The year 2011 began with a great deal of uncertainty — perhaps even promise — for the Palestinians. Much of that had to do with the revolutionary fervor that had taken hold in the region. The ousting of Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak were regarded by many young Palestinians as an opening — an opportunity to force open their own binds.
The March 15 Palestinian youth movement successfully captured and focused the energy of the Arab uprisings on the need for rapprochement between the Hamas and Fatah parties. After a period of stiff resistance by both political leaderships, efforts were made to the end to the rift that has bedeviled the Palestinians since 2007.
Not all progress on reconciliation in the first part of the year can be linked to the agitations of young Palestinians. Much of the impetus for the renewed political process was tied to the fact that Mahmoud Abbas was politically weaker after losing his main Arab sponsor, President Mubarak, while Hamas took account of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s increasingly isolated position — as Damascus had worked to counterbalance Cairo — and sought to buttress their legitimacy by engaging with the Palestinian Authority (PA), though for several months the deal that had been inked went nowhere.
That began to change as autumn approached. In 2009, September 2011 had been set as the deadline for the realization of Palestinian statehood by Salaam Fayyad, prime minister of the PA. In September 2010, United States President Barack Obama affirmed such aspirations by declaring that a Palestinian state would come to be in the next year.
As September 2011 approached and it became clear the claims would be pursued, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government began to issue hysterical statements about the potential consequences. Obama had long since walked back from his pledge, and his administration stated that any Palestinian moves at the UN would be vetoed.
Officially, the Americans and Israelis claimed that the only way to resolve the occupation was through bilateral negotiations. But in fact the Israelis were more concerned about the implications that recognition of the Palestinian bid would have for them in the International Criminal Court, International Court of Justice, and other international bodies that would become more accessible to the Palestinians. And the Americans, for their part, continue to cave in to the desires of the Israel lobby.
As part of their statehood development track, the Palestinian Authority also approached UNESCO, the education, science and culture promotion wing of the United Nations, for membership. Their approval prompted the Americans and Israelis to withhold their funding contributions from the organization.
The push for statehood had two very important consequences for both Hamas and Israel as the moves taken by the Palestinian Authority comparatively weakened both of the PA’s adversaries. For Hamas, a surge in Abbas’ popularity meant a corresponding dip in theirs. And for Israel, the Palestinian attempt to highlight Israeli intransigence succeeded magnificently on a global stage.
It was in this context that the Hamas-Israel prisoner swap was conducted. After more than five years of fruitless negotiations, the two sides agreed to exchange 1,027 Palestinians for one Israeli prisoner. While roughly 7,000 to 10,000 Palestinian prisoners remain incarcerated in Israel, the release of even a fraction of them greatly enhanced Hamas’ prestige. For Israel’s embattled prime minister, the move meant a temporary boost in his poll ratings as well.
But despite the political uproar, in the end the statehood bid that was submitted to the UN did not gain enough support for a vote, ostensibly, said Security Council members, because the Palestinians remained politically divided. In that way, the bid inadvertently created an added incentive for Hamas and Fatah to genuinely mend their rift. Khaled Meshaal — Hamas’ political leader — and Mahmoud Abbas met in November to discuss when elections could be held. Crucially, Salaam Fayyad agreed not to join the next government, a major point of contention for reconciliation.
As things stand it is difficult to foresee the future in Palestine and, given the symbolic nature of the UN bid, to assess 2011’s gains. But it appears that the drive to join international institutions is a sustainable one and, more importantly, elections for a national unity government are on track for May of next year. But, as ever, nothing is certain in Palestine.
Ahmed Moor is a contributor to Al Jazeera English and is a Master in Public policy candidate at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government