Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas’ decision this week to dissolve the Fatah-Hamas consensus government is not the first crisis to hit the PA in its two decades of existence. Given what is at stake, however, it could very well be the most consequential change in the PA government in many years.
Abbas on Wednesday justified his decision on the grounds that the government, which was in place for barely a year, could not operate in Gaza, where Hamas is in control.
Hamas slammed the move as “one-sided” and rejected any attempt to dismantle the government without its approval. Notwithstanding Abbas’ official justification, his decision effectively ends hopes for the PA’s return to Gaza and further imperils prospects for the reconstruction of the embattled enclave as well as for Fatah-Hamas reconciliation.
Although often mischaracterized as a unity government, the soon-to-be-disbanded government did not actually include members of Hamas, Abbas’ Fatah or any other political faction. Rather, as a government of national consensus, the Cabinet was made up of independents and technocrats approved by all Palestinian political groups. This subtle but important distinction was deliberately designed to avoid a repeat of 2006, when Hamas’ participation in the government triggered an international boycott of the PA.
Initially, the primary task of the national consensus government was to prepare for legislative and presidential elections to be held after six months. But after last summer’s Gaza war, which resulted in over 2,100 Palestinian deaths, including those of more than 500 children, and wide-scale destruction of civilian property and infrastructure, the government shifted its focus to rebuilding the war-shattered and impoverished enclave.
In the aftermath of the war, Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah spearheaded the PA’s reconstruction efforts, and a quickly convened international donor conference produced $5.4 billion in pledges. To facilitate the process, the United Nations established a new mechanism for bringing badly needed construction materials into the besieged territory. However, only a fraction of the money pledged has made its way to Gaza, and the U.N. mechanism has been harshly criticized for reinforcing the Israeli blockade. Moreover, overall reconstruction efforts in Gaza were hampered by the consensus government’s inability to operate in Gaza.
The agreement that produced last year’s consensus government marked the sixth attempt at reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas since the brief civil war between Palestinians’ two largest political factions in 2007. While its prospects were never very good, the fact that the latest unity arrangement actually produced a government that had the backing of both parties suggested that this time might be different.
On the surface, the consensus government failed because of disagreements over administrative issues, such as security arrangements at Gaza’s borders and what to do with 50,000 civil servants in the previous Hamas-run authority in Gaza. But the real problems were deeper and much more political.
Hamas would like to give up governing Gaza — which has become increasingly difficult since Egypt’s military overthrew Hamas ally President Mohamed Morsi, cracked down on his Muslim Brotherhood supporters and tightened its borders — but Hamas is unwilling to fully relinquish security control in the territory. Abbas is equally reluctant to assume responsibility for Gaza’s 1.7 million Palestinians and for preventing attacks on Israel by armed groups, including Hamas’ Izz ad-Din Al-Qassam Brigades, without full security control. The growing prominence in Gaza of groups that are sympathetic to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has only increased pressure on Hamas and added to Abbas’ lack of enthusiasm for returning to Gaza.
In the end, both sides’ expectations are unrealistic.
Abbas’ zero-sum approach to dealing with Hamas has been emboldened by the broader anti-Brotherhood trend throughout the region. Yet unlike Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s regime, Abbas’ PA has neither the military capability nor, frankly, the domestic political clout for a full-on confrontation with Hamas. Likewise, while Hamas’ need to find a face-saving way to relinquish power is understandable, it cannot reasonably expect a normalization of Gaza’s border crossings with Egypt while maintaining its current security role in the territory.
Thus, while the advantage has shifted back and forth repeatedly between Fatah and Hamas over the last several years, the two factions remain in a virtual political deadlock.
The dissolution of the consensus government will most likely only deepen the current paralysis in Palestinian politics and could further poison Fatah-Hamas relations for many years to come. But it’s not only the future of the PA — a largely administrative body responsible for managing the day-to-day affairs of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza — that is at stake. The agreement that led to the formation of the consensus government also calls for reforming the Palestine Liberation Organization, the umbrella group that ostensibly represents all Palestinians inside and outside the occupied territories. This includes holding elections for the Palestine National Council, the PLO’s long-neglected parliament-in-exile, and expanding PLO membership to include Hamas and other political parties.
In the absence of such reforms, the Palestinian leadership’s legitimacy will continue to decline — evidenced by the growing opposition Abbas faces not only from Hamas but also from within his own party and ordinary Palestinians who have grown disenchanted with the PA’s so-called security coordination with Israel.
In the meantime, the collapse of the consensus government will make it virtually impossible to begin the process of reconstructing Gaza, thus adding to the already miserable conditions there that cause so much frustration and anger among Palestinian, and increasing the likelihood of yet another war with Israel — something that neither Fatah nor Hamas is eager to see but may prove unavoidable.
While many in Israel and the United States who oppose Hamas’ political aspirations will welcome the collapse, the development all but eliminates the already slim chances for a return to peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis. Quite apart from the inherent difficulties of negotiating highly contentious issues like Jerusalem and refugees, the fact remains that the current Palestinian leadership has neither the legitimacy to sign a conflict-ending deal with Israel nor the capacity to deliver on it.
Until both Fatah and Hamas, the two largest and most important political actors in Palestinian politics, are able to prioritize the needs of the Palestinian people over their own narrow political interests, Palestinians’ condition — politically, economically and physically — are unlikely to improve anytime soon.