In Palestinian Union, Deep Divisions Arise

On Monday, June 2, 2014, leaders backed by Fatah and Hamas were officially sworn into a national consensus government. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced that this unity government signals the end of an era defined by the division of the Palestinian people.

Palestinians in the West Bank and in Gaza are cautiously optimistic about the potential impact of the reconciliation. Many in Gaza worry “about whether the government can address their pressing everyday concerns alongside tackling the thorny reconciliation process.”

For almost seven years, the West Bank and Gaza have been governed by two completely different administrations with completely different government charters. Bringing these together these two governments will be significantly easier said than done.

Currently, reconciliation proposals call for the amalgamation of certain ministries and government offices. The cabinet is to be composed of 17 “people who are not associated politically with any party” whose main role is to serve as an interim government to prepare for elections.

 Yet, experts already foresee this being a costly process given that “each administration is bringing their own employees.” Furthermore, questions surround how much power Fatah and Hamas will be willing to compromise in order to create an independent and functioning government—especially one that holds legitimate elections.

Even if the transition into a unity government is done successfully, experts expect challenges to Hamas’ integration into PLO. For example, while the PLO officially recognized the right of the State of Israel to exist in 1993, Hamas does not ascribe to this policy of recognition.

Hamas, a recognized terrorist organization, holds a charter that calls for the demise of Israel and refuses the right of Israel to exist as a nation in the region. It’s involvement in the new government has prompted Israel to completely take negotiations with or the recognition of the unity government off the table.

President Abbas “promised on Monday that the new government would follow his policy of recognizing Israel, renouncing violence and adhering to prior Palestinian-Israeli agreements, things that Hamas refuses to do." However, without a shared understanding vis-à-vis the recognition of Israel and other fundamentally different visions for the future, it will be expectedly challenging for the PLO to an effective body.

The US State Department , much to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s dismay and surprise, has announced that it will work with and support the new unity government. Deputy spokesperson Marie Harf, in the State Department's daily press briefing Tuesday reiterated that its support for the unity government does not implicitly mean that the United States supports Hamas as "it is not a government backed by Hamas, there are no members of Hamas in the government."

Criticism of the United States’ decision is coming from across the Israeli political spectrum. Jewish Home faction leader Naftali Bennnet says that “American recognition sends a message that terrorism pays” and Nachman Shai, a lawmaker with the left-leaning Labor Party, called the step “a slap in the face from the Americans.

For many Israelis, the establishment of the unity government signals the end of the peace negotiations. It also signals tremendous fear for Israelis regarding the future leadership of the Palestinian people.

Expert Ehud Yaari warns that “by this time next year Hamas could have not only an intact military force and terrorist agenda in Gaza, but also a solid foothold in the West Bank and at least a say in -- if not veto power over -- PA and PLO decisions. In that case, a new system would take shape in the Palestinian territories in which an armed-to-the-teeth political party gradually overshadows the central government and begins to take over numerous institutions.”

The United States officially supports a two-state solution—an independent national homeland for Palestinians in the future State of Palestine and an independent national homeland for Israelis in the Jewish State of Israel. The future Palestine will be comprised of the West Bank and Gaza and East Jerusalem along agreed upon borders similar to the pre-1967 ceasefire lines with land swaps. Presumably, this state will fall under the authority of new unity government until elections take place.

Even with a unity government, Gaza and the West Bank are geographically divided. This prompts two necessary questions:

First, will the unity government be able to overcome the geographic distance between the two territories and successfully hold legitimate and fair elections?

Second, on the off chance the peace negotiations continue, how will Hamas and Gaza actually fit within negotiations if they do continue?

As Middle East expert and former presidential advisor puts it, “Gaza and Hamas represent the real conundrum of the peace process. You can’t do a conflict-ending deal without them, and you can’t do one with them either. Nobody talks about Gaza and Hamas, because nobody has the slightest idea of how to deal with the challenges these issues pose.”

Further, if a framework for negotiation is reached, will it address a way to link the West Bank and Gaza?

This important detail is seemingly left out in the discussion of a two-state solution. How can we achieve a two-state solution when more than 1.7 million Palestinians residing within of the Gaza lack geographic proximity to the majority the future Palestinian state’s territory? 

More than ten years ago, President Clinton referenced the need for a “safe passage” connecting Gaza and the West Bank. According to previous negotiators, “this territorial-transportational link will likely be a corridor consisting of newly-created infrastructure, 100 to 200 meters in width, and include a road, a railway, and means for running utilities such as pipes and cables.”

The core issue regarding this corridor revolves around sovereignty. Both Israel and Palestine, for valid reasons, want complete control and sovereignty over this passage. For Israel, a corridor that cuts through the gut of Israel is a pressing security concern. For Palestine, the freedom of movement for its own citizens is necessary for an independent state.

While there have been proposals for Gaza’s absorption into Egypt and the West Bank’s integration into Jordan, this is not a plausible solution in any regard. There will need to be a way to connect the two territories that honor the integrity of an independent and sovereign Palestinian state whilst maintaining Israeli security.

Without a plan for creating a contiguous Palestinian state with a unified government vested in a peace process, how can negotiations move forward? Is there any silver lining for what Israelis spell out to be a doomsday scenario?

As in many aspects of the peace negotiation process, this contentious issue has no clear solution but needs to be brought to the forefront of the conversation. For Kerry and his peace team, the establishment of the unity government—albeit a flimsy one—is an incredibly important reminder of “Gaza's existence and its central place in any future peace arrangement.”