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11 July 2014, Gateway House

Palestinian unity: road ahead

A month after Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas united, Israel continues its attacks on Gaza, with threats that it might soon launch a ground offensive. Yet, the long-term implications of the unity deal, should it withstand, could be profoundly positive for the Palestinians

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The swearing-in ceremony of the Palestinian unity government, consisting of two political factions – Fatah that controls the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and Hamas that rules the Gaza Strip – in June has come months before elections are due.  The parties split in 2007 after Hamas won the 2006 legislative elections and seized the Gaza Strip from Fatah.

The unification has elicited contradictory responses. Israel has suspended peace talks, while states that have close economic and strategic ties with Israel, including the U.S., India and China, have been rather positive despite Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s statement to “not rush to recognise a Palestinian government which has Hamas as a part of it”.  The Palestinian people too have exhibited mixed sentiments.

Undeniably, the intra-Palestinian division has been a substantial obstacle in the path of attaining national liberation and statehood.  The Fatah-Hamas strife has trumped these causes, leading the parties to become effective pawns in Israel’s divide and rule strategy, instead of posing a credible political challenge.

The unity deal was born out of practical considerations–Fatah’s legitimacy crisis and the growing Israeli settlements, and the weakening of Hamas following the downfall of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and the economic situation in Gaza.  Yet, challenges abound due to geographical divisions, mutual distrust, and differing visions – Fatah recognises Israel, and supports the two-state solution, while Hamas is opposed to both.

The rapprochement could be a sign that the Hamas is willing to work under the secular legitimate mode that Fatah employs. However, it is premature to assume that Hamas would yield to this line of thought entirely, since reconciliation would require an entire change of ideology within Hamas.

Yet, this is conceivable, given that Fatah once had armed factions like the Al-Asifa, Tanzim, Force 17, Fatah Hawks, and al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades until it abandoned violence and recognised Israel. However so far, Hamas leaders have not accepted the Quartet’s preconditions of recognising Israel and renouncing violence, and adhering to previous agreements.

The unity deal, if implemented, could pave the way to a fundamental change in the political dynamics of Palestine, and revive negotiations.  However, the dynamics could go either way.  There is as great a possibility of the Islamist-oriented Hamas radicalising Fatah and acquiring strength in the West Bank, as there is of Fatah exercising a moderating influence on Hamas. Geo-strategist Professor M.D. Nalapat states how Islamist compromises “reflect a tactical measure designed to gain time”, and secure their aims at a more opportune later stage.  The outcome of the Arab Spring in countries like Egypt with Islamist hardliners coming to power is evidence of springs turning into winters.  The recent ascendance of the ISIS in Iraq, and the support and funding it garners, is another such example.  Moreover, unlike Fatah, the Hamas has proven to be relatively popular amongst Palestinians owing to its widespread social services program and its distaste for corruption.  Thus, while the international community has rightfully adopted a conciliatory approach, Israel’s skepticism towards the deal, is well founded.

However, Israel would do well to shed its rejectionist attitude, and embrace the opportunity to test whether the unification could have a positive fallout. As Ed Husain of the Council on Foreign Relations declares, “In a new Middle East, where popular opinion matters more than ever before, to demand that people condemn Hamas is a political nonstarter”. Of course, whether the Israeli government wants to end the occupation is another question, and the inclusion of Hamas in the government could serve as the perfect pretext for Israel to halt the peace process.  But if one assumes that it does want peace, then in the hopeful event of Hamas turning non-violent, Israel must acknowledge it as a key element of the Palestinian community, and both sides must negotiate with each other.

Israel has, after the killing of three Israeli teenagers, carried out dozens of attacks in Gaza, killing more than 50 Palestinians, with Netanyahu stating that the militants would pay a heavy price for the 82 rockets fired on Israel.  Hamas has warned of retaliation. Israel does not have as much to lose if the conflict continues, and it possibly perceives it in its interest to perpetuate the status quo with its portrayal of itself as the victim in the Middle East.  Israel is a powerful and aggressive state as is evident in its disproportionate and brutal responses, yet it essentially gets away with the excuse that it is acting in retaliation.  And as long as Hamas continues its attacks and refuses to recognize Israel, the excuse is credible in the eyes of the international community.  Thus, significantly, the implication here is not that the Palestinians have perpetuated violence, but that they have the most to lose from the present status quo, and the only way forward for them is to prove that they can peacefully co-exist alongside Israel.

If the rapprochement sustains itself, it could potentially result in a first unified Palestinian election in eight years and help advance peace talks with Israel.  If they demonstrate that they are capable of responsible governance, Israel and the international community will be left with no credible excuse to deny Palestinians their rightful statehood.  Without this, the cycle will continue – the Palestinians will suffer with no end to the conflict, and Israel will continue to be the beneficiary.

Shairee Malhotra works with the Meetings team at Gateway House

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