Palestinians Take First New Reconciliation Steps

February 28, 2009
Palestinians Take First New Reconciliation Steps
By SANA ABDALLAH (Middle East Times)

AMMAN — The Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, have realized that the time is ripe and regional conditions are appropriate to launch reconciliation talks to end the deep rifts that were threatening their cause for self-determination.

Egypt managed Thursday to bring together Fatah and Hamas leaders, along with representatives from other Palestinian factions, for badly-needed talks to resolve their differences and pave the way for a unity government that would get international recognition.

After long hours of deliberations, more than a dozen factions late Thursday evening formed five committees tasked with unifying ranks: One committee will be tasked with forming a unity government; one is charged with providing mechanisms for reforming the security services on the basis of merit rather than factional affiliations; and another committee will organize and set a date for legislative and presidential elections.

One group was formed to work on restructuring the Palestine Liberation Organization to allow all factions, including Hamas, to join it as an umbrella organization representing the Palestinians. And a reconciliation committee is tasked with “consolidating the culture of democracy, the principle of mutual respect and forbidding internal fighting.”

In a move to clear the air before the talks kicked off, Islamist Hamas, which controls Gaza, and nationalist Fatah, which runs much of the West Bank, agreed to stop arresting each others’ members and to halt smear campaigns. They also agreed to begin releasing prisoners from the other side, and vowed to end their dispute by the time dialogue ends.

Participants said the committees will begin their detailed negotiations on Mar. 10 and will conclude their work by issuing a comprehensive document before the annual Arab summit convenes in Qatar at the end of March, in order to receive the necessary Arab support – in terms of the reconstruction of Gaza, peace negotiations with Israel, and dealings with the new U.S. administration in this regard.

Some officials hoped that a unity government would be formed by the end of next month, while others were more cautious about raising hopes that high.

Fatah and Hamas leaders in Cairo declared a “new historic phase” in internal Palestinian relations, saying that all parties were determined to forge unity. Their division was consolidated after Hamas ousted the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) from Gaza in June 2007, only three months after the two sides had formed a coalition government.

Hamas swept the legislative elections in January 2006, but when it formed a government, the West suspended ties with the Palestinians. Gaza came under a severe Western-backed Israeli blockade after Hamas seized control of the impoverished strip, on the grounds that Hamas was blacklisted as a “terrorist” organization.

Some commentators say that conditions have now changed for reconciliation talks to succeed, after they had failed on several occasions before they even kicked off.

These analysts argue the fact that the two key factions announced their commitment to confidence-building-measures – after their loss of trust for each other amid internal fighting and crackdowns against each others’ members – was a positive first step.

Although their attempts to find common ground on which to form a unity government are expected to face many obstacles – considering that Fatah and Hamas have substantial differences over how to deal with Israel – the Israeli election results were ironically one of the conditions that provided an opportunity for the Palestinians to reconcile. With a far right-wing Israeli government-in-the-making, the chances for reviving paralyzed peace talks with President Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority are considered to be almost nil.

Add to that the massive destruction from the deadliest war on Gaza in December-January, in which more than 1,300 Palestinians, most of them civilians, were killed and 5,500 others injured, has generated international sympathy to the plight of this downcast territory and its 1.5 million people and plans to support its reconstruction.

Egypt is next week hosting a donors’ conference to rebuild what Israel destroyed in Gaza, so the factions hope to agree on a Western-accepted unified entity that would handle the reconstruction funds, expected to reach $3 billion.

The United States and Britain said they would prefer a “technocrat” government that excludes Hamas. But that is unlikely to happen, considering Hamas was elected freely and controls Gaza on the ground.

Abbas this week indicated that Hamas can no longer be ostracized by the international community if the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the West Bank is to be resolved. He urged the West to recognize and deal with a unity government that includes the Islamist movement.

Fatah, which seeks a compromise peace settlement with Israel, hopes that Hamas will in turn recognize the previous peace agreements and initiatives. Hamas and its allies insist on the right to armed resistance, but Palestinian officials say they believe that an acceptable text can be worked out in the Cairo talks.

Arab analysts say that the West was slowly, but surely, edging toward accepting Hamas, despite official calls on it to first recognize Israel, accept previous agreements and renounce violence, as well as declaring their preference for a unity government that excludes the Islamist movement. And there are signs that Western leaders might be easing the pressure on Abbas by not making aid conditional to Hamas’s exclusion from the government.

For the first time since Hamas seized power, Western officials have begun to visit Gaza, although they have not made contact with Hamas, whose leaders likewise have not attempted to meet them. A U.S. congressional delegation, led by Senate’s foreign relations committee chief Sen. John Kerry, made a rare visit to Gaza only last week.

European leaders have also started traveling to the strip to ascertain its humanitarian needs and survey the war damage. EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana on Friday toured the Gaza Strip for the first time since Hamas took control.

Also Friday, the EU stated it would pledge 436 million euros in aid to Gaza at the donors’ conference, while reports said the United States would announce $900 million for the strip’s reconstruction.

Another indication that is boosting the chances for successful Palestinian reconciliation is the diplomatic rhetoric that is easing polarization in the region. Iran and Syria, main supporters of Hamas, seem to be edging closer to Washington. And diplomatic efforts are underway for Arab rapprochement between polarized states, such as Syria and Saudi Arabia, which backs the Palestinian Authority.

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