Gaza Strip, the Fatah–Hamas agreement, and the role of Egypt
After 10 years of a de facto government in the Gaza Strip, with no elections and border crisis from Israel and partially from Egypt, the fundamentalist group Hamas has reached a new agreement on 12 October 2017 with Fatah, the ruling party in the West Bank. The two counterparts, which have been In constant conflict since the rise of Hamas in 2006 after its victory in the Parliamentary elections, are now committed to creating a new unity government.
Hamas also aims to new elections, all after the hopeful announcement in mid-September. However, this decision was taken in a context lacking primary and fundamental resources and under the pressure of Egypt, as part of its strategic vision for regional security. Considering the unsuccessful attempts of joint governance in the past and the circumstances under which this decision was taken, the reliability of this agreement remains uncertain.
The political rise of Hamas
The political organization of Fatah, led by the current president of the State of Palestine Mahmoud Abbas, was in a deep crisis when the legislative elections took place in January 2006. After 40 years of government, relevant factors such as the failure of the Oslo Process, the consequent confrontations of the second Intifada, the death of its charismatic leader Yasser Arafat in 2004 and the internal divisions concerning the relation with Israel, fostered a punishment vote in favor of Change and Reform, the party led by the moderate Ismail Haniyeh belonging to the controversial group Hamas.
The organization had already participated in the municipal elections of 2005 with a very good outcome. In the 2006 general elections, for the first time since its foundation in 1987, Hamas not only took 72 seats – against the 42 of Fatah – but also the absolute majority of the 132 seats in the Parliament.
Hamas, whose head at that time was the exiled Khaled Mashal, aimed at establishing a form of government politically inspired vy Islamic principles. That government includes a military wing to engage in the armed struggle against Israel. An aspect of Hamas’ doctrine that clashes with both Fatah and Western countries’ political stance.
In that sense, two factors triggered the confrontation. First, the rejection of Hamas to the request of the International Community of condemning any forms of violence, of recognizing the existence of Israel, as well as of accepting the peace agreements. Second, Hamas established its first internal police under the name of Tanfithya in April 2006, an action considered as unconstitutional according to Mahmoud Abbas.
Tensions and armed conflict increased with direct or indirect attacks against key actors of the rival factions until Hamas and Fatah signed an agreement in Mecca on 8 February 2007. However, this was not bound to last as only three months later, the takeover of Gaza by Hamas resulted in the dissolution of the reconciliation government.
That ultimately led to the current territorial division of the Palestinian Authority, with Hamas ruling the Gaza Strip and Fatah ruling the West Bank. At an external level, Israel kept on strictly patrolling Gaza’s borders while the crossing point of Rafah became a key factor. Internally, the escalation of conflicts between Hamas and Fatah had been increasing in the recent years, with unsuccessful attempts of reconciliation.
The double concern of Egypt: the enclave of Rafah and the Palestinian division
Rafah and Kerem Shalom are the two accesses from Gaza to Egypt, but Rafah is the only escape route as Kerem Shalom is a cargo crossing point. On 15 November 2005, Israel and the Palestinian Authority signed an Agreement on Movement and Access, including the Rafah border.
The Council of the EU welcomed the initiative, proposing the participation of Egypt, as well as the creation of the European Union Border Assistance Mission at Rafah Crossing Point (EUBAM Rafah), “in order to contribute to the opening of the crossing point and to build up confidence between the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority.” However, the “conquest” of Gaza upset the agreement and, from that moment on, the crossing point of Rafah has been opened only occasionally, especially in cases of humanitarian crises.
During all these years, Egypt has been very careful in managing the opening and closure of Rafah. The lack of understanding between Hamas and Fatah resulted in several episodes of violence and unsuccessful agreements. After the conquest of Gaza and the closure of borders, in January 2008 Hamas demolished 200m length of the wall by using explosives so that the population could get essential goods.
In order to find a solution to the crisis, in June 2009 Hamas proposed a multilateral resolution mechanism with Egypt, the Palestinian Authority and the EU. Unfortunately, the intransigence of Israel, backed by Egypt and the EU, along with the lack of cooperation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority prevented this from happening.
Egypt achieved a new stage in the resolution process in the Cairo agreement signed on 4 May 2011, in which Hamas and Fatah committed to a government of unity to be established within six months and the holding of elections while Egypt opened discussions with Hamas in order to improve relations, reduce the travel restrictions and allow Hamas policemen to safeguard the crossing point of Rafah. However, the serious differences regarding the security control over Gaza made the agreement fail again.
