At noon on 13 May the sounds of laughter and joviality could be clearly heard all the way at the end of the corridor leading to the large meeting room on the fifth floor at one of the major ministries in Gaza City. A number of leaders from Fatah and Hamas were sitting around a table to focus on finding formulas to bring their points of view closer regarding reconciliation between the two factions. The atmosphere of the meeting, which concluded with lunch, was friendly and both sides agreed to meet again at the home of one of the Hamas leaders in Gaza.
Sources told Al-Ahram Weekly that several similar meetings had taken place in the West Bank and Gaza between leaders from both sides, mostly members of parliament from each faction. Moneeb Al-Masri, a prominent Palestinian businessman, was keen to convey to the West Bank some of the ideas that were discussed in Gaza and at length by representatives of both groups. While Fatah refuses to admit that prospects for reconciliation are under discussion, Hamas and independent Palestinian figures -- along with the media that is closely following developments -- insist that many proposals are being debated.
One informed source told the Weekly that Hamas and Fatah representatives had reached tentative points of agreement on some issues, while direct and indirect talks continue between the two sides regarding outstanding issues. The source said that to avoid any setbacks, both groups have agreed that they will not announce the outcome until all issues are settled and approved by the leaders of the two groups.
Apparently, the two sides have agreed on the following points, and only await the approval of faction leaders. First, both sides will inform Cairo that they have come to an agreement on the Egyptian reconciliation plan. They will later decide if they want to include some points of concern or add them in an addendum; these concerns, meanwhile, should not block Hamas from signing the proposal. Second, both sides would begin releasing detainees in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and set up a mechanism to deal with supporters and institutions affiliated to each group in each region, including organisational and charity groups.
Third, the government in Ramallah must be more cooperative in ending the suffering of the residents of Gaza, such as paying for the fuel needed to operate the sole power station in Gaza to end daily power outages across the Strip that last at least eight hours. Fourth, both sides must show flexibility in reopening the Rafah Crossing to end smuggling through illicit tunnels.
According to the source, all these ideas were presented by Hamas in order to bridge the gap between the two sides, and were tentatively approved by representatives from Fatah who emphasised that senior Fatah leaders will have the final say, and hence their initial approval does not commit the group to these ideas. `We`re still a long way away from reaching a final agreement,` the source cautioned. `Signing the Egyptian plan is the first step on a long road of agreeing on a large number of details regarding elections, security, reforming the Palestine Liberation Organisation [PLO], and other issues.`
The source added that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas does not fully support these understandings, and wants Hamas to first sign the Egyptian proposal before discussing a final agreement. Abbas`s position is what caused Fatah leaders to deny progress is being made.
While Hamas leaders try to avoid discussing the understandings reached so far, Mahmoud Al-Zahhar, member of the group`s politburo, confirmed that Hamas is waiting for a final answer from Fatah regarding ideas presented by the group. `We suggested specific mechanisms and we asked them to think about it, and we are waiting for their response,` Al-Zahhar stated. `If we reach agreement, we will go to Egypt and we can make it part of the deal or an appendix to it.`
According to the Hamas leader, contacts with Fatah are focussed on two major points: first, the Central Elections Committee, and second, the PLO. Al-Zahhar believes that Fatah is being responsive. He added that Hamas wants the electoral committee to be based on mutual consultations, while Fatah wants it to be by mutual agreement. He criticised Abbas`s statements that no progress will be made until Hamas first signs the Egyptian proposal without revision. `If that is his opinion, then he shouldn`t hold his breath.`
Al-Zahhar further mocked statements by Fatah members that Hamas suffers from internal divisions. `He who lives in a glass house should not throw stones,` he said.
Azzam Al-Ahmed, head of Fatah`s parliamentary faction in the Palestinian Legislative Council, confirmed that direct meetings have been held between representatives from both sides in Gaza and the West Bank but denied that anything of substance was being discussed. Al-Ahmed underlined his group`s commitment to what was agreed upon in Cairo, urging Hamas to sign the Egyptian plan and express its concerns at the time of implementation.
However, a senior figure close to ongoing reconciliation efforts told the Weekly that despite optimism about recent meetings and many indicators that both sides believe their political futures are bleak without reconciliation, the probability of an agreement in the near future is slim because of foreign interference. The source said that Abbas, under pressure from the US and Israel, is now insisting that Hamas accept the conditions of the Quartet, including recognition of Israel, renouncing armed resistance against the occupation as terrorism, and recognising all past agreements signed by the Palestinians and Israel. The source pointed out that this requirement was never part of the Egyptian plan.
`While Israel insists on continuing its settlement building in the West Bank and Judaicisation of Jerusalem, and the world sees Israel as the obstacle to peace, it is unreasonable to condition [Palestinian] reconciliation with accepting the Quartet conditions,` argued the source. According to him, Abbas is facing strong counter pressure from members of Fatah`s Central Committee and Revolutionary Council to reject US-Israeli diktat and embrace reconciliation, because the status quo does not serve the group`s interests.
The source continued that there is restlessness in Fatah`s ranks, as expressed in a statement by Al-Aqsa Martyrs` Brigades -- Fatah`s military wing -- that threatened to assassinate Mohamed Dahlan, a member of Fatah`s Central Committee, for `conspiring` with occupation forces to obstruct efforts for national reconciliation. The source also pointed out another problem, namely escalating tensions between Hamas and Cairo compounded by accusations of torture of Hamas detainees in Egyptian jails. The source continued that Cairo`s hard line position, which insists that Hamas sign the Egyptian plan without revisions, blocks any possibility for Hamas to change its position but also save face with its popular base.
In short, if the Palestinians are unable to free themselves from the restrictions placed on them by foreign parties, there is no guarantee that direct talks between Fatah and Hamas will be successful. In the next four months, which is the timeline of indirect negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, there is little hope that attempts to end divisions amongst Palestinians will lead to anything positive.