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National unity talks in Palestine

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The Arab revolutions have pressured the Palestinian leaders in Fatah and Hamas to sign a unity treaty. Peter Main considers what this means for the Palestinian people

The “Unity Treaty" signed between Hamas and Fatah in Cairo last week came as a bolt out of the blue for the western powers who have dominated the region for decades. It demonstrates the strength of the forces driving forward the democratic revolution in north Africa and the Middle East, what has become known as the “Arab Spring".

At a stroke, it raises the prospect of a united Palestinian nation backed by the active support of a revitalised Arab world. The treaty itself provides the basis for an interim government of “technocrats" that will replace the separate administrations of Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Fatah in the West Bank. As well as having responsibility for preparing elections next year, the new government is also expected to oversee the amalgamation of the two administrations, including their security forces.

News of the treaty was greeted with jubilation in both Gaza and the West Bank. For the great mass of Palestinians, the division between Hamas-led Gaza and Fatah-led West Bank has long been a disastrous weakening of the national movement. It was exploited not only by Israel, whose leaders argued that there was no legitimate representative of the Palestinians with whom they could negotiate, but also by Hamas and Fatah themselves. Both justified the repressive regimes in “their" territories by pointing to the treachery of the other.

At the same time, the treaty was greeted with open dismay on the part of the Palestinians' enemies. Israel's Netanyahu denounced it as a "tremendous blow for peace and a great victory for terrorism". Around the world, commentators and pundits expressed total surprise when the signing of the Treaty was announced.

It was not the cessation of hostilities that shocked the world. Talks between the two camps, openly encouraged by Russia, had been taking place in various locations including the Syrian capital, Damascus. What was unprecedented was that neither side had found it necessary to consult Washington, Jerusalem or the “Quartet" over their intentions. Moreover, the new Egyptian government under Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, brought to office by the downfall of the USA's principle Arab ally in the region, Hosni Mubarak, had also ignored Washington.

That fact alone shows the changing balance of forces in the entire region. Against a background of declining US power on a global scale, it was the pressure of mass mobilisations that forced Cairo to change course. Opposition to Mubarak's policy of support for Israel went hand in hand with opposition to his authoritarian regime at home. Tantawi's government recognised that its own survival depended on a very public demonstration of support for the Palestinians and a break from slavish acceptance of Washington's policy.

It should not be forgotten either that both Fatah and Hamas initially suppressed Palestinian demonstrations in solidarity with the Egyptian revolution. Both regimes immediately sensed, and rightly, that popular support for the democratic movement sweeping the entire region was as much a threat to them as to the likes of Mubarak.

What then explains their sudden change of heart? Both depend on international backers as much as on their own support amongst the Palestinians. Fatah, in particular, has been greatly weakened by the revelations concerning the secret deals they proposed to the Israelis in which they voluntarily sacrificed all the principles that they publicly claimed to hold as inviolable. In addition, Mahmoud Abbas' mandate as the head of the Palestinian Authority has already expired and cannot be renewed without elections. The new treaty effectively legitimises his position until the proposed elections next year.

Hamas, too, has been weakened, this time by the instability in Syria which is not only an important ally in the Arab world but also a conduit for material aid from Iran. The probable involvement of Tehran in orchestrating the entire policy manoeuvre also underlines the changing realities of the region. Even so, Cairo had to offer the prospect of breaking Israel's siege of the Gaza Strip by opening the crossing at Raffah to convince Hamas to collaborate in the new policy.

A further advantage of unification is that it will greatly strengthen the international status of the Palestinian Authority. In particular, it will enhance the prospects for a UN resolution to recognise the Authority as a state, which is due to be tabled in September. It would be diplomatically extremely difficult for the US to block such a resolution against a unified Palestinian Authority that is so obviously a product of the democratic revolutions that they supposedly have welcomed.

Even though its signatories are motivated by self-interest and hope to use it to re-gain control of the popular movement, the Unity Treaty is an important step forward for the Palestinians, whose struggle is key to victory of the Arab masses throughout the entire region. Although there is certainly a danger that a new Palestinian Authority would misuse its mandate to resume the hopeless and impossible goal of a compromise, two-State solution through negotiations with Israel, that is not inevitable.

The momentum towards national unity and the creation of a legitimate national leadership can now best be taken forward around the demand for free elections to a Palestinian Constituent Assembly. In such an assembly, revolutionaries will argue for the strategy of permanent revolution to create a single Palestinian state, including all the territory currently held by Israel, on the basis of the socialisation of the economy and the introduction of democratically controlled planning to ensure the genuine equality of all its citizens, irrespective of their religion, ethnicity or place of birth.