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Palestinian accord problematic for regional powers

In this Saturday, March 17, 2007 file photo, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, left, and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh from Hamas, right, raise their linked arms as they move through the crowd at a special session of parliament in Gaza City. Palestinian officials from the rival Fatah and Hamas movements said Wednesday, April 27, 2011, they have reached an initial agreement on ending a four-year-old rift that has left them divided between rival governments in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Hatem Moussa/AP

Think of it as one more upheaval in the uprisings sweeping the Arab world.

The announcement of a historic reconciliation between archrivals Hamas and the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas has pleased a lot of Palestinians, but it has sent the two regional powers, Israel and Iran, scurrying to control the damage to their policies.

Israel, which has steadfastly rejected any formal dealings with the militant Islamic movement Hamas, must now renew its efforts to keep the group blacklisted in the international community.

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Iran, which has been a supplier of funds and armaments to Hamas, faces the prospect of having its relationship curtailed.

Why? Because Mr. Abbas, who is to remain Palestinian President during a year-long government of national unity, is firmly in the camp of Saudi Arabia, Iran's bitter rival in the region. And while it may not be a part of the two groups' formal undertaking, Mr. Abbas is unlikely to have agreed to terms with Hamas unless Iran were to be replaced by Saudi Arabia as the primary backer of the new unity government.

For its part, Hamas has said it only took help from Shia Persian Iran because none of the Sunni Arab states offered help.

But decoupling Hamas from Iran causes Israel a problem. It will make it harder for Israel to isolate and discredit Hamas when it's allied with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, rather than with the pariah regime in Tehran.

Israel wasted no time in denouncing the Palestinian accord.

"The Palestinian Authority must choose between peace with Israel and peace with Hamas," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. "There cannot be peace with both because Hamas strives to destroy the state of Israel and says so openly," Mr. Netanyahu said.

"I believe the whole concept of reconciliation shows the weakness of the Palestinian Authority," he said, raising the prospect of Hamas taking over the West Bank, in addition to its stronghold of Gaza.

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Nabil Abu Rdaineh, spokesman for Mr. Abbas, made it clear how the Palestinian Authority feels about the Israeli government these days.

"The agreement between Fatah [Mr. Abbas's ruling party]and Hamas … is an internal affair and has nothing to do with Israel," Mr. Abu Rdaineh said. "Netanyahu must choose between a just peace with the united Palestinian people … and settlements."

Palestinians seemed pleased with the choice their leaders were making.

"This will help us heal the rifts and empower all Palestinians to end the occupation and embody statehood," said Hanan Ashwari, a veteran Palestinian legislator and human rights advocate.

Indeed, this new unity government is likely to make it easier to get support at the United Nations in September for recognition of a Palestinian state, about which Israel is increasingly worried.

It is noteworthy that neither Israel nor the United States appeared to have any idea that this Fatah-Hamas rapprochement was being negotiated, an indication of Egypt's new, cooler approach to the two countries.

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When it did learn the news, Washington resorted to a formulaic response.

"The United States supports Palestinian reconciliation on terms which promote the cause of peace," White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement. "Hamas, however, is a terrorist organization which targets civilians."

"To play a constructive role in achieving peace, any Palestinian government must … renounce violence, abide by past agreements, and recognize Israel's right to exist," Mr. Vietor said.

While Mr. Abbas's Palestinian Authority has accepted those conditions, Hamas has not. It says that it will accept the creation of a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders, and will observe a long-term truce with Israel. But it will not recognize Israel's right to exist on land Hamas considers to be part of Palestine.

What brought the two parties together now, four years after a brief but bloody civil war that left Gaza in Hamas's hands while Fatah ruled the West Bank?

There appear to have been three reasons.

First, the interim military authorities in Egypt take a warmer view of Hamas than did recently ousted president Hosni Mubarak. This appears to be the product of closer ties between the military leadership and the formerly outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, a close relative of Hamas.

Second, Mr. Abbas has been increasingly concerned about a growing malaise among his West Bank citizenry. While his people are enjoying unprecedented security and a bustling economy, they still hanker for statehood and see no sign it on the horizon.

By moving to reconcile with Hamas, Mr. Abbas hopes to avert the kind of uprisings seen in neighbouring Arab states.

And third, Hamas, too, fears a popular backlash. Its support in Gaza has noticeably sagged - people this week said they didn't think Hamas would get the votes of more than 20 per cent of the electorate. At the same time, Hamas also is being increasingly criticized by the more religiously extreme Salafi-Jihadist groups that accuse Hamas of forsaking its Islamic principles.

Hamas also thinks it can win back support through reconciliation. And it also may want to provide a place in Cairo where it can base its international operations should the friendly regime of Syria's Bashar al-Assad find itself out of power due to protests there.

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