Palestinian reconciliation talks end with no sign of progress

Thomas Helm

The National  /  July 31, 2023

Prospect of a Hamas-Fatah unity government remains distant despite deteriorating situation in West Bank.

Reconciliation talks between rival Palestinian factions have failed to achieve any political progress, analysts say, despite mounting pressure to present a united front against Israeli aggression in the West Bank.

President Mahmoud Abbas, of the Fatah party, sat down with rival political groups, most notably Gaza-based Hamas, for talks in Cairo on Sunday that were billed by some as a chance to heal years-long rifts between Palestinian organizations.

Mr Abbas described the rift between Hamas and Fatah as today’s “nakba”, the Arabic word for catastrophe that also refers to the mass displacement of Palestinians during the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.

His assessment followed many previous failed attempts to patch over differences since the parties split in 2007.

By Sunday evening, Abbas had announced only a vague intention to form a “follow-up committee”, seen as a sign that the day’s talks had achieved little.

“The formation of a committee is not a good sign,” Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian minister, told The National. “Had there been any achievements, they would have been announced by now.”

The reconciliation effort comes as Israel’s right-wing government pushes ahead with one of the country’s most heavy-handed agendas regarding the Palestinian territories in years, particularly in the occupied West Bank.

It includes ramped up settlement activity, near daily military raids and a large-scale security operation in the northern Palestinian city of Jenin at the beginning of July.

Despite these mounting challenges, divisions among Palestinian political organizations remain stark, especially between Abbas’s Palestinian Authority and Hamas.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the militant organization responsible for spates of rocket fire into Israeli territory this year, boycotted the talks.

Hugh Lovatt of the European Council on Foreign Relations said the divisions had hardened since Abbas cancelled national elections in 2021.

“His Palestinian Authority is now stepping up its detention campaign against members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad as they expand their military confrontation against Israel in the West Bank,” Lovatt said.

“Against this backdrop, Palestinian reconciliation remains a distant prospect.”

At the meeting, Abbas’s main rival, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, called on Palestinians to exploit “unprecedented internal divisions” in Israel.

Israel is currently witnessing the largest protest movement in its history as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seeks to pass a deeply controversial judicial overhaul.

Haniyeh said this “window of opportunity” required Palestinians to “think collectively and take exceptional decisions”.

But Khatib said a collective approach was unlikely, given Hamas’s significant demands if it is to join a unity government.

He said Hamas’s insistence that it join the Palestine Liberation Organization, led by Abbas, is particularly difficult for mainstream Palestinian politicians to stomach.

There are fears that if Hamas, which is designated a terror organization by a number of western countries, does join, it would undermine the PLO’s decades-long recognition by the international community as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

“Hamas does not feel obliged to make concessions in talks,” Khatib said. “They are in comfortable control of Gaza and have huge popularity in the West Bank because of their image as the true resistance.

“While Fatah, subject to Israeli pressure, sees its popularity diminishing rapidly. They are the ones that need partnership.”

The lack of progress comes despite high-level stewardship of the reconciliation effort from Egypt, which convened the meeting.

Following Sunday’s talks, Abbas met Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Monday in the coastal city of New Alamein where he thanked him for Egypt’s hosting of the factions’ meeting, Palestinian news agency WAFA reported.

During his time in Egypt, Abbas also said he intends to hold elections if Palestinians in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem are able to participate.

There have been no Palestinian presidential or parliamentary elections since 2006, a key reason why many view the PA as corrupt.

There are fears within the organization that votes would be lost to Hamas, which is viewed by many Palestinians as a stronger opponent to Israel.

Thomas Helm is Jerusalem Correspondent at The National