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Hamas-Fatah Unity Gov't Deal Reached

Fatah, the party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas, has reached an agreement with the terrorist organization Hamas to form a new unity government. Since the installment of Hamas in the leadership of the PA in March, the refusal of the United States and the European Union to continue providing aid has brought the Palestinian government to a standstill, as public employees have gone on strike to protest not being paid. This new Hamas-Fatah unity government, in which Hamas would be the dominant partner, is intended to ease international pressure, although only the EU and not the U.S. appears willing to resume aid. Hamas leaders have made statements regarding talks with Israel which have been vaguely reassuring to many, but comments made in the Arabic-language press make clear that they are not agreeing to peace talks with Israel or committing to past agreements signed with Israel. Hamas ministers in the government resigned on Wednesday, in preparation for joining the new unity government.

Meanwhile, efforts are ongoing to secure the release of captured IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, and 18 Hamas lawmakers were ordered freed. The New York Times reported that on Tuesday an Israeli court ruled that Hamas lawmakers could not be held on charges of being members of a terrorist organization because Israel had taken no action to prevent their election, even though they stood openly. On Tuesday, the Jerusalem Post published an article (“Hamas MPs May Be part of Shalit Deal”) by Khaled Abu Toameh and Yaakov Katz which suggested that a deal had been made between Israel and the PA by which the Hamas leaders would be freed once a unity government was announced, that Shalit would then be freed and then afterward about 800 Palestinian prisoners would be released.

This report from the Jerusalem Post, if accurate, would suggest political influence on an ostensibly judicial decision. At the time that this article was published in print, the article had been removed from the paper’s website, including archives. It is not clear whether this is due to retraction, a technical problem or some other reason. [TW Note: The article is apparently back online - as noted by a reader, and has been linked above.]

The U.S. and the EU have insisted that any Palestinian government including Hamas accept three conditions in order for aid to be resume: Hamas must renounce violence, accept previously signed agreements between Israel and the Palestinians, and recognize Israel’s right to exist. So far Hamas has not accepted any of the three in an unqualified way, although its leaders appear to be engaging in constructive vagueness.

As reported in the New York Times on Tuesday, “Officials said the new government would accept all previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements, an implicit recognition of a two-state solution. It would call for the negotiation of an independent Palestine outside of Israel’s 1967 borders… on the basis of an Arab League initiative…” The article goes on to say that statements made by a spokesman were “vague” as to recognition of Israel’s right to exist. As reported in the Washington Post the same day,

…Details of the agreement mark the first time Hamas has tacitly endorsed a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, if not explicitly the Jewish state’s right to exist… Palestinian officials said the deal does not require Hamas to explicitly recognize Israel or renounce violence. Instead, Hamas would accept previously signed agreements with Israel and the principles of a 2002 Arab peace initiative that calls for a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, territory Israel occupied in the 1967 Middle East war.

Hamas’s charter calls for the creation of an Islamic state across territory that now includes Israel. Party officials deny that the agreement amounts to a recognition of Israel. “Our program has not changed,” Sami Abu Zouhri, a Hamas spokesman, said on al-Jazeera television…

This is how Al-Hayat reported the issue based on a source in the office of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya:

…High-level sources in the prime minister’s office revealed to Al-Hayat that the program of the unity government would contain two major poles, one granting Abbas and the PLO the right to represent the government in political negotiations with Israel, and the second ‘respect’ by the government of previously-signed agreements between the PLO and Israel but not “commitment” to these agreements… [also noting] that recognition of Israel is not mentioned in the unity government agreement and that it is not acceptable at all for Hamas…

This is how the issue was reported in Al-Quds al-Arabi, in an article headlined “There Will Be No Peace Talks Between the Government and Israel”: “Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya put a lid on any hope that the national unity government to which he had agreed would engage in peace negotiations with Israel… And Haniya, who is expected to head the new government, also said that he was not opposed to allowing Abbas to negotiate with Israel as leader of the PLO, but that any agreement would need to be approved by the legislative assembly, in which Hamas has a majority.”

In discussing this issue in the past, Hamas leaders have said that they do not object to “talks” or “negotiations” with Israel, and at the same time rejected “peace talks,” suggesting that this language would only refer to issues such as prisoner exchanges. Likewise “respect” for past agreements but refusal to be obligated by them might be interpreted as being consistent with Hamas’ willingness to engage in temporary cease-fires with Israel without making peace, and while other Palestinian terror groups launch attacks on Israel from Gaza or the West Bank. The language used by Hamas leaders to describe their stance toward Israel has been broadly consistent over the past year.

In terms of the make-up of the new government, Al-Hayat reported that Hamas would have eight ministries and Fatah four, with others being held by independent “technocrats” or members of smaller parties. Some reports, including the second Times article linked above, have suggested that the government might include the Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, both terrorist organizations. Al-Quds, however, quoted an Islamic Jihad spokesman as saying that they would not participate, while not commenting on the PFLP. A report earlier Wednesday on IBA News stated that Third Way member Hanan Ashrawi was asked to become foreign minister while its leader, Salam Fayyad, was asked to become finance minister. Fayyad and Ashrawi are the only members of the reformist Third Way Party in parliament. If such a deal were reached, then the two ministries which deal with international actors would be held by West-friendly figures, while those ministries controlling Palestinian society, including the Education Ministry, would be controlled by Hamas.