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Israel-Palestine Special: 4 Ways to Understand Latest Situation (and Why Hamas is on the Rise)

Reactions to the Hamas-Fatah Unity Deal:

To say that the reaction outside Palestine to last week's announcement of reconcilation between Hamas and Fatah is cautious would be an under-statement.

Despite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “slightly open door” under the right conditions (read as the recognition of Israel as a Jewish nation),  US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that Washington remains adamant that Hamas renounce terror and violence and recognise Israel's right to exist as a pre-requisite for any consideration of the new Palestinian alignment.

Clinton's reaction is markedly different from that of European allies: French leader Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron had already told Netanyahu that they would be willing to vote in favour of a proposal for a Palestinian state in September unless the peace process advances between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.  

In Congress, 27 Democratic Senators signed a letter to President Obama, insisting that he suspend assistance to the Palestinian Authority unless Hamas recognizes Israel and renounces terrorism. The State Department did draw a line against that strike: deputy spokesman Mark Toner criticised Israel’s decision to halt tax revenues amounting $105 million and said, “Any decision following the Hamas-Fatah agreement is premature.”

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has stepped in and told Netanyahu to "assess the Palestinian unity as it moves forward”. He urged West Jerusalem not to stop transferring tax revenues to the Palestinian Authority. 

After Israeli officials’ decision to suspend the revenues, which Palestinian officials say will affectat least 170,000 civil servants, the European Union said it would transfer €85 million ($124 million) to help Ramallah make its salary payments. EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said: " It is important that access to essential public services remains uninterrupted and the right to social services is respected. I would like to reiterate that we are following closely the political developments, and encourage the strive for dignity, prosperity and stability across the region." 

On Tuesday, Gary Grappo, the head of the Quartet (Russia, US, European Union), said that the mission trusts Abbas "because he is committed to the peace process”. Grappo and underlined the importance of “statehood with an agreement first instead of unilateral options”, implying for the need for further steps from both sides before September. 

Put bluntly, international actors --- while ranging from scepticism to a cautious welcome --- are continuing their "wait and see" approach and giving a chance to the unity deal. They want more signals from the interim Palestinian government after Hamas declared that it is fully committed to working for a two-state solution).

Hamas Manoeuvre: 

On Saturday, Hamas put out one of those signals. While it criticised Washington for the way Osama bin Laden was killed and buried, it broke up pro-bin Laden rally organised by Salafi in Gaza. 

A day later, Hamas’s leader in Damascus, Khaled Mashaal said that the US and the European Union should support the reconciliation deal between Hamas and Fatah. Mashaal’s strategy is based on maintaining a quiet period until September; after which he would act on the behalf of an internationally-recognised Palestinian state regarding the future of peace process with Israel. On Sunday, he said:  

No one has the right to demand from the Palestinians … or from Hamas or any other Palestinian organization what will happen after that (the establishment of a Palestinian state.) When we achieve Palestinian statehood we will be free and without occupation … then the country will decide its policy.

On Sunday, Al-Jazeera reported that Hamas has agreed to a new draft agreement drawn up by Cairo for a prisoner swap with Israel that would release Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held captive for almost five years. 

Egyptian officials, while exerting pressure on Hamas to take a big step forward on Shalit, have also has stated that they will open its crossing on a permanent basis. The Gaza government’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Planning, Mohamed Awad, has said that the Egyptian government is looking into soon reopening its office of representation in the Strip.  

Fatah Manoeuvres:

Ahead of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to Washington on 20 May, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas welcomed visitors from the US Jewish organisation J Street and asked them to urge Congress not to cut off hundreds of millions of dollars. Abbas is seeking to consolidate his position and Ramallah’s legitimacy in the international arena, through principles that are supposed to advance the peace process and to put pressure on Hamas to take necessary steps. He said:

I hear rumours that Hamas will be in the West Bank or that it will share authority here. This will not happen. The new government will comply with my policies and I am against terror and violence.

The public response from J Street was what Abbas wanted. President Jeremy Ben-Ami said that Netanyahu must present a concrete plan for a two-state solution of the Palestinian conflict to the US Congress this month.

The Quartet’s statement also highlighted the constructive role of Abbas rather than focusing on the contribution of Hamas to unity. This is what the Palestinian Authority leader wants to hear now, as he pursues diplomatic initiatives with Western bases.

However, Abbas must be careful: marginalizing Hamas could lead to a trust problem, if not a confrontation. On Tuesday, President Shimon Peres said that Abbas is "absolutely" still a peace partner "because he wants to hold negotiations for peace with Israel” but, of course, did not give that praise to Hamas.

So Abbas must maintain a finely-adjusted balance between Israel and Hamas now. However, after establishing the Palestinian state in September, he will have to choose one side if no progress with Israel is achieved. 

Israel’s reactions:

It seems that Israeli officials are learning very slowly from the recent developments in the region, continuing an approach of collective punishment through its latest economic measures and threats.

This time those affected are not only Gazans but also other Palestinians in the West Bank, the area under occupation that had been praised for its “annual economic growth rate of 7%, declining unemployment, a thriving tourism industry, and a 24% hike in the average daily wage”. 

On Monday, speaking at a ceremony commemorating victims of “terror”, Netanyahu said

We will strike our enemies with all our might. The aim of terror is to instil fear, and our answer to this has always been to refuse to give in to fear. We will not be tempted to believe that the leopard has changed its spots.

President Shimon Peres took a “dovish” approach and said that the Palestinian bid to seek UN recognition of an independent state based on 1967 borders would not end the conflict if it was not linked to his country's security needs. He suggested the start of private talks for an agreement that will satisfy Israel’s security needs. However, he refrained from filling what he meant by those “security needs”. 

The common belief among the Israeli public is that the Palestinian unity will come to an end soon. This could be dangerous: with the contents of the agreement, every minute approaching September works against Israel. It is also shouldn’t be forgotten that it is not just Hamas and Israel in this game. Cairo is acting as a broker, Paris is seeking a role, and Washington and London are watching from a distance for the time being.

If a Palestinian state is declared in September in the absence of an Israeli willingness to negotiate with the interim government, it will be too late for West Jerusalem to seek an upper hand in the process. 

Israel should understand that its state policy of collective punishment has cracked, if not come to an end: Egypt’s announcement that it will permanently open the border crossing with Gaza and plans for a new Gaza flotilla in June are only the drops of a shower washing away West Jerusalem's approach.

If the terms of the Shalit deal are made public, with Hamas offers a relatively "better" deal --- which it will do to increase the international pressure on Israel --- the Gaza group will not only advance in the hearts and minds of millions of Arabs, and possibly some Israelis, as well as boosting its credibility in the eyes of Western capitals. 

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