This week the latest peace talks because Israel and the Palestinian Authority collapsed after the PA announced a surprise deal with Hamas, the Palestinian organisation governing the Gaza Strip. The two have been fighting since 2006 when Hamas won Palestinian elections. A deal between Hamas and Fatah (governing through the PA) would be excellent for Palestinian unity, but Israel has responded by suspending the talks. So what’s the history here? What do all the players want? And where to from here?
The Palestinian political scene has been violently divided since 2006. In a free and open election, Hamas managed to win a majority of seats in parliament for both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The problem with this was that Hamas doesn’t recognise Israel, and is officially devoted to its destruction. Israel, the UN, the EU, Russia and the US therefore all placed sanctions on the Palestinians. This, combined with simple rivalry between Hamas and Fatah led to a short conflict after which Hamas ended up governing the Gaza Strip, and Fatah kept the West Bank.
Since then the Gaza Strip has been under a blockade by both Israel and Egypt, while the West Bank under Fatah has engaged in diplomatic efforts to gain recognition on the world stage. Part of this effort was the recent peace talks with Israel, mediated by the US Secretary of State John Kerry. Throughout these peace talks however, Israel has continued to build new Jewish settlements on Palestinian land (completely illegal under international law), and recently the talks weren’t going too well.
This might be why Fatah decided that it was time to make a deal with Hamas and restore Palestinian unity. In this way they might end up with a stronger bargaining position against Israel. Hamas also decided it was time to bury the hatchet with Fatah, as they are becoming steadily more isolated in the Middle East. Throughout the Syrian Civil War Hamas has struggled to choose sides, and has managed to lose a great deal of their support from Syria and Iran, while not gaining any new allies. At the same time the coup against Morsi in Egypt led to a military government not at all friendly towards an Islamist movement like Hamas. It therefore makes sense to reconcile with Fatah, and restore unity.
This Palestinian unity is not at all what Israel wants. The only Palestinians they want to negotiate with are Fatah, who have recognised the state of Israel and only want the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. After Israel allowed some self-government in these territories back in the 90s they have constantly put pressure on Fatah to control other movements like Hamas, which turned Palestine under Yasser Arafat into a strictly controlled society. Seeing Fatah agree to share government with an organisation devoted to the destruction of Israel is not something they’ll accept. It remains in Israel’s best interests to have Palestine united under a weak government that can be dominated by Israel.
This Hamas/Fatah deal seems to spell the end for these latest peace negotiations, leaving the conflict as utterly impossible as ever. The Israeli policy of building settlements in the West Bank has left an incredibly divided Palestinian state, crisscrossed by Israeli-only roads and surrounded by a concrete wall. For its part, Hamas officially remains committed to defeating Israel, and seems as unwilling to negotiate as ever. Even if any talks start up again, the Palestinians are still negotiating from weakness, and the chance of a fair deal is small. It has become almost a cliché, but real peace between Israel and Palestine is as far away as ever.