In October 2012, another attempt of reconciliation failed in Qatar.
In June 2014, The parts agreed to set up a Palestinian unity government, headed by Mahmoud Abbas and with 17 ministers elected both by Hamas and Fatah. Once again though the agreement did not prosper because Hamas considered that the expected breakdown of funds would have negatively affected Gaza.
With a neighborhood confrontation and in the aftermaths of two coups d’etat in 2011 and 2013, in May 2016 Egypt proclaimed that the Rafah crossing point would be only permanently opened when both Hamas and Fatah would have reached an agreement.
The collapse of Gaza and the statement of Hamas
In order to alleviate the budgetary imbalance, in March 2016 Hamas opted for an own Administrative Committee, which only worsened the situation in Gaza. Already in fragile circumstances due to the restrictions imposed by Israel, in the long run this decision resulted in negative consequences. Especially, following Mahmoud Abbas’s moves, who was against a parallel government. 30% reduction in the salaries of civil servants, obstruction in the access to hospitals outside Gaza, lack of medication delivery or lack of electricity due to the non-payment of the energy service to Israel.
With Gaza having collapsed, between February and September 2017 there were relevant changes both internally and externally. Internally, in February this year, Hamas designated a radical military leader, Yahya Sinwar, as the successor to the current leader Ismail Haniyeh, who in May 2017 was at the same time nominated as the new president of Hamas, replacing Khaled Mashal. Externally, Hamas took the first important step by accepting a Palestinian State with the borders of 1967, recognizing for the first time, although only implicitly, the State of Israel and breaking ties with the Society of Muslim Brothers. With the help of Egypt seeking reconciliation, Hamas made an important statement on 17 September 2017, by outlining the dissolution of the former Administrative Committee and the decision of having new elections and a new government of unity with Fatah. This statement of intentions is now official due to the agreement reached on 12 October.
Even though this may appear as a hopeful scenario, it is still too early to talk about an actual reconciliation. Hamas has recognized for the first time the State of Israel and has distanced itself from the Society of Muslim Brothers. These elements make possible that the October 2017 agreement is different from the other ones.
However, we must not forget neither the unsustainable conditions in Gaza, provoked by its duple enmity with Fatah and Israel, nor the pressure of Egypt, so a good relation with the closest neighbors would end with the current chaos in the territory.
At the same time, the fact of having more regional allies could make Hamas decide to obtain further international support with which to exert more pressure over Israel. However, would Israel change its political strategy? Considering its regional power, its alliance with the United States now reinforced under the Presidency of Donald Trump and the fact that Hamas is still considered as a terrorist group by many influential countries, including Israel, seems quite unlikely. As long as Hamas justifies the armed conflict against Israel, they will not get the recognition it claims. The decision of Hamas should then be based on a truly peaceful commitment, not in a context of emergency, and the political wing must precede the military one.
Regarding Fatah, the West Bank counterpart must play an active role too, both supporting the agreement and leaving aside the policy based on the law of the strongest. Mahmoud Abbas must renounce to the infringed blackmail in Gaza which in the end is mostly suffered by the citizens than by the Hamas leadership. Now it is time to re-establish the conditions of Gaza so the agreement is well seen by both societies.
Finally, Egypt needs a high level of regional stability so that the crossing point of Rafah could remain open without affecting its internal security. Egypt has already been involved in national convulsive conflicts and the existence of the Society of Muslim Brothers as well as the former thread of Al-Qaeda now represented by DAESH, force Egypt to a more exhaustive control of its borders. Reinforcing part of them by ensuring a peaceful coexistence among its citizens would lift them a huge burden, reducing the open fronts.
The coming weeks will give a hint whether we are in an unprecedented scenario or in front of a new failure. All depends on the involved actors: now is the time to take mutual responsibility.
Lara Castro Navarro
Master’s degree in Contemporary History (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona)
Notes and references
 European Union External Action – Common Security and Defence Policy (2012, March). EU Border Assistance Mission at Rafah Crossing Point. Available at: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/meetdocs/2009_2014/documents/sede/dv/sede290512factsheeteubamrafah_/sede290512factsheeteubamrafah_en.pdf