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.
For Hamas, the deal was a difficult and internally unpopular step to take. When the Islamist movement won elections in Gaza and the West Bank in 2006, it earned a popular mandate to rule but was largely prevented from doing so. It refused to adhere to the three principles, and the US and its European allies expended every effort to cripple it. In the West Bank, authorities were shifted from the elected Hamas prime minister to the office of President Abbas, as Hamas legislators were arrested and Hamas institutions shut down. In Gaza, Hamas’s consolidation of power was punished with an economic blockade, international isolation, attempts by US-backed Palestinian security forces to take by force what Fatah had lost at the ballot box, and a seven-year-long boycott by over 60,000 Palestinian Authority employees in Gaza, who were paid to stay home in an effort, ultimately unsuccessful, to bring down the Hamas government there.
But in early June, to the great surprise of Fatah, Egypt, Israel, and the US, Hamas agreed to renounce responsibility for administering Gaza, handing over governance to a group of unelected figures while staying silent as the new ministers were sworn to adhere to the principles Hamas had steadfastly rejected since 2006. Hamas was not deterred even by President Abbas’s statement, in the days before the handover, that it was a “sacred duty” to continue what the Islamist movement regards as treasonous cooperation between Palestinian and Israeli security forces, a practice that has dramatically suppressed Hamas’s military, political, charitable, and social activity in the West Bank. Rather than taking to the airwaves with their outrage and threatening to pull out of the reconciliation agreement as they have done in similar circumstances in the past, Hamas leaders limited themselves to sardonic remarks: “Abbas’s security cooperation,” one senior leader in Gaza told me, “is more sacred than Jerusalem and the al-Aqsa mosque.”
For years, Palestinian reconciliation had been inhibited by, among other things, the threat of Israeli sanctions, international boycotts, and a cut in Western funding to the Palestinian Authority if Hamas were allowed into government. If carried out, these threats would further enfeeble the Palestinian economy and undermine one of the primary incentives for Palestinians to accept the West Bank leadership’s political program of state-building, non-violence, and bilateral negotiations toward a two-state settlement. Hamas had no assurance that if it again defeated Fatah in elections it would not face the same fate as in 2006. The two sides were also locked in innumerable and immovable disagreements about matters including security cooperation with Israel, the strategy of pursuing negotiations to achieve independence, Hamas’s exclusion from the PLO, control over security forces, and the independence of various armed groups in Gaza.
The June 2 agreement did not resolve any of these issues. What it did instead was provide a way for Hamas to buy time, pushing the burdens of governance and salary payment in Gaza onto Ramallah while allowing President Abbas to claim that he now represents all Palestinians in negotiating with Israel and advocating for Palestine on the international stage. The deep differences on how to reconcile and eventually unify would then be dealt with after the new government was formed.
Whether by accident or design, it was a clever strategy for both Fatah and Hamas. If the two sides had sought to compromise on their substantive disputes, they would have implied to the international community that Hamas had influence over the new government, thereby triggering automatic cuts in US funding to the Palestinians. But by agreeing to leave all these issues unresolved while forming the most innocuous post-reconciliation government imaginable, Hamas and Fatah forced the Palestinian Authority’s donors to decide whether they would boycott a government formed entirely on Abbas’s terms. Then, if the issues in dispute were addressed slowly and incrementally, donors would be forced with each new development to decide whether some small step toward compromise with Hamas—such as the convening of the Hamas-majority Palestinian parliament that has been dormant since 2007, or the passing of new laws within it—is sufficiently upsetting to risk a collapse of the economic and security edifice of the West Bank and Gaza.
Thus far, the downside to this strategy has been borne entirely by Hamas. In the days following the agreement, Fatah was quick to take credit, and most Palestinians saw the deal as an act of capitulation by a greatly weakened, financially depleted, and politically isolated Hamas. Many Palestinians knew that the Islamist movement felt compelled to hand over formal authority to the Ramallah government above all because of the unprecedented hostility it faced from Egypt’s new leader, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Upon taking power in July 2013, Sisi tightened the border controls imposed on Gaza, further sealing the main exit for Gazans to reach the outside world, and destroyed the majority of the Egypt-Gaza tunnels that had carried goods whose taxation made up a significant portion of the Hamas government’s revenues.
By formally renouncing administrative responsibility for Gaza, the Islamist movement gave away most of its leverage. It will have trouble forcing Abbas to abide by the agreement and to make new concessions to Hamas as disputed issues begin to be discussed. Indeed, both Abbas and the Palestinian prime minister have stated that they refuse to pay the roughly 40,000 government employees in Gaza, who have until now been paid by Hamas. They are reluctant even to facilitate payment by other countries, such as Hamas’s ally Qatar, because the Palestinian Authority’s American and European donors would fear being charged with indirectly supporting Gaza employees who belong to Hamas.
