In trying to explain the significance of the agreement reached at Doha between Mahmoud Abbas and Khaled Meshal, many Palestinians are a little perplexed. Is this a genuine agreement that can be implemented? Or is it merely a publicity stunt meant to glorify Qatari ruler Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who mediated between them? Those whose memory is a little longer than the average will note that just a year ago, in January 2011, Al-Jazeera began an aggressive media campaign during which it exposed documents proving – it claimed – that Mahmoud Abbas had sold Palestine and Jerusalem to Israel and betrayed the Palestinian claim. Abbas boycotted the news network in response.
Moreover, since the reconciliation reached in Cairo in May 2011, the two sides have failed to agree on a temporary prime minister who would govern toward general elections. During negotiations over this position, Abbas requested UN recognition of Palestine as an independent state, despite determined opposition from Israel and the US. Hamas meanwhile made no effort to tone down its venomous criticism of Abbas; it heightened its attacks when he renewed talks with Netanyahu’s government in Amman, under the Jordan king’s patronage.
And suddenly we see a 180-degree turn, with Doha replacing Cairo and Meshal agreeing to Abbas taking the role of temporary prime minister, in clear violation of a Basic Law which does not permit the president to be prime minister as well. The Americans themselves insisted on this law at the outbreak of the second intifada, in an attempt to reduce the authority of Arafat who filled both positions at the time. Abbas was appointed prime minister as a reward for his opposition to the armed struggle and to Arafat’s path. Now Abbas is violating the very law that was legislated for his sake.
To understand the riddle, we have no choice but to rely on available information and take a guess at what remains hidden. Qatar already set its sails to the new winds blowing through the Arab world, after realizing that the 90% who supported armed struggle during the last decade (according to opinion polls conducted by Al-Jazeera’s “The Opposite Direction” program) had sobered up. This 90% has understood that their support for armed struggle against Israel merely served the dictatorial regimes in their efforts to suppress the people and deny basic liberties. Khaled Meshal too fell in love with the Arab Spring on discovering that he’d become persona non grata in Damascus and Tehran. Meanwhile Abbas has learned that with the fall of Mubarak he has been left an orphan, while America turned its back on him at the UN and urged him to renew futile talks with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, a serial refusenik.
Schism within Hamas
The ink had hardly dried before the Doha agreement came under attack from all sides. Gaza Foreign Minister Mahmoud al-Zahar criticized Meshal and doubted his authority to sign the agreement. Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh visited Tehran despite efforts by Qatar and possibly by Meshal himself to prevent this. The visit merely added to the confusion and embarrassment when Ali Khamanei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, slammed Arafat who he said had died a contemptible death because he had strayed from the path of armed struggle. This led to sharp protests from Fatah, which denounced Haniyeh’s silence in the face of Khamanei’s assertion.
The Doha agreement has caused a schism within Hamas. On one hand, the Gaza faction rejects any agreement with Israel and sticks with what remains of the rejectionist front, which supports the Syrian regime and has lost all credibility among the public. On the other hand, the external faction, which has its finger on the Arab citizen’s pulse, has chosen democratic change and internal reforms, understanding that it must transform the armed struggle into a peaceful one. Meshal believes that the popular struggle proved his ability to recruit international Arab opinion to the cause. Abbas, for his part, is under heavy US criticism, and American financial aid to the PA is hanging by a thread.
But beyond narrow political considerations, there are other questions that cannot be ignored. What is the temporary government’s agenda to be, and what is the political significance of the Doha agreement? Does it support or oppose armed struggle? Is it in favor of negotiating with Israel? Will it continue the alliance with donating countries and the policy of getting cash flow from abroad? What is its position regarding security cooperation with Israel? If no answers are forthcoming, the agreement will become a string of empty words.
Palestinians blame both sides
As in the Arab states experiencing revolt, these political maneuvers are taking place far from the concerns and needs of citizens. Demonstrations and protests have been organized recently in the West Bank against Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s intention to raise taxes. Citizens have lost their faith in the leadership not least because of rampant nepotism, and they see the reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah mainly as an effort to divvy up the spoils of government between them.
On the other hand, Gaza has been darkened by a general power outage, after Egypt stopped fuel supplies to the central generating station. On Feb. 15, the Al-Hayat website published an item claiming that many residents fear an uprising in Gaza, which they compare to a pressure cooker on a high heat with no safety valve. Gaza residents blame both the Abbas- Fayyad government and Hamas with its Gaza government, holding them both responsible for the crises in the Gaza Strip – especially the electricity problem. Many residents who spoke to Al-Hayat accused both sides of neglecting Gaza residents and being indifferent to their suffering, and claimed they were interested only in maintaining their positions, taxing the population and dividing the spoils among the faithful.
Interestingly, according to the Al-Hayat report, residents make no distinction between Hamas and Fatah; they understand that the political debate enables both sides to take advantage and reward their supporters. Thus the agreement – even if it is implemented, which is not a given – has come too late. The Palestinians know that neither side is able to deal with the occupation or to build a democratic society which takes care of its citizens. The Palestinian people is in need of a third option, an alternative to both Fatah and Hamas, an option which will concern itself first of all with the interests of Palestinian citizens, and which can combine struggle against the occupation with social justice.
In the meantime, the main beneficiary of the Palestinian situation is Israel’s rightwing government, which draws strength from the weakness of Palestinian society and from the abyss that has opened up between the nation and its leadership. The struggle against the Occupation must include a new agenda and profound change within Palestinian society – a process that was halted by the Oslo Accords when they replaced the liberation struggle with a corrupt regime. The Palestinian Authority does not serve Palestinian citizens, neither in the West Bank nor in Gaza. It serves the Occupation and Israeli settlement alone, and it’s high time it went. The building of a new Palestinian society is not an easy task, yet it is the heart of the Arab Spring which, like the Egyptian, Tunisian and Syrian uprisings, is traveling a winding road but will eventually bring the Arab nations onto the historic path towards independence, liberty and democracy.
- Translated by Yonatan Preminger