Nathan Thrall writes: For a moment in early June, it seemed to many Palestinians that their political leadership was on the verge of making a historic shift. On June 2, seven years of political division—between the unelected government in the West Bank dominated by Fatah, and the elected government in Gaza controlled by the Islamist party Hamas—formally came to an end. Hamas ministers in Gaza resigned, surrendering their authority to a new government of national consensus that would rule over both Gaza and the West Bank. More important, the new government pledged to adhere to the three principles long demanded by the US and its European allies as conditions for receiving vital Western aid: non-violence; adherence to past agreements; and recognition of Israel.
But on June 12, the new Palestinian arrangement was thrown into question by the abduction of three Israeli teenagers studying at yeshivas in the West Bank. The Israeli government is holding Hamas accountable for the kidnapping, and US Secretary of State John Kerry has also accused the group, though Hamas has not claimed responsibility and so far no evidence has been provided. The resulting crackdown on Hamas by Israeli forces working in coordination with Palestinian security forces in the West Bank, meanwhile, has renewed doubts that President Mahmoud Abbas can advance Palestinians toward unity. Before the abductions, Israeli, American, and European opposition to real power-sharing between Fatah and Hamas was too great to allow meaningful Palestinian reconciliation, even if the two parties wanted it; today national unity seems more distant still.
Yet it is not obvious that this should be so. Although the US did not change its policy toward Hamas after June 2, it did give formal recognition to the new government. The reason for this recognition was not because Hamas was no longer perceived to be a terrorist organization; it was because, with the Islamist movement’s own acquiescence, the new government excluded Hamas, was stacked with ministers committed to opposing Hamas’s program, and offered Fatah a foothold in Gaza for the first time in seven years. In Gaza and the West Bank, the new government is understood by all factions to belong to Ramallah. That is no less true today than before the kidnapping. The new government contains not a single Hamas-affiliated minister and strongly resembles the previous Fatah-led government in Ramallah, retaining the same prime minister, deputy prime ministers, finance minister, and foreign minister. It also pledged to pursue the political program of Fatah leader, PLO Chairman, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and, most importantly, to meet the three abovementioned conditions for Western aid. [Continue reading…]