Palestine’s Own Spring

The images of Palestinians massed at Israel’s borders on 15 May represented a dream for some, and a nightmare for others. On the 63rd anniversary of the declaration of the Jewish state and of the nakba (catastrophe) for the many thousands of Palestinians expelled from their homes, demonstrators from Syria , Lebanon, Jordan and Gaza converged on the promised land. They were only a few thousand but the world wondered what would happen if millions marched peacefully to the borders and walls next time. These refugees ? neglected by the PLO since the 1993 Oslo accords despite having inspired the Palestinian awakening of the 1960s ? may have decided to take their future into their own hands.

The banners in Ramallah demanded the right of all Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, Beirut or Amman to elect a national representative council, and a radical reform of the PLO. This could represent a new stage in the liberation struggle, and Israel’s brutal response on 15 May, killing 14 unarmed Palestinians, shows how worried its leaders are. It is this new aspiration of ordinary Palestinians after the Arab uprisings, overlooked by both Hamas and Fatah, which has pushed the rivals to end their long quarrel and agree an accord, ratified in Cairo on 4 May by representatives of 13 Palestinian factions. It anticipates the formation of a government of technocrats or independents; the liberation of prisoners from both sides held in Gaza and the West Bank; presidential and legislative elections within one year; reform of the PLO; and the merging of the security forces on a strictly professional basis. Priority is given to reconstructing Gaza, which remains under Israeli blockade.

Unsurprisingly, the agreement was quickly rejected by Israel, with its prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, telling Fatah to choose between peace and Hamas. He did not mention that for months Israeli officials had justified their reluctance to agree an accord with Mahmoud Abbas (head of the Palestinian Authority and leader of Fatah) on the grounds that he only represented half the Palestinians. Netanyahu even claimed that Hamas was only the local version of al-Qaida. This intransigence was ratified by President Barack Obama in his speech on 19 May, when he said he understood that these were “profound and legitimate questions for Israel: how can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognise your right to exist?” But Obama and Netanyahu are familiar with the wording of the Oslo accords, which they claim to adhere to, that mandate the PLO, not the Palestinian government, to negotiate a final status agreement with Israel. Hamas does not belong to the PLO. The leaders gave no credit to the statements by Khaled Meshaal, the political leader of Hamas, who has repeated his support for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with Jerusalem as its capital, and confirmed that, if it came about, Hamas would renounce violence.

The agreement between Fatah and Hamas surprised all observers of the negotiations between them over the years. It is hard to see to what extent it will be put into effect, as many points remain vague and there is still deep mistrust. But it has come about as the result of powerful factors, relating to the Palestinian scene and developments in the region. The refugees, who had been the most noticeable absentees from the last 20 years of negotiations, have now been invited in.

‘Down with division’

Fatah and Hamas have been confronted by the rise of the protest movement in the West Bank and even Gaza. Unlike other Arab countries, the main slogan was not “Down with the government”, but “Down with division”, shouted by many young people. As Jamil Hilal, a social scientist in Ramallah, said: “We have no government and no state, just an authority, and on top of that, the occupation.” Although Fatah and Hamas responded with repression and pressure, they were forced to take notice of popular demands, since they are in a strategic deadlock.

The peace process, on which Fatah has staked everything since 1993, has been dead for years, but it was only with the fall of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, the chief promoter of the supposed negotiations, that Abbas agreed to sign its death warrant: the rise in settlement-building removes any significance from dialogue with Israel. (On the day of Obama’s speech, the Israeli government announced the construction of another 1,550 homes in East Jerusalem).

Hamas, which claims to be the Palestinian “resistance”, has maintained a ceasefire with Israel, which it imposes on other Palestinian factions, if necessary by force. In Gaza, it has to deal with Salafist groups (whom some believe are linked to al-Qaida) that blame Hamas for not fighting the “Zionist enemy”, and for not making society more Islamic. The murder in April of Vittorio Arrigoni, a pro-Palestinian Italian activist based in Gaza, by an extremist group, was a warning. The Israeli blockade and daily problems of ordinary Gazans have eroded Hamas’s influence. Neither Fatah nor Hamas have alternative strategies and they are going through a crisis of legitimacy. Their behaviour in Ramallah and Gaza ? authoritarian, corrupt, clientelist ? is not so different from the behaviour of other Arab leaders, and is provoking the same revolt.

The Arab awakening

The upheaval in the region has also led to compromise. Fatah has lost its chief ally, Mubarak. Demonstrations in Syria, and their violent repression, have weakened a regime that is an essential support of Hamas, and has sheltered its external leaders since their expulsion from Jordan. Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, one of Sunni Islam’s most popular preachers, linked to the Muslim Brotherhood (from which Hamas emerged), strongly condemned Bashar al-Assad’s government on 25 March and said the Ba’ath Party could no longer run Syria. Meanwhile, despite pressure from Damascus, Hamas has been careful not to rush to defend the Syrian regime.

