Signs of rapprochement

Leaders within Fatah are waking up to the dangers of the
present course charted by Abbas, writes Khaled Amayreh in
the West Bank


With the US and Israel telling Palestinian Authority (PA) President
Mahmoud Abbas that keeping away from Hamas is a sine qua non for the
continuation of the “peace process,” many in Fatah are now realising
that Israel and its US guardian-ally are only utilising Palestinian
national disunity to further weaken the Palestinian negotiating
position.

Observers in the occupied Palestinian territories cite a number of
recent signs indicating that a certain thaw in the Hamas-Fatah
showdown is taking place.

Last week, a debate took place between Fakhri Hammad, head of the
Hamas-affiliated Gaza-based Al-Aqsa satellite television, and Basem
Abu Sumayya, head of the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Radio and
Television Corporation. The encounter, the first since Hamas ousted
Fatah forces from Gaza last year, occurred during a three-day
conference on the role of Palestinian media in bolstering tension
between Fatah and Hamas.

Scores of journalists and media operatives meeting in the West Bank
town of Jericho linked up via video- conference with their colleagues
in Gaza to discuss the “dismal state of affairs facing the
Palestinian media”. Abu Sumayya and Hammad were questioned on the
role of their respective TV stations, especially with regard to
vilification and incitement by each side against the other.

Hammad vowed to put an end to all forms of incitement against Fatah
and the PA, provided reciprocity from the Fatah side. For his part,
Abu Sumayya said he was “willing and ready to open the doors of our
radio and television to the representatives of Hamas”. He added, “we
are cutting back on some of the vilifying epithets we use in
reference to Hamas.”

Many participants hoped the encounter, which was more polite than
cordial, would help bring some sanity into the generally convulsive
discourse championed by both Hamas and Fatah with regard to each
other. The Jericho-Gaza conference, sponsored by the Ramallah- based
independent AMIN Media Network, urged both the Fatah government in
the West Bank and the Hamas government in Gaza to refrain from
incitement and allow “all Palestinian media” to operate freely.

The conference also called for the formation of two committees made
up of professional journalists, one in the West Bank and the other in
Gaza, which would meet with political leaders at the highest level to
urge them to guarantee press freedoms, release detained journalists
and refrain from detaining media operatives for voicing
non-conformist views.

Other recommendations included an immediate cessation of epithets
such as calling the Gaza government “coup-mongers” or “Hamas’s
gangs”, and calling the PA regime in Ramallah “American stooges”.

A few days earlier, Hamas authorities in Gaza allowed one of the
leading Palestinian newspapers, Al-Ayyam, to resume publication and
distribution in the Strip. The paper was banned several months ago
following the publication of articles and reports that Hamas
officials deemed far beyond the pale of what is acceptable.

Hamas officials in Gaza told Al-Ahram Weekly that they hoped that
Ramallah would reciprocate by allowing Al- Aqsa TV correspondents to
operate unhindered, as well as allowing the redistribution of the
Hamas-affiliated daily newspaper, Falastin, and the weekly Al-Risala
in the West Bank.

Efforts to encourage good will and foster a positive atmosphere are
likely to continue as both Hamas and Fatah realise that the party
that appears to be hindering national unity will lose respect in the
eyes of the Palestinian masses. A recent opinion poll showed that a
growing number of Palestinians are shunning both Fatah and Hamas due
to their enduring schism. Khalil Shekaki, who conducted the poll,
says the trend is likely to endure if meaningful steps are not taken
to end the crisis.

Apart from the public mood, there are certain political calculations
prompting both sides to reconsider their entrenched positions. Many
influential people within Fatah are becoming convinced that any
prospective peace deal with Israel would be far below Palestinian
expectations — let alone aspirations — absent rapprochement between
Fatah and Hamas.

Firas Yaghi is the former executive director of the Palestinian
Elections Committee. He argues that a genuine peace process with
Israel hinges on internal Palestinian harmony. “Without national
unity, we can’t reach peace with Israel, and our people will not be
able to attain their goals, and we will eventually be overwhelmed by
national melancholy,” he said.

However, it is unlikely that US President Bush and Israeli Prime
Minister Olmert — the latter eager to display toughness in talks
with the Palestinians in order to divert attention from his latest
corruption scandal that may signal an early end to his political
career — will tolerate the restoration of Palestinian national
unity. The reason is clear. Solid rapprochement between Fatah and
Hamas would strengthen the Palestinian negotiation position and make
it harder for Israel and the US to blackmail and bully Abbas, a man
of weaker calibre compared to late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

With Hamas sitting next to the Fatah driver, or even in the back
seat, many Palestinians believe that Palestinian negotiators would be
in a better position to wrest from Israel most if not all of their
demanded rights covered by UN resolutions 242 and 338. This includes
the total Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967,
including all of East Jerusalem, as well as a just settlement for
Palestinian refugees pursuant UN Resolution 194.

Abbas, at least ostensibly, doesn’t object to these “constants”.
However, his commitment to them appears significantly less than that
of Hamas and even the vast bulk of Fatah leaders, especially at the
grassroots and intermediate levels. Hence, US-Israeli insistence on
keeping the Hamas- Fatah rift intact, at least as long as it takes to
get Abbas to accept a final peace settlement in line with Israeli-US
preferences, namely a deformed and truncated entity, without East
Jerusalem, without territorial contiguity, and certainly without
honouring the right of return of refugees.

Israel and the US, rightly or wrongly, believe that the Hamas factor,
despite all efforts to neutralise it, is preventing Abbas from
accepting such a settlement. This is likely what Israeli President
Shimon Peres meant when he claimed this week that, “had it not been
for Hamas, the Palestinians would have had an independent state a
long time ago.”

Most Palestinians scoff at such remarks given the fact that Israeli
settlement expansion, which is continuing unabated despite peace
talks and constant European protest, has been and continues to be the
central factor impeding the creation of a viable Palestinian state.

Now, with peace talks going nowhere despite dubious leaks suggesting
progress, some Fatah leaders who follow the so-called “Arafat line”
are warning that Fatah stands to lose both the battle of peace with
Israel and its standing with the Palestinian public. Hence, the
willingness of many Fatah leaders to seek rapprochement with Hamas
before it is too late.

One of the main expressions of current anxieties among Fatah leaders
is their shunning of Abbas in favour of Marwan Barghouti, the
imprisoned Fatah leader who reportedly favours speedy reconciliation
with Hamas. This trend, reliable Fatah sources argue, is likely to
grow, especially if current talks with Israel prove fruitless as
expected.

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