The Arab Spring reaches Palestine

Reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, the siege of Gaza about to be lifted, and Washington’s favorite Palestinian, Salam Fayyad, directed to vacate his position as prime minister — these aren’t the changes Obama believes in. But since all that the US and Israel have been intent on doing in the name of the so-called peace process is preserving the status quo, they have effectively consigned themselves to the roles of political spectators in the New Middle East. Expect a great deal of huffing and puffing from the Israel Lobby and its representatives on Capitol Hill over the coming days.

In an editorial, The Guardian says:

The Arab spring has finally had an impact on the core issue of the region, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It came in the form of a draft agreement between Fatah and Hamas which took everyone by surprise. There are three chief reasons why, after four years of bitter and violent conflict between the rivals, Fatah acceded to all of Hamas’s political conditions to form a national unity government.

The first was the publication of the Palestine papers, the secret record of the last fruitless round of talks with Israel. The extent to which Palestinian negotiators were prepared to bend over backwards to accommodate Israel surprised even hardened cynics. The Palestinian Authority found itself haemorrhaging what little authority it had left. The second was the loss to the Palestinian president, Abu Mazen, of his closest allies in Hosni Mubarak and his henchman Omar Suleiman. While they were still around, Gaza’s back door was locked. But the third reason had little to do with either of the above: Abu Mazen’s faith in Barack Obama finally snapped. For a man who dedicated his career to the creation of a Palestinian state through negotiation, the turning point came when the US vetoed a UN resolution condemning Israel’s settlement-building. In doing so, the US vetoed its own policy. To make the point, the resolution was drafted out of the actual words Hillary Clinton used to condemn construction. Fatah’s frustration with all this has now taken political form.

Israel’s politicians reacted darkly to the news of reconciliation. From right to left, they shared an assumption which is out of date. It is that they retain the ability – and the right – to dictate what sort of state Palestinians will build on their borders. Having spent years fashioning the environment, the penny has yet to drop that a future environment composed of free Egyptians, Jordanians and even possibly Syrians could well fashion Israel’s borders. Even after Mubarak fell, the consensus was that Cairo was so preoccupied with internal problems that it lacked the energy to make foreign policy.

Not so. Yesterday foreign minister Nabil al-Arabi announced that Egypt would shortly be lifting the siege of Gaza. These events pose a direct challenge to the status quo that Israel, the US and the EU have fashioned. Do they now subvert the will of the Egyptians they claim to champion? Does the US do what it did the last time Fatah and Hamas reconciled at Mecca, and pull the plug on the unity government? Do the Quartet threaten to withdraw the PA’s funds, because, as is very likely, Salam Fayyad will no longer be there to disburse them? The US could twist Fatah’s arm, but Fatah might just sign on the dotted line all the same.

Jack Shenker reports:

The emergence of a reconciliation deal between Hamas and Fatah on Wednesday took most observers by surprise, but behind the scenes a new cast of players had been moving the relevant pieces into place ever since a popular revolution ousted the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

His regime had long declared publicly that Palestinian unity was a key foreign policy objective, and the rhetoric made sense. Hamas was proving a troubling neighbour in the Gaza Strip on Egypt’s north-eastern border and Cairo had every interest in locking the political Islamists down into a more moderate political framework. Moreover, Egypt’s stewardship of the negotiations boosted its flagging regional status and helped to ensure US political support – and money – kept flowing towards Cairo.

Egypt’s hated spymaster Omar Suleiman was placed in charge of the unity drive, but below the surface Egypt was more interested in the appearance of reconciliation talks than it was in the reality. Israel and Washington had no genuine desire to see a unified Palestinian government, and Egypt’s thinking followed suit – until, that is, nationwide protests erupted against the regime in late January, and Suleiman was promoted to vice-president in a failed attempt to shore up Mubarak’s position.

Given the country’s internal chaos, few expected his replacement, Murad Muwafi, to devote much energy to the issue of Palestinian factionalism, but in fact Muwafi took the issue seriously – so seriously, in fact, that no fewer than five Israeli delegations were dispatched to his offices in the space of a few weeks in an effort to ward off any unity deal.

