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Effects of the Arab Spring

by Joachim Paul


Palestinan kids in front of the wall between Ramallah and Jerusalem

Palestinan kids in front of the wall between Ramallah and Jerusalem

Because the Arab democracy movement is spreading to the Pales­tinian territories, Fatah and Hamas had to sign a reconciliation agreement in early May. By Joachim Paul

Based on an Egyptian proposal, the accord foresees a gradual end to the split within the Palestinian Authority (PA). It also signals a vague move – but no tangible roadmap – towards reform of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). Joint committees of Fatah, Hamas and other organisations will prepare parliamentary and presidential elections as well as a reform of the security services in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. For a one-year transition period, a politically independent caretaker government is to run the PA and ensure financial support from international donors.

The pact makes a clear distinction between the PA and PLO and their respective mandates and legitimacy. The immediate aim is to end the administrative schism between the West Bank and Gaza, the long-term goal is to revitalise the PLO as the political force for all Palestinians, even beyond the occupied territories. PLO chairman Mahmud Abbas has retained his mandate to negotiate a deal with Israel. In the long run, Hamas is likely to gain formal political influence through stronger representation in the PLO.

Fatah and Hamas mirror the political balance of power in the Arab world before 2011. Only after that balance was dis­rupted, could the gap between them be bridged. Omar Sulaiman, the former head of Egypt’s General Intelligence Directorate, had tried to broker a deal even before Hamas won the parliamentary elections in 2006 and security chaos followed. All he achieved was the agreement on tahdiya in 2005, a temporary lull in the armed Intifada against the Israeli occupation.

Egypt’s post-Mubarak government is now talking about opening the border to Gaza and critically revisiting the Camp David Agreement with Israel. Egypt will apparently take less account of US interests and put more emphasis on issues it considers important. As Egypt’s foreign minister, Nabil al-Arabi assumed the authority for policymaking on the Palestine issue. Earlier, the secret service had been in charge. In the meantime, al-Arabi was chosen to lead the League of Arab States.

Hamas could no longer refuse to sign the agreement. In addition, it is feeling the pressure of the Arab Spring, in Damascus as well as in the Gaza Strip. After an initial pro-Assad statement, Hamas needed to reconsider its stance on Syria in view of the brutal suppression of public protests by security forces in that country. The common ideological ground that Assad’s hostile rhetoric towards Israel used to provide looks exhausted now, particularly in the eyes of Hamas’ Sunni-islamist supporters in the Arab world. As early as March, moreover, demonstrations in Gaza showed that the Arab Spring can spread to the Palestinian territories. After intense Facebook debates, tens of thousands of Palestinians took to the streets demanding an end to “division” rather than an end to “occupation”.

Fatah had to sign the agreement too. This organisation has been suffering from diminishing legitimacy for quite some time. 20 years after the Madrid Conference kick-started the peace process, President Mahmood Abbas still has little to show that would justify further negotiations with Israel in the eyes of his people. Palestinian unity will boost the chances of getting a large majority in the UN General Assembly to recognise a Palestinian state.

A government of independent technocrats that is backed by Hamas and Fatah will hardly achieve all of its goals in the allotted time. But it is a first step towards uniting the institutions of the divided PA and re-starting the democratisation process that stalled after Hamas’ electoral victory in 2006.

By supporting such a government, European policymakers can help to improve the conditions for achieving Palestinian sovereignty and a two-state solution. Such support would also signal a new beginning in the relations with Egypt. An independent Egypt that embraces the new moods of the nation and region without questioning the peace treaty with Israel would be in Europe’s interest.