Palestinian reconciliation: Hamas' opening gambit

Hamas and Fatah leaders have been meeting Cairo this week to continue hammering out the details of the third unity agreement they’ve tried to reach in the past five years. The agreement would give Mahmoud Abbas the authority to appoint a transitional cabinet, sidelining Hamas and, in theory, his own Fatah party. Officially, Hamas’s top leaders - Khaled Mashaal and Ismail Haniyeh - have committed to them. But Al-Ahram, Egypt’s state-owned daily, is reporting that Hamas is determined to secure their own concessions from Abbas in exchange for allowing him to assume the post of interim prime minister. It is not clear which Hamas leaders are pushing these measures, though if there is a concerted effort from within the group, I would not be surprised to see the name of their #2 man in Gaza, Mahmoud Zahhar, pop up.

If this debate is indeed going on as Al-Ahram describes, it first of all shows that despite efforts to show unity, Hamas’s Gazan leadership is still livid over Khaled Mashaal’s decision to conclude the Doha agreement without consulting them first, and is determined to ensure that it gets a “fair share” of the spoils, which are spelled out in no uncertain terms:

“conditions also feature Hamas’s selection of one of its leaders to assume the post of deputy prime minister and handling of three ministerial portfolios which include the Interior, Justice and Finance ministries … Hamas also wants to select 15% of the members of this government”

The three ministries named are the ones Hamas would most need in order to reinsert itself in the West Bank after losing much of its organizational apparatus there following the 2007 split with Fatah, because since then, Israel and the Palestinian National Authority have cooperated to root out Hamas operatives in the West Bank. This is simply pragmatic self-interest on Hamas’s part. Control of the Justice and Interior ministries would put the movement in a position to influence court decisions and to control appointments/hirings among the internal security forces. Given the power of the purse, a Hamas Minister of Finance would be able to channel money to favored projects and organizations: Hamas’s successes have, since the 1980s in part stemmed from the popular support its charitable and welfare activities generate.

[Editor’s note: Hard to see of a MoF controlled by Hamas would be dealt with by the international community that finances the PA! Or how a Hamas Interior Minister would be accepted by security forces that are basically Fatah gangs trained by US forces! This plan implies a break with the US, at the very least.]

In theory, it would only be fair to give the office of deputy prime minister to Ismail Haniyeh since he is the de facto prime minister of Gaza, or to Hamas’s legislative leader, Ismail al-Ashkar - yet Abbas and Mashaal seem to have already ruled out doing such a thing while meeting in Doha.

These demands are not at all surprising, but they could become yet another stumbling block on the road to fulfilling the unity agreement.

Hamas might settle for some compromise - its leaders, if they are serious about implementing the unity agreement, must know that Abbas will not agree to all of these demands - but a compromise by either Abbas or Mashaal here would be hard for their followers to swallow. Al-Ahram notes that Abbas “will [likely] refuse these conditions, as he is insisting on choosing figures who are accepted on the international level to occupy these sensitive positions.” He’d have to reverse his position, or agree to allot certain ministerial posts to Hamas members ahead of the legislative and prime ministerial elections that are theoretically going to be held in a few months. Either way, he’d look like he was caving in and end up antagonizing both the US and Israel by making concessions. Israel has made clear it will not negotiate with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas members, and giving any of these portfolios to Hamas members would jeopardize distribution of US aid to the Palestinian National Authority.

The talks in Cairo are now reportedly on hold as a result of Hamas’s demands.