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An opportunity for Hamas moderation

Mkhaimar Abusada

The signing of the reconciliation agreement between Fateh and Hamas can be considered a golden opportunity for the Palestinian people and their cause. Four years have passed since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in June 2007 after violent clashes with its rival Fateh. Four years of political split and two governments, one led by Fateh in the West Bank and the other one led by Hamas in Gaza. Four years of incitement, hatred, imprisonment and torture of political opponents.

Articles in this edition
Why we are closing - Yossi Alpher
The arc of the pendulum - Ghassan Khatib
There are a number of valid questions being asked by the Palestinians and their supporters. Will the agreement put an end to the internal rift between Hamas and Fateh? Will the agreement bring moderation within Hamas? Or it will cost the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Palestinian Authority and Fateh international recognition and legitimacy?

It is no secret that both Hamas and Fateh were pushed by internal and regional factors to sign the reconciliation agreement. Less than a month and a half ago, Hamas expressed no interest in reconciliation. When President Mahmoud Abbas expressed his willingness to visit the Gaza Strip on March 16, Hamas' military wing al-Qassam Brigades provoked Israel and escalated the security situation to sabotage the visit and reconciliation efforts. The question is: what happened to cause Hamas to accept the Egyptian initiatives?

A number of regional and internal factors have pushed Hamas to sign the reconciliation agreement. First, there were the political changes in the region, especially in Egypt, the collapse of the Mubarak regime and the coming of a new government that is considered friendly to Hamas. Second, the political upheavals in Syria and the bloody crushing of the Syrian freedom movement caused Hamas to reconsider its special relationship with Damascus. Finally, Hamas' resistance program reached a deadlock after Israel's Cast Lead operation in 2008-09.

In the meantime, Abbas and Fateh were not in better circumstances. The collapse of the Mubarak regime, an ally to Mahmoud Abbas and Fateh, upset the regional balance. Second, there was the stalemate in the peace process with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and the use of the veto by the United States in February to kill a resolution aimed at condemning Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Finally, Abbas is better off approaching the United Nations General Assembly in September 2011 with all Palestinians united behind him.

There is no doubt that the current government in Egypt, motivated by its interest in reviving Egypt's regional role, imposed its will on both Hamas and Fateh. The new government in Egypt is looking for quick successes to create a positive image while still challenged by internal troubles, poverty, unemployment and corruption. A number of incentives were offered to Hamas to accept the agreement, mainly the reopening of the Rafah border crossing.

Hamas' acceptance of the reconciliation agreement is a setback for its political program. The agreement calls for the formation of a new Palestinian government made up of independents and technocrats--previously rejected by Hamas in 2006-2007. The new government will subscribe to the PLO political program, and will extend hands to the Quartet and the international community. And above all, this government will get a vote of confidence from the Hamas-dominated Palestinian Legislative Council.

Hamas also accepted with great hesitation the convening of Palestinian presidential, parliamentary and PLO elections within a year. Hamas is aware of the decline of its popularity, but hopes that it can improve its image within the coming year. It is early to predict the results of Palestinian elections, but the past four years have taught the Palestinians good lessons.

There is no doubt that Hamas has shown flexibility and moderation by signing the reconciliation agreement. The region is changing rapidly, and Hamas wants to catch the train of changes, which could bring regional and international recognition for Hamas.

In spite of Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Hanieh's remarks on the death of Osama Bin Laden (now qualified by Hamas), Hamas largely subscribes to moderate political Islam and is fighting a fierce war against radical Salafi groups. Historically, Hamas has distanced itself from al-Qaeda and Bin Laden and has launched a brutal war against Salafi groups in Gaza on numerous occasions.

It is up to the Quartet and the international community to depart from their old policy of isolating and boycotting Hamas. Disengaging and isolating Hamas has not weakened it, but rather led to making it stronger. The chance exists, and Hamas is willing to moderate further if it is given the opportunity.-Published 9/5/2011 © bitterlemons.org

Mkhaimar Abusada is a professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza.
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