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Mon 9 May 2011 12:37 PM

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Palestinian unity faces tough road

Healing of rift between Hamas and Fatah is just the start for Palestine, warn experts

Palestinian unity faces tough road
In this handout image provided by the Palestinian Press Office (PPO), exiled leader of Hamas, Khaled Mashaal (R) meets president of the Palestinian National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas (2L) on May 4, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt (Getty Images)
Palestinian unity faces tough road
A Palestinian man wrapped with the Fatah party flag shakes hands with a Hamas security man as they celebrate the political reconciliation agreement during a rally in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on May 4, 2011 (AFP/Getty Images)

The
Palestinians' path to unity is strewn with obstacles that have thwarted past
efforts at reconciliation between rival groups Hamas and Fatah and could do so
again.

Whether
the groups can overcome the challenges this time will likely depend on the
course of regional upheaval that brought them this far, leading to what one
analyst said was a deal forged out of "necessity rather than conviction".

The
deal endorsed in Cairo on Wednesday presents a united front as the Palestinians
seek UN recognition as an independent state in September. But it offers no
clear solutions to some of the toughest problems faced by Fatah and Hamas.

Their
conflict has resulted in rival administrations governing the West Bank and the
Gaza Strip and has set back the Palestinians' quest for statehood.

Early
signs do not bode well. Hamas says PA security forces that have suppressed its
activists in the West Bank have detained six sympathisers since its leader
Khaled Meshaal met Fatah chief and PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Egypt.

Managing
security in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is seen as one of the potential
pitfalls in "the understandings" reached under the mediation of
Egypt's new military rulers who took power from Hosni Mubarak in February.

Security
will not be on the agenda of a new, technocratic government envisioned under
the agreement. Its main tasks will be Gaza reconstruction and holding elections
within a year.

For
now, the sides appear to have shelved the question of exactly how internal
security forces operated by the rival administrations can be united. De facto,
that means Hamas will continue to control the Gaza Strip.

"You
will have a government governing two different situations," said Hani
al-Masri, a Palestinian political commentator closely involved in the
reconciliation efforts.

"This
landmine will mean the new government will manage rather than end the
division," he said.

The
sides have agreed to the formation of a "supreme security council",
though the Cairo understandings do not state what it will do.

With
the help of its Western allies, the Palestinian Authority has built new
security forces trained to keep law and order in West Bank cities and prevent
any repeat of what happened in Gaza in 2007, when Hamas seized control there.

Hamas,
in turn, has developed its own security forces in Gaza, while also maintaining
a military wing designed for armed conflict with Israel - an objective openly
opposed by Abbas who believes in negotiations over combat.

The
Cairo agreement does not indicate how the rivals will reconcile that
fundamental difference in approach to Israel that lies at the heart of their
division, though Masri said the deal indicated Hamas had de facto decided to a
ceasefire for now.

The
understandings are also not clear on the role of a new Palestinian leadership
body designed to run affairs until the reform of the Palestine Liberation
Organisation (PLO) - another issue that has long thwarted attempts to forge
unity.

The
PLO is the umbrella organisation led by Abbas which has led negotiations with
Israel over the past two decades. Hamas is not a member. The Cairo agreement
talks of a temporary leadership body whose decisions "cannot be
obstructed". Hamas will be part of it, but it is not clear what power it
will have. It could take months for the rivals to agree on the make-up of the
technocratic government of independents outlined in the deal, though this is
seen as doable.

By
keeping Hamas out of the government and keeping it out of politics, the
Palestinians hope to avoid a repeat of the Western boycott faced by the
Palestinian Authority when Hamas won legislative elections in 2006. It may not
be that simple.

The
PA's Western donors, including the United States, have said the new government
must commit to conditions including recognition of Israel and the renunciation
of violence - terms Hamas will not accept.

Israel,
which has described the unity deal as a blow to peace, has already taken
action, freezing transfers of tax revenues it collects on behalf of the
Palestinian Authority.

Bassem Zubaidi, a Palestinian political
commentator, said "external obstacles" erected by Israel or the PA's
donors could pose another major challenge to the unity agreement.

To
forge real agreement on the issues at the heart of the division, including a
common political agenda, would take years, he added. "These matters are
big and very complicated and will not be implemented overnight," he said.

"But
they can start with small steps, such as forming the government and holding
elections."

 

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