Muwafi’s stance was shaped partly by the ascendancy of the career diplomat Nabil el-Arabi to the position of foreign minister in Egypt’s interim government. Arabi had a reputation for saying some decidedly undiplomatic things regarding Egypt’s close alliance with Israel under presidents Mubarak and Sadat, and as part of an internal battle to wrest control of some policy issues away from the secret services – where they had drifted under Mubarak – and back under the auspices of the foreign ministry, he began making loud and relatively critical noises about Israel, marking an important shift in rhetoric. “It is time to stop managing the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict, it’s time to end the conflict,” he said earlier this month.

Egypt, in short, was now ready to take Palestinian reconciliation seriously, and that shift in mindset coincided with further regional turmoil: the uprising in Damascus, where most of Hamas’s leadership is based. With the long-term future of their host – Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad – in doubt, the group’s top brass knew it could not risk alienating the Egyptians at the very moment Cairo was finally mounting a genuine push to bring Hamas and Fatah together.

Haaretz reports:

Egypt’s foreign minister said in an interview with Al-Jazeera on Thursday that preparations were underway to open the Rafah border crossing with Gaza on a permanent basis.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil al-Arabi told Al-Jazeera that within seven to 10 days, steps will be taken in order to alleviate the “blockade and suffering of the Palestinian nation.”

The announcement indicates a significant change in the policy on Gaza, which before Egypt’s uprising, was operated in conjunction with Israel. The opening of Rafah will allow the flow of people and goods in and out of Gaza without Israeli permission or supervision, which has not been the case up until now.

The Guardian reports:

Hamas has insisted on the departure of Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister favoured by Israel and the west, under a deal agreed with its rival faction Fatah for a unity government, according to sources in Gaza.

The Islamist organisation also said it would keep control of the Gaza Strip under the accord, which is expected to be formally signed by leaders of the two factions in Cairo next week.

The plan drew further criticism on Thursday from Israel, which has said it would not deal with a Palestinian government that included members of Hamas.

However, the interim Hamas-Fatah government will have no involvement in negotiations with Israel. Talks will still be conducted by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, headed by Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.

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3 thoughts on “The Arab Spring reaches Palestine

  1. Christopher Hoare

    There is a lot yet to settle, but one can tentatively approve of these changes as a benefit bestowed by the Arab Spring — fully justifying all the support it gathered in the West to keep the hegemons’ dirty hands out of the mix. Alas, this is not the first time that Fatah and Hamas have come to an agreement, but hopefully it may prove to be the last needed. The political map of the Middle East is changing and the unified Palestinians have the right and power to change their part of it.
    The unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood seems to be shifted away from September by the timetable announced for elections etc. Was it just a red herring for the Zionists and their stooges to fret over while the negotiations were ongoing? As for the talks with Israel — a Palestinian Authority independent of US charity and free from IDF policing is as important a prerequisite for talks as is a complete settlement freeze.

  2. Norman

    Perhaps, just perhaps, if this comes to fruition, Israel will finely be put in its place. World opinion already is shifting against the bully Israel, now with the eminent reopening of the border between Gaza & Egypt, Israel will no longer have leverage over the Gaza strip. With these changes, along with Jordon & Syria too, as well as unification of Hamas & Fatah, will it be too long before the U.S. puts distance between itself & Israel?

  3. Colm O' Toole

    Obviously it is fantastic news. Actually two pieces of fantastic news. The end of the Gaza Siege & a United Palestinian government both announced within the last 24 hours. Both of course with Revolutionary Egypt playing an vital role. Hopefully a sign of things to come with a newly freed Egypt.

    Just think 11 months ago nine activists were killed on the Flotilla attack attempting to break that siege of Gaza. Now here we are with the siege broken and not a thing that Israel can do about it.

    As for the reconcilliation between Hamas and Fatah, I’m hoping this closes another sorry chapter which began in 2004 when Yasser Arafat died. The political vaccum after he died was never successfully filled and the loss of such an important leader would naturally be a blow to any national resistance movement. As Chris says this is not the first time a reconcilliation deal was made (the other in 2007 collapsed) but hopefully in a New Middle East this time it will be achieved.

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