Consortium Against Terrorist Finance Nov. 7, 2016, 3:24pm

The announcement of one of the least credible – yet reportedly impending – political mergers of the past decades came last Wednesday from Qatari territory. Qatar’s state-sponsored media outlet Aljazeera had a live broadcast of Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal’s address at the Fourth Palestinian Security Council during which he revealed that Hamas is weighing a major unification with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Hamas’ call for inclusion in the PLO, the official representative of the Palestinians recognized by both Israel and the international community, came on the 99th anniversary of the Balfour declaration, the 1917 document that voiced diplomatic support for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Over the past fifty years, efforts to challenge that declaration and to establish a Palestinian state have united all Palestinians and their political mandataries, including the PLO and Hamas. The ceremonious contours of Meshaal’s statements – carefully prepared by the Hamas leadership over the past months and manifestly issued under the aegis of Qatar, the state sponsor of the Muslim Brotherhood and safe heaven and financier of Hamas – suggests bilateral intention to move forward in spite of substantial outstanding issues.

Speaking to Aljazeera cameras, Meshaal offered the necessity to join forces for the Palestinian cause as the main reason for the merger. “Let us agree on a national strategy and that everyone is with the resistance, which is a legitimate right that raises the cost of the occupation,” he stated. Over the past months, Hamas leadership’s inability to secure stable funding due to contingent circumstances in Gaza and to shifting political alliances coupled with internal political rifts have signaled a broader organizational crisis. Therefore, the merger may be read as an effort to address that crisis by bringing Hamas under the umbrella of a recognized, well-established political entity.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the curtain, the Fatah-dominated PLO has experienced growing turmoil against the PLO leader's autocratic rule. Founded in 1964, the PLO includes diverse Palestinian factions among which Fatah’s primacy remains unchallenged. Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas has chaired the PLO since 2005, but his leadership has been seriously questioned recently. Violent protests that erupted in several refugee camps in the West Bank have attracted attention to the Palestinian National Authority’s corruption and longstanding disregard for Gaza as well as to Abbas’ political failures. Abbas’ entourage has claimed that the revolt was fostered by a Fatah faction led by ousted Mohamed Dahlan backed by some Arab countries, especially Egypt. On October 26, 2016 a source interviewed by AFP reported that Palestinian authorities foiled a plot to murder three top Fatah executives. Abbas’ determination to move forward with the merger may thus be ascribed to his efforts to dissimulate and overcome growing dissent and disaffection of his own Fatah faction.

From Hamas’ side, several preparatory steps have paved the way for the announced merger, starting with Meshaal’s shocking comments on September 24th admitting to an erroneous political calculous behind the decision of Hamas to singlehandedly rule the Gaza Strip over the past ten years. On October 17, the Qatari official news agency reported that discussions on recent political developments regarding Gaza topped the agenda of a meeting in Doha attended by Qatar’s emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and by Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and his deputy Ismail Haniyeh. On that occasion, the Qatari emir reportedly praised “the Gazan people’s steadfastness against Israel’s brutal occupation” and further emphasized Qatar’s continuous commitment to support the Palestinian cause – a support that Hamas remains extremely appreciative of, as Meshaal and Haniyeh seemingly made clear. Ten days later, again under the auspices of the Qatari emir, Meshaal and Haniyeh met Abbas to explore ways to overcome bitterness between Fatah and Hamas in light of the ultimate goal of the Palestinian national reconciliation. As Abbas eventually informed, the possibility of establishing a Palestinian national unity government as well as holding municipal, parliamentary, and presidential elections in the West Bank and the Gaza strip were discussed at this this preparatory gathering.

No matter how apparently successful the preparatory measures, the two parties’ comments on the deal reveal an enduring, substantial disagreement over a crucial ideological and strategic matter: albeit both aspire to the establishment of a Palestinian state, Fatah remains committed to a nonviolent, diplomatic strategy, while Hamas espoused violence for the liberation of Palestine since its very constitutive act. Last Wednesday, in a press release by Hamas posted on the official English website of the international movement of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas reiterated that it will not renounce armed struggle for the sake of the upcoming merger: “We renew our pledge to continue the path of resistance and struggle, whatever the sacrifices, to purge and cleanse our land and our holy places of the abomination of Zionist occupation and to fend off its aggression and beat its criminal blockade of our people.”

How, then, are two parties such as Fatah and Hamas, with a decade-long track record of failed attempts at peaceful cooperation and aborted unity deals in the name of a cause they share, expected to overcome irreconcilable strategic disagreements? This scenario appears even less credible today, in light of the recent tensions between the two parties due to the cancellation of the Palestinian municipal elections expected to take place in Gaza and the West Bank on October 8, 2016 turned into mutual accusations. But even in the unlikely event that the two found a way to pragmatically coexist within the same political umbrella in spite of Hamas’ devotion to armed struggle – an identity mark that is as core to Hamas’ identity just like the group’s existential commitment to the Palestinian cause – the sole acceptance of Hamas under the PLO would automatically, gravely compromise the PLO’s credibility as an international actor committed to a diplomatic solution of reconciliation with Israel. Ultimately, in the long run, the deal would cause bilateral structural damages to both parties that would prove of far greater magnitude than the short-term benefits sought.

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