On Sunday and Monday this week an amazing thing happened – hundreds of Palestinian Authority officials drove from the West Bank to Gaza, through Israeli checkpoints, and no one from the government of Israel – not Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, not Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, not even Education Minister Naftali Bennett, made public statements calling to prevent these Palestinian leaders from embracing their brothers from Hamas in Gaza.
From 2006 when Hamas first won the Palestinian parliamentary elections until the latest attempt of the Palestinians to form a national consensus government in 2014 the governments of Israel have firmly rejected Palestinian reconciliation and threatened the Palestinians that any PA government that was ever backed by Hamas would be cut off and treated as Israel has treated Gaza since the Hamas coup in Gaza in June 2007.
There have always been many real problems between Hamas and the PLO under Mahmoud Abbas, but one of the issues that prevented Palestinian unity until now has been the Israeli-orchestrated threats, joined by the US and the EU, against any participation by Hamas in Palestinian governance. So why is this time different? It seems the answer lies in the security threats common to various regional players and Israel that have led to heightened discrete intelligence cooperation and even much more overt military cooperation between Israel and some of its Sunni Arab neighbors. Egypt’s leading role in reshaping Hamas after the leadership of Hamas moved from Qatar back to Gaza is the main and most important dynamic that has taken place over the past year. Hamas changed its founding covenant and while not officially adopting a two-state solution and recognizing Israel, declares that it will accept a Palestinian state in the 1967 lines, without recognizing Israel.
This is the same formula that the PLO had adopted as it moved away from its former official position that Palestinian was all of the land between the river and the sea into eventually accepting the two-state formula and recognizing Israel.
Hamas also officially removed antisemitic content from its platform and most importantly for the Egyptians, disassociated itself from the Muslim Brotherhood and agreed to combat Salafist elements in Gaza and cease all cooperation with Islamic State (ISIS) in Sinai. Egypt’s other main conditions, for which considerable pressure was applied on Hamas, concerned the extradition of terrorists who received shelter in Gaza and that the security forces on the Gaza side of the Rafah crossing into Egypt would be from the PA and not Hamas. It seemed impossible that Hamas would cave in to those demands, but it did.
The regional dimension plays a strong hand also with the Saudi-led political and economic war against Qatar, which has led to the closure of the Qatari money flow into Gaza and its replacement with Emirati and Saudi funds. These steps were further facilitated by the good relations between Abbas’s and Hamas’s main rival within Palestinian forces – Muhammad Dahlan and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi – as well as Dahlan’s business and political interests in the Emirates.
Dahlan’s name has not been in the news in the past few weeks, probably at the request/demand of the Egyptians so that the deep animosity between Abbas and Dahlan does not turn into the spoiler of all the Egyptian effort to end the split in the Palestinian house. Even if physically absent from the celebrations of unity witnessed by all Palestinians, even before the deal is signed and delivered, there is a very strong presence of Dahlan and his supporters both in the West Bank and in Gaza.
I believe that Dahlan’s people will have a significant role to play in controlling security on the Gaza side of Rafah, even if Abbas is working to ensure that his own Presidential Guards will be in charge. The opening of the Rafah crossing is the most important element in transforming life in Gaza into something more normal and the Egyptians, it seems, are much more likely to trust a deal with Dahlan than with Abbas on the most important aspect of Palestinian reconciliation for Egypt’s national security.
The Sunni Arab world is celebrating these developments in Palestine along with the Palestinians. Now there is renewed hope that some kind of Israeli-Palestinian peace process can be relaunched, although the more realistic assessments understand that Israel under Netanyahu is no partner for a real deal that would end Israel’s occupation and establish an independent Palestinian state. There are tangible hopes that Netanyahu will agree to American and Arab pressure to significantly improve economic conditions in the West Bank and Gaza.
There are also hopes that Palestinian reconciliation, together with an improved economy, will lead to new Palestinian elections for president and parliament that might bring about a younger and more moderate Palestinian leadership. There is now a significant majority among Palestinians in favor of Palestinian unity, ending Hamas rule over Gaza, replacing Abbas through elections and returning to negotiations with Israel (although few Palestinians believe that Israel is prepared to negotiate).
Lastly, Hamas will give up control over Gaza but will not turn their arms and soldiers over to Abbas. This is not the so-called Hezbollah model that has been mentioned in the press but rather something entirely new that will take shape over the next year. Hamas will no longer have control over financial resources and will not be able to divert Palestinian coffers into supporting their weapons and tunnel programs. Hamas will no longer be able to launch military escalation operations against Israel, without the agreement and consent of the Palestinian government. Hamas will seek to integrate itself into the mechanisms of PLO institutions and to gain political support as its engagement in legitimate Palestinian governance becomes locally, regionally and internationally more accepted.
It is somewhat ironic that the most extreme element in Hamas, Yahya Sinwar, released in the Schalit deal, is one of the leading forces behind these developments.
That should also be something to think about.
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.