Factional divisions have existed among the Palestinians for as long as they’ve been politically active. Movements have developed, splintered and adapted, producing a diverse set of representational choices in the struggle against Zionism. Yet the contest between Hamas and Fatah lies well beyond the usual range of ideological differences. It is a long animosity, rooted in the early nineties, that has resulted in armed conflict between the factions.
Since 2007, a prolonged division has undermined any successful strategy that might have been mounted in opposition to Israeli apartheid. But now the Palestinians appear ready for rapprochement. A fundamentally altered regional landscape has combined with dwindling American influence and a moribund negotiations track to yield the best environment for reconciliation in five years.
See also: Israel vs. Gaza: Goliath vs. David
For a long time Fatah leader and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas could rely on the support of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in his effort to repress Hamas — a required condition of the negotiations process with Israel. But the Egyptian revolution deprived Abbas of critical support at an important time. The negotiations track he had committed to with Israel seemed stale and counterproductive even to stalwarts of the two-state solution, especially after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rebuffed American President Barack Obama’s best efforts at restarting talks.
Aggressive settlement growth and the total isolation of Jerusalem by Jewish colonies illustrated the contempt with which the Israelis regarded the negotiations. And while Abbas could attempt to ignore or downplay the message, critics from within his party and Palestinian society more broadly could not.
Abbas’ frustration with his position became evident when the normally deferential leader bucked his American patrons last year at the United Nations. The successful petition by the Palestinian mission to the General Assembly for upgraded observer status was as much an expression of the Fatah leader’s limited options as it was an attempt to prod the Israelis and Americans into re-engaging with the Oslo process his party had invested so much in.
The bid — which was popular among Palestinians — coincided roughly with an Israeli war that killed 400 Palestinians in the occupied Gaza Strip. Hamas withstood the onslaught and exacted a greater psychological cost than ever before from the Israelis through the use of longer-range missiles that targeted Tel Aviv. The result was that it found its public profile enhanced alongside that of Fatah.
When the Israelis responded to Fatah’s diplomatic maneuver at the United Nations by declaring new plans for building 3,000 settler homes in East Jerusalem, Fatah’s rationale for not implementing a deal with Hamas evaporated. At the same time, persistent Egyptian and Qatari pressure for a genuine reconciliation finally began to generate breakthroughs as the Americans faded from the scene.
The clearest sign of a meaningful development in the push for Palestinian unity came in December, when Fatah permitted Hamas to stage a rally in the West Bank.
The celebrations marked both the 25th anniversary of the organization and the perception of a positive outcome after the most recent Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip. They also marked the first time in years that Hamas supporters could publicly meet in the West Bank with no fear of harassment or worse.
Hamas reciprocated several weeks later when its leaders agreed to permit a Fatah rally in the Gaza Strip. Hundreds of thousands of Fatah supporters showed up, putting to rest the notion that Fatah no longer had a meaningful presence in the Gaza strip.
The two rallies were followed by face-to-face meetings between Abbas and Khaled Meshaal, Hamas’ political leader, in Cairo on January 9. The men reaffirmed their commitment to the implementation of reconciliation agreements that the two organizations signed in Doha and Cairo last year.
They also released a timetable outlining the measures that would be undertaken to move reconciliation along. For instance, the Central Elections, Social Reconciliation and Public Freedoms committees are due to reconvene today. Significantly, the two parties’ adherence to the timetable is to be overseen by a newly-formed committee chaired by Egypt, meaning Hamas and Fatah have agreed to an Egyptian referee.
The split between Fatah and Hamas has been a five-year-long source of individual, factional and national frustration for the Palestinians. New regional developments and within Israel and the Occupied Territories have produced an environment that is more amenable to a genuine reconciliation than ever before. Whether Abbas and Meshaal are moved by that fact — and whether they’re willing to make the most of their opportunity — is anyone’s guess.
Ahmed Moor is a master of public policy candidate at the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government