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Israel-Palestine Special: So What's the Deal Between Hamas and Fatah?

The rival Palestinian groups Fatah and Hamas have reportedly reached an agreement, brokered by Egypt,  to end their rift and that between the West Bank and Gaza. 

The two sides have been in a series of talks in the last few years, climaxing when Fatah signed a reconciliation deal in 2009. Hamas had reservations, however, over the arrangement for security forces in the Gaza Strip and the lack of a guarantee that its victory in elections would be recognised. Hamas demanded further gestures before considering unity, such as a release of hundreds of it prisoners locked up in the West Bank, the re-opening of Hamas charities, and the removal of a ban on its activities in the West Bank.

So why an agreement now? 

What we know about this deal is that both sides want to form an interim government made up of independents, fixing a date for general election within the year. Azzam al-Ahmad, the head of Fatah's negotiating team in Cairo, said that “elections would be held in about eight months from now.” Al-Ahmad and the Hamas delegation leader, Abu Marzouk, added that the agreement covers common ground on the security arrangements and the restructuring of the Palestine Liberation Organization to allow Hamas to join it. Hamas security concern over Gaza seems satisfied to the extent that it has agreed to share power. 

Mahmoud Zahar, a senior Hamas leader, said that a joint Hamas-Fatah defense committee will oversee the Palestinian security forces. The caretaker government will be composed of technocrats without party affiliation, to be chosen jointly by both parties. However, we still do not know the details of the reconstruction of the security arrangements. This is Israel’s number one concern.

It is still a very big question whether Hamas will change its policy towards Israel. While Palestinian Authority and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas said that peace talks with Israel would still be possible during the term of a new interim government, Zahar said that “it will not be possible for the interim government to participate or work on the peace process with Israel". 

Fatah and the Palestinian Authority have taken a very big risk, but also an important and necessary step, by opening its door to Hamas. No international recognition could guarantee the future of a Palestinian state without Gaza and Hamas. So Abbas took the leap for the goal of acknowledgement by the United Nations. 

And the motive for Hamas? Finally, a deal emerged that affirmed, rather than challenged, its power. It is likely that the two parties agreed on the continuation of the status quo --- Hamas' military presence in Gaza and Fatah’s in the West Bank or a very limited sharing of military power in both areas --- until the elections, with Hamas signalling a move from hudna (armistice) to the recognition of previous agreements with Israel even as it limits its relations with West Jerusalem.

Having said that, Hamas could take a different path, since its political director Khaled Meshal signalled in 2010 that his movement could imagine a two-state “peace” rather than a hudna. The bottom line it that, unlike the 2009 proposal, Hamas has secured those guarantees it was seeking --- no supervisor to monitor the process, maintenance of its base until elections, and no financial and political isolation if it gets the majority of the seats this time. 

The international reaction is cautious.The UN Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Robert Serry, said on Thursday that he supports the efforts at unity, but the European Union is still “studying” the deal and the US is continuing its sceptical position. Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council said "As we have said before, the United States supports Palestinian reconciliation on terms which promote the cause of peace. Hamas, however, is a terrorist organisation which targets civilians." As for Israel, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has already mooted the idea of withholding Palestinian tax revenues that Israel transfers to the Palestinian Authority if it shares power with Hamas.

But the big change outside Palestine was the emerging change in Cairo. With the ousting of the Mubarak regime, the Egyptian leadership is pursuing a softer policy. The Muslim Brotherhood has been recognised, Hamas prisoners have been released, the reconciliation process has been secured, and the Gaza border crossing is to be opened permanently within the next 10 days.

And there was another, less-recognised consideration. The growing unrest in Syria, the biggest supporter of Hamas, changed the political calculus. With the future of the Assad regime in question, the Gaza leadership may have felt it needed to take a deal rather than continue with uncertainty.

At the end of the day, it is not difficult to understand why Hamas and Egypt wanted a deal. But what now for Israel? Gaza may be quieter, but Israeli intelligence-sharing with the Palestinian Authority is now in jeopardy. The greater challenge to Israeli officials is a more resistant Palestinian Government and institutions if the UN bestows recognition of a state

Israel’s policy of dividing and ruling Palestinian factions and lands has come to an end, at least for the time being. Much depends on how far Hamas can go with this initiative, before and after the elections, siezing an important opportunity. If Hamas can avoid conflict --- with Fatah and with Israel --- West Jerusalem will pay a big price for its intransigence in the "peace process".

On the other hand, Israel will use its public diplomacy machine to tell the West that the new Palestinian arrangement will destroy the peace process and every chance of a deal. President Shimon Peres and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman have already argued that Hamas will take over the West Bank. Only Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that Israel could resume talks if Hamas agrees to international demands. 

Let’s see the future of this deal as the fog clears --- whether it is just the short-lived product of a conjuncture of events, with Hamas' Syria is sliding away and Fatah's last chance of UN approval, or whether it is an agreement that can change the future of the Palestinian lands.

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