Another regional shift troubles Hamas’s leaders. The repression of the democratic uprising in Bahrain and the violence of the anti-Shia campaign by the Gulf states ? led by Saudi Arabia ? have increased tensions between the Arab world and Iran. Hamas is partly funded by businessmen in the Gulf who are not keen on its association with Iran. Hence its interest in making up with Egypt, a Sunni power; this has been made easier by the political orientation of the Cairo regime after the overthrow of Mubarak.

Without going so far as to break with the US, or question the peace treaty with Israel, Egypt is ending its subservience to Israeli and US interests. Mubarak opposed unity between Fatah and Hamas because he feared the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. He considered Gaza a security problem and took part in its blockade, and he led Arab defiance against Iran. While the Muslim Brotherhood prepare to take part in September’s elections, and perhaps even in the next government, these fears are now out of place, since the democratic climate in Egypt allows people to express their solidarity with the Palestinians, as the government is well aware.

Egypt’s foreign minister has said the Rafah border crossing will be opened, and has described the Israeli blockade of Gaza as shameful. The chief of staff, Sami Anan, has given Israel a warning on his Facebook page: “The Israeli government must show restraint when it discusses peace talks. It must refrain from intervening in the internal matters of Palestine”. As the former Egyptian ambassador to Syria, Mahmoud Shukri, said: “Mubarak was always taking sides with the US, but the new way of thinking is entirely different. We would like to make a model of democracy for the region, and we are ensuring that Egypt has its own influence”. The effect of this has been a thaw in relations with Iran, and both Tehran and Damascus have welcomed the Fatah-Hamas accord.

What hope for US intervention?

Obama’s latest speech, two years after he addressed the Muslim world in Cairo, was in response to the new situation in the region, and the failure of his mediation in the Palestinian conflict, confirmed by the resignation of US Special Envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell. Obama wanted to show that the US was on “the right side of history” at a time of regional turmoil. He announced that the US wanted to combine its interests and values; for example he denounced the repression by the government in Bahrain, where the US Fifth Fleet is based, but stayed silent about Saudi Arabia, which has assisted it.

Introducing him, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that “America’s leadership is more essential than ever”. Robert Dreyfuss of the US weekly The Nation asked whether anyone in the region was still listening to the US. After describing Pakistan and Afghanistan’s defiance of the US, he wrote: “Iran, despite onerous sanctions and repeated threats of US military action, has not only refused to compromise over its nuclear programme, but Tehran is supporting anti-American movements in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, and the Gulf states. Iraq, whose very government is the creation of the US invasion in 2003, has all but shut the door on a continued US military presence there, and its leadership touts its new alliance with Iran. Saudi Arabia, where anti-American sentiment has been growing for a decade, is seething over US policy in the region, and Riyadh is reaching out to Beijing, Moscow and other powers, despite its overwhelming dependence on weapons and security assistance from Washington.” Saudi Arabia has also expressed its displeasure at the way Obama dropped Mubarak and criticised the repression in Bahrain.

Netanyahu resisted calls to halt settlement building and rejected any return to the June 1967 borders, or even using those borders as a basis for negotiations, as suggested by Obama. When they met at the White House on 20 May, Netanyahu lectured Obama on history and geopolitics with the arrogance of someone who knows he can’t lose. Despite the media coverage about their differences the Israeli prime minister told his aides: “I went in with certain concerns. I came out encouraged”. Obama hailed their excellent relations, the only inviolable principle in the region, but also the major obstacle to the creation of a Palestinian state. Obama announced in September 2010 that it would be created by 2011 (his predecessor, George W Bush, had promised it by 2005, then 2008).

With 17 months to go before the US presidential election, the chances of Obama realising his aim are slim. What is certain is that this September, when the UN Assembly meets to decide whether to recognise a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, the US will oppose it, as they have opposed any pressure on Israel, which has for years violated every UN resolution, including those voted by the US.

But the US runs the risk of being isolated, for the agreement between Hamas and Fatah, the creation of a single Palestinian government and Israel’s intransigence have created a more favourable context for Abbas’s demands. And it seems several European countries have decided to support the resolution. Washington could, once again, impose its veto. But a massive vote in favour by the General Assembly would at least allow the Palestinian state (not just the PLO) to be granted observer status at the UN and join UN organisations such as Unesco and the FAO, and put the issue of the occupation of a state (and not just “territories”) before international opinion and justice. A small step forward, but a step all the same.

Alain Gresh is vice president of Le Monde diplomatique and heads its Middle East/Muslim world department.