Meanwhile, many Gazans complain they haven’t seen any benefits from the deal. Electricity outages still average twelve hours per day. The crossing with Egypt remains almost entirely shut. Israeli bans on the import of crucial building materials have not been relaxed. Israel and the US still oppose true reunification of the government ministries in Ramallah and Gaza, as well as the convening of a functioning Palestinian parliament. If Israel, Egypt, the US, and Europe hoped to weaken Hamas and strengthen Fatah by demonstrating to Gaza’s residents the benefits of replacing Hamas rule with that of Fatah’s pro-Western leaders, they were doing a very poor job of it. A common refrain in Gaza was that the cause of the siege had been lifted, but the siege had not.
Then came last week’s abduction of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank. With the help of Abbas’s security forces, Israel has taken the opportunity to arrest some three hundred West Bank Palestinians and counting, most of them Hamas members, and it has threatened to deport some to Gaza. This is Israel’s largest operation against Hamas in the West Bank since the second intifada. Residents of Hebron, the West Bank’s largest governorate, describe themselves as besieged. For several years Hamas has spoken of the need to stir up resistance among the largely docile residents of the West Bank. In this sense, at least, Israel’s reaction to the kidnappings seems likely to advance Hamas’s goal.
Among Palestinians, Abbas’s response to the abductions has compromised his standing, by highlighting the extent of his security cooperation with the Israeli army as it closes off large West Bank population centers and raids Palestinian refugee camps. Unlike the security cooperation that is used routinely to put down his factional rivals in the West Bank, these actions are seen by many Palestinians, and not just Hamas supporters, as against the national interest, an attempt to thwart the freeing of incarcerated Palestinian national heroes in exchange for the Israeli captives. Whereas Abbas sat through nine months of settlement building during fruitless and humiliating negotiations with Israel and could not even achieve the release of all 104 prisoners that the US told him Israel had promised, his rivals are suspected, by Fatah and Israel alike, of having just begun the process of bringing home many more.
In the last prisoner exchange between Hamas and Israel, in October 2011, 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, among them those serving the longest sentences, were traded for a single Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. For three kidnapped teenagers—should the captors manage to negotiate a trade—Palestinians will likely demand the release of a large number of prisoners, well beyond the total incarcerated since the kidnapping. As with the Shalit exchange, such an outcome would significantly weaken Abbas, who is already being attacked for his response to the kidnapping, with his chief Fatah rival, Muhammad Dahlan, saying that it represents an abandonment of the Palestinian people. Two weeks ago, Fatah could claim Hamas’s resistance project was all but finished. Today it is also the future of Abbas’s program that looks uncertain.
At the same time, the abductions, especially if they turn out to have been orchestrated by Hamas, may strengthen Abbas’s hand in the continued exclusion of Hamas from power. The kidnapping allows Abbas to argue more forcefully that he cannot possibly be seen to make concessions to the Islamist movement, given Hamas’s heightened opprobrium and the sensitivity of US and other donors to the charge of giving succor to the perpetrators of the abduction. Far from posing a significant setback to either Abbas or the Obama administration, the capture of the three yeshiva students, if indeed conducted by Hamas, could allow both to pursue the path they had sought out from the beginning: reconciliation on Abbas’s terms, without reciprocation. Whatever embarrassment the kidnapping might cause the US and Abbas, it will enable squeezing Hamas further.
The larger question is how long the West Bank status quo will last. No successful national liberation movement has depended so heavily—in the realms of finance, security, diplomacy, and mediation—on the closest ally of its occupier. US funding to the Palestinians is an obstacle to, or excuse for refraining from, just about every means of leverage against Israel that Palestinians might employ. For the Ramallah leadership, maintaining strong ties with the US means it cannot encourage popular protests in the West Bank, cannot limit cooperation on security when Israel invades areas ostensibly under Palestinian Authority control, cannot attempt to join a number of UN agencies and international institutions, cannot grant political freedoms to non-militants in Hamas, cannot meaningfully share power with Hamas in the PLO, and, not least, cannot allow real democracy in Palestine. Hamas argues that US financial and security assistance—together averaging roughly $300 million annually—should be replaced by funding from Qatar, among others, because the costs of US dependency are simply too great. The Islamist movement came to power in 2006 because of President George W. Bush’s program of democracy promotion; in the years since Hamas’s victory, US policy toward Palestinians has shifted to democracy prevention. But what the US approach seeks above all else to achieve—a final settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—is unlikely to be won with leaders who lack a popular mandate.