Rival Palestinian factions’ success brings them closer

A young Palestinian joins a Hamas rally in Hebron, a town in the West Bank, which is ruled by Hamas' rival, Fatah.
(Abed al Hashlamoun / European Pressphoto Agency)

GAZA CITY — The Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah are intense rivals that control different turf and employ contrary strategies against Israel, but they have managed in their separate ways to put the Palestinian drive for statehood back on the international agenda.

The eight-day conflict between Hamas and Israel in the Gaza Strip raised the profile of the Palestinian issue, bringing U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and a stream of Arab diplomats rushing to the region to help negotiate a cease-fire.


Next week, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, head of Fatah, appears certain to win approval of a United Nations General Assembly resolution upgrading his group’s status from “observer entity” to “nonmember state.”

Neither side particularly supports the other’s tactics. Hamas, an Islamist group in power in Gaza that emphasizes armed struggle and refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist, dismisses diplomacy as a waste of time. Fatah, a secular group that controls the West Bank, disavows violence.

Yet together, they’ve succeeded — at least for now — in resurrecting the Palestinian cause. The issue had been sidelined by turmoil in Egypt, Libya and Syria and a right-wing Israeli government that has shown little sense of urgency on reaching a peace deal with Palestinians.

Still, it is unclear whether recent developments will drive the rivals closer together or deepen their divisions — or whose approach to pursuing the goal of an independent state might gain strength.

Although Hamas and Fatah leaders have publicly thanked each other for their support in recent days, Hamas sidelined Fatah from truce negotiations and prevented Abbas from gaining politically from the clash with Israel, which most Palestinians in Gaza Strip and the West Bank perceived as a resounding success.

In a sign of their tense relations, Fatah’s news agency WAFA reported Thursday that Hamas leaders telephoned Abbas to endorse his upcoming U.N. bid, which they’d previously opposed. Within hours, a Hamas spokesman denied the report, saying the group still opposed the U.N. campaign. On Friday, the position flipped again, when several Hamas leaders offered their blessing.

Senior Fatah official Nabil Shaath, who left Gaza on Friday after a short trip to offer support to Hamas, said the two sides were gradually moving closer together.

“After the war, we have rediscovered each other’s agendas,” he said. “We are much closer than ever. I have never been as cordially received in Gaza as I just was. There is an opportunity here.”

He said that during the clash, Hamas voluntarily kept Fatah officials informed of developments and sought the group’s advice.

Hamas official Ahmed Yousef agreed that the two factions had inched closer on several key points, including how to handle the conflict with Israel, how to draw support from the Arab world and the need to court Western nations.

“This will expedite the national reconciliation,” said Yousef, an advisor to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. “It feels like a new spirit. We feel more like brothers than rivals.”

With Hamas riding high in the eyes of Palestinians for standing up to Israel and Abbas on the verge of diplomatic victory at the U.N., both sides may soon agree on something else: elections.

“There’s more interest in forming a power-sharing government and moving to elections because we both believe we are strong enough to get a majority of Palestinian support,” Yousef said.

The last national Palestinian election was held in 2006, when Hamas beat Fatah. Their subsequent attempt to forge a unity government failed, and a year later, after a bloody clash, Hamas seized control of Gaza. Repeated reconciliation attempts, including one this year, have failed, despite polls showing Palestinians strongly want the factions to mend their differences.

Though overshadowed during the Gaza conflict, Abbas will have his turn in the spotlight next week. And in an indirect way, Hamas’ confrontation with Israel could help his U.N. bid by providing momentum and making it harder for Israel to punish the Palestinian Authority.

Israel insists that negotiations should be the only route to statehood. Before the clash in Gaza, it vowed to retaliate against Abbas if he pursued his U.N. campaign by expanding settlement construction in the West Bank, stopping the transfer of much-needed Palestinian tax revenues or canceling the Oslo peace accords.

Although the upcoming U.N. bid is largely symbolic, Palestinians hope it will enable them to join bodies such as the International Criminal Court, where they could bring a complaint against Israel for its construction of West Bank settlements.

The vote in the General Assembly will be far easier for Palestinians to win than last year’s attempt to gain full U.N. membership, which had to be approved by the Security Council. It was derailed by a U.S. veto.

After the clash with Hamas, Israel is under pressure from the United States and others to refrain from weakening Abbas further or triggering a financial collapse of the Palestinian Authority. Regarded as a moderate who disavows violence, Abbas should be strengthened instead, they say, particularly at a time when there is growing concern about the rise of Islamist governments in the region.

Critics say Israel has played a role in emboldening Hamas and burnishing its reputation over the years. For starters, Israel helped support the organization in its infancy in the 1980s, when it regarded Hamas as a tool to splinter the Palestinian movement and weaken Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat.

Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza handed another victory to Hamas. Since Israel withdrew unilaterally and not through negotiations with the PLO, public opinion polls found that most Palestinians credited Hamas’ armed tactics for driving out Israeli soldiers and settlers.

The deal to release more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011 was interpreted as another vindication of violence over diplomacy.

Some worry that it may be too late to repair the damage inflicted on Palestinians’ faith in peace talks, which after 20 years have failed to bring statehood.

“The secular national movement is dying because it’s not playing its cards right,” said Diana Buttu, a lawyer in the West Bank town of Ramallah and a former Palestinian Authority advisor.

She said the latest Hamas conflict pressures Abbas to become more aggressive, including filing complaints with the International Criminal Court, seeking international sanctions against Israel, organizing boycotts of Israel and permitting nonviolent demonstrations.

“He’s going to need to completely change gears and move away from just relying on peace talks,” she said. “He needs to do something that will energize the Palestinians.”