How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Last week, the government of Hamas in Gaza and the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority in the West Bank began reconciliation talks in Cairo, following a week of symbolic cabinet meetings and visits by high-ranking Egyptian officials to the Gaza Strip. The proceedings have remained closely guarded, but within a few days, Hamas and Fatah officials announced that a deal had been reached over how to jointly govern Gaza, which involves Fatah controlling the border crossing with Egypt and the deployment of 3,000 Palestinian Authority security forces in the Gaza Strip.
The talks have come after a decade–long rift between the two political groups. In 2007, fighting broke out after Hamas won a majority in the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections and Fatah and its allies refused to accept the results. Since then, the conditions in Gaza have worsened due to an Israeli-imposed blockade. Levels of poverty and unemployment have increased dramatically. Gazans have been cut off for an entire decade from essential building materials and food–stuffs, as well as from access to their own resources, such as offshore gas reserves. These conditions have been coupled with repeated assaults by Israel, which have overall made life untenable for ordinary Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
Post–Arab Spring politics in the Middle East have also complicated life in Gaza. In 2013, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who became president of Egypt after leading a coup against the Muslim Brotherhood–backed president Mohamed Morsi, reinforced the blockade on Gaza from the Egyptian border to punish Hamas for its relationship with Morsi. Similarly, because Hamas did not take the Syrian regime’s side during Syria’s uprising and ensuing civil war, President Bashar al-Assad and his sponsor Iran severed ties with the group. And this past June, Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) imposed a blockade on Qatar, one of the only Arab countries with remaining ties to Hamas. Around this time, the Palestinian Authority also began punishing Gaza, in order to weaken Hamas, by cutting off electricity, in coordination with Israel, and by refusing to pay government salaries, which account for the livelihoods of a large segment of the Palestinian population. As a result, Hamas found itself backed into a corner with few allies left and a public fed up with the siege.
The three states that helped broker the talks—Egypt, the UAE, and the United States—are well aware of this reality and are trying to take advantage of it. Their overall aim is to neutralize Hamas’ power by weakening its popular support and its ability to make the public believe that it is the last resistance movement actively fighting Israel. To accomplish this task, regional and international powers are taking advantage of Hamas’ now weak position to co-opt it altogether. They have so far been able to pressure Hamas to give up control of the border crossings into Egypt and Israel, for example, and have even discussed the possibility of Hamas’ giving up its military wing, the Ezzedeen al-Qassam Brigades, which, from Hamas’ perspective, has played an effective role in garnering concessions from Israel.
Of course, Hamas may be acquiescing only strategically, so that it can appear serious to the Palestinian public about reconciliation and secure an end to the siege. Also, because Hamas is being compromising, the public would blame the other parties and not Hamas if the talks were to fall apart. Although it is possible that Hamas is making such calculations, the group’s latest concessions are in line with its increasing acquiescence and its decline as a resistance movement over the past ten years. In 2006, Hamas won legislative elections because it took a hard-line stance on the Israeli occupation and represented an alternative to Fatah. After weathering years of sustained efforts to isolate and neutralize it, Hamas now finds itself moving in Fatah’s direction. In May, Hamas amended its charter to accept a two-state solution. The group has also begun to make amends with authoritarian regimes around the region, including in Egypt, Syria, and the UAE, and it may even dismantle or severely limit its military wing. (This is a major demand of the Palestinian Authority, so it is unlikely that a deal could be reached without some aspect of this happening.) In a sense, Hamas’ comparative advantage, as the last large-scale resistance movement, no longer holds.
That leaves little in the way, then, of the effort to neutralize Hamas. But ironically, the one major obstacle to achieving this goal is Israel. Internal dynamics within Israel have pushed its entire political establishment further to the right. Even U.S. President Donald Trump, who considers himself a friend of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has admitted that Israel is the most difficult actor in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Therefore, any Palestinian reconciliation or compromise built on joint governance by Hamas and Fatah in the West Bank will likely not pass muster with the increasingly hard-line Israeli government. The recent breakthrough between Hamas and Fatah would place 3,000 Palestinian Authority security officers in Gaza in an attempt to convince Israel to end the siege. But hopes are low that Israel will be flexible.
In this light, the current reconciliation talks do not bode well for Palestinian national liberation. Recent research has shown that negotiations and a reliance on international law are strategies that have not achieved much success for the Palestinians in dealing with Israel. Instead, the Palestinians have gained concessions from Israel mostly when they have used coercive measures, such as militant operations or even nonviolent protests that put a strain on the Israeli economy. If Hamas is neutralized, there will be no political alternative to impose pressure on the Palestinian Authority, and those who disagree with increased security coordination between the Palestinian leadership and Israel will feel even less represented. As a result, political mobilization in the Palestinian territories is likely to become increasingly ineffective and sporadic—and thus more violent.
Even if these reconciliation talks truly succeed, living conditions for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank will improve only marginally. The siege might be lifted to some degree, but the underlying cause of the hardship in the Palestinian territories—the Israeli occupation—will remain. Gazans will still be subjected to Israeli incursions, Palestinians in the West Bank will still face limited mobility and a choked economic sphere, and Palestinians living in Jerusalem will continue to suffer under a targeted campaign of home demolitions. As long as Israel’s political establishment maintains its right-wing trajectory, shifts on that front are unlikely. Furthermore, even if Hamas and Fatah unite, they may be presiding over an increasingly discontent populace that sees no remaining alternatives for seeking concessions from Israel. That is why these reconciliation talks represent the beginning of a dangerous stage in the history of the Palestinian national project—a project that will find itself increasingly sidelined.