamas with Israel. Habbash said Hamas prevents religious factions that disagree with the group from being active in mosques in Gaza.

Altogether, the amicable exchanges between the two main Palestinian factions in the wake of Al-Hindi’s death did not last long. The PA’s agreement to re-launch direct talks with Israel quickly brought tensions back to the fore. Hamas said that agreeing to hold meetings at the same time as re-launching direct negotiations is an attempt by Abbas to create a sense of national agreement for his decision to restart direct talks, although he has backtracked on most of the preconditions he set to begin direct dialogue.

Hamas quickly suspended meetings with Fatah in protest over the decision by the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) to begin direct talks with the Israeli occupiers. Salah Al-Bardawil, member of Hamas’s politburo, said that there was a truce during the funeral of Al-Hindi, “but following the decision to re-launch talks, we suspended meetings until further notice.” “Restarting [direct] negotiations has upset and confused the Palestinian political arena,” Al-Bardawil explained. “Despite our desire to achieve reconciliation, to show respect for the position of the Palestinian factions and people which oppose negotiations, we have suspended reconciliation meetings with Fatah.”

Although Hamas’s strategy is to end divisions, he continued, “current deteriorating conditions make it difficult to talk for the sake of talking because any dialogue will give legitimacy to negotiations [with Israel].” Al-Bardawil believes that the PLO’s actions and its decision to begin direct talks with Tel Aviv will destroy the Palestinian cause.

Undoubtedly, the re-launching of direct talks between the PLO and Israel spells the demise of any serious dialogue between Fatah and Hamas. While all signs indicate that dialogue is unlikely to succeed even before direct negotiations begin, restarting talks with Israel will create a political atmosphere that is certain to make any Arab and Palestinian efforts towards reconciliation and agreement on the Egyptian proposal come to nought. The veto imposed by foreign powers on Palestinian national dialogue is evident.

Kayed Al-Ghoul, member of the Central Committee of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), believes that Fatah and PLO leaders have redirected their efforts from reaching inter-Palestinian reconciliation to direct negotiations with Israel.

“Not only has the PLO leadership given Israel legitimacy to take more land by agreeing to restart direct negotiations, but with this decision it has wiped out any hope of a national dialogue,” Al-Ghoul told Al-Ahram Weekly. He asserted that re-launching talks is a result of pressure by the US and deepens the inter-Palestinian fissure, and that by deciding to forge ahead with direct negotiations without consulting all Palestinian factions, the PLO’s Executive Committee has accentuated divisions and demonstrated solitary decision-making.

Al-Ghoul revealed that preparations are underway to hold a national conference for a number of opposition Palestinian factions to call for reinstating national dialogue and confronting the repercussions of the PA’s decision to restart direct talks with Israel. “Unfortunately, the PA agreed to direct talks without adhering to previous preconditions and according to Netanyahu’s vision,” he stated. “This is a waste of time and contributes to improving Israel’s image abroad after it assaulted Freedom Flotilla and its violation of international law.”

Mekhemar Abu Saada, political science professor at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, argued that for the time being there is neither a future for national dialogue nor a basis for Palestinian reconciliation. “We must admit that we have reached the point of no return in terms of reconciliation,” Abu Saada told the Weekly. “Hamas and Fatah have imposed many de facto realities on the ground in Gaza and the West Bank respectively. It is impossible for the two groups to turn back the clock to three years ago. What is in place now could never allow for conciliation, even artificial, because of the large chasm dividing the two sides. In my opinion, dialogue has no future and what we hear now and then about talks and meetings between the leaders of Fatah and Hamas is useless because the situation is unsolvable and illogical.”

Meanwhile, the government in Gaza is working on enforcing its control and the rule of law over the Gaza Strip through a number of unprecedented security measures. The Gazan police have launched a rigorous campaign to confiscate all “unlicensed” and “illegal” weapons after a rash of shootings during domestic disputes. Police officials said they would seize weapons belonging to any faction if they are used illegally or for reasons other than resistance activities.

An informed security source at the Ministry of Interior in Gaza who preferred to remain anonymous told the Weekly that some weapons used by factions have been used in family disputes and during parties. “The Ministry of Interior will limit the use of weapons during quarrels and weddings,” the source asserted. “When we looked into this issue, we found that most of the trouble is caused by members of Palestinian factions who use weapons issued to their group.” He added that the government wants to impose comprehensive peace and security across Gaza, noting that some “rogue” members use the cover of their group to instigate trouble and commit crimes.

“Regrettably, some factions interfere and ask us to return the weapons, which causes problems and jeopardises Gaza’s security,” the source added. In the past, the weapons were returned to the groups after a wait of several months, but the source asserted that now any firearm that is used in any activity other than resistance would not be returned, no matter the rank or importance in the resistance member concerned.

The source added the government feels responsible for protecting the people, and calls on all Palestinian factions to instruct their members not to use firearms to resolve disputes at home.

SALEH AL-NAAMI writes for Al-Ahram, where this essay originally appeared.