[On 23 April 2014 representatives of the rival Palestinian movements Fatah and Hamas signed the Beach Camp Agreement, named after the Gaza Strip refugee camp where it was concluded. In order to assess the latest agreement meant to end the schism in the Palestinian political system, Jadaliyya turned to leading Palestinian political analyst Khalil Shaheen]:
Jadaliyya (J): The new Palestinian Authority (PA) government seems very similar to the outgoing government in Ramallah. Why is this the case?
Khalil Shaheen (KS): The new PA government represents a limited cabinet reshuffle more than the formation of a new coalition government. It remains the government of President Mahmoud Abbas, administered on his behalf by an appointee with the degree of prime minister.
As with the previous two governments, also chaired (rather than led) by Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, he played no role in its formation. This reflects the continued concentration of powers in the hands of Abbas as we move towards an increasingly presidential system of government, including the concentration of legislative powers in the executive branch in the West Bank in the absence of any role for the Legislative Council (PLC) during the Fatah-Hamas schism.
The April 2014 Beach (al-Shati’) Camp Agreement did not signal a reversal of this trend. In fact it granted the president more freedom to exercise increasingly broad powers, including the formation of a government and its presentation to the prime minister, with the sole caveat that he obtain the approval of Hamas.
Hamas carried out a major coup by leaving government while remaining in power. It exercised maximum flexibility in giving the president leeway to form the government. Most ministers are Abbas rather than Hamas nominees, and the government will function on the basis of Abbas’s political program. In exchange Hamas has retained almost unrestricted power over governance in the Gaza Strip, first and foremost through continued control and influence over civil and security institutions. Without its agreement, Abbas’s ministers simply cannot operate there. Security and stability in the Gaza Strip depend on security services that remain answerable to Hamas rather than the PA’s minister of interior.
J: Why did Hamas accept this government, and what if any reservations do they have?
KS: In the final analysis, Hamas accepted the government President Abbas insisted on forming, and on the basis of his political program. This program recognizes the three conditions of the Middle East Quartet—recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence, and commitment to signed Israeli-Palestinian agreements—and adds to these a continued commitment to security coordination with Israel.
Nevertheless, the Beach Camp Agreement did not include a clear consensus on the detailed tasks and functions of the new government. It also did not address the most sensitive issue, in that it does not provide the new government with a mandate to initiate a gradual re-unification of the rival security forces in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This last point should be seen as a concession to Hamas by Fatah. A member of the Fatah Central Committee publicly stated that President Abbas was determined to sign an agreement with Hamas, even if it leads to only symbolic measures like the formation of a government but without the unification of its institutions. His priority was to restore the legitimacy of the PA and his presidency, even if only nominally.
In short, the success of this government will be more dependent on Fatah-Hamas understandings on issues the government does not control, than on its own performance or decisions taken by its ministers. In other words, most of the tasks of this government will not be implemented unless they are first, and separately, agreed upon between Fatah and Hamas. This was an important achievement by Hamas; it can facilitate or obstruct the president’s government in the Gaza Strip in proportion to the degree to which it is involved in the decision-making process of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). It can additionally exercise pressure and influence through its domination of the PLC, whose role will according to the Beach Camp Agreement be restored.
To give one example in this regard, let’s assume President Abbas reaches an agreement with Egypt on the operation of the Rafah crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. Unless this agreement is approved by Hamas it cannot be implemented because its own security services still control this crossing.
J: What has the Israeli and international response to this government been like, and does it matter?
KS: Israel is walking a tightrope in its campaign to rally its allies and the international community around a position that rejects relations with the new PA government. The European Union has announced its support for this government, and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has also lost the backing of the Obama administration on this particular issue, though he is still trying to mobilize Israel’s supporters in Congress to pressure the administration to change its position.
More broadly it will be difficult for Israel to take effective and sustainable punitive measures against the PA in light of the spiraling tensions that exist in the occupied territories, because the potentially explosive consequences are contrary to the interests of all parties, including Israel itself.
Thus, key international parties are at this point putting pressure on the Netanyahu government more than the PA. This provides opportunities for the PA to respond to Israeli actions and embarrass the international community. For instance, the PA can accede to more international conventions and join additional United Nations agencies; Israeli violations could be referred to relevant UN agencies, resulting in a firm international stand against Israel. Collective sanctions and the illegal withholding of PA revenues by Israel could be raised by Palestine in its capacity as an observer member state of the United Nations.
J: What are the next steps in the reconciliation process according to the Beach Camp Agreement, and what are the main obstacles to its successful implementation?
KS: The formation of the government is only the starting point in the process of reconciliation. To most Palestinians, reconciliation means the reunification of the Palestinian political system at the level of both the PA and the PLO. To achieve this, it will be necessary to rebuild national representation through elections to the institutions of both the PA and PLO (the PA presidency and PLC, as well as the PLO’s Palestine National Council). The president has instructed the Central Election Commission to prepare for elections within six months, but he did not issue a decree setting an election date, and it appears that neither Hamas nor Fatah are willing to hold these anytime soon.
Hamas prefers to await developments elsewhere in the region, particularly Egypt where it wants to assess the consequences of the recent presidential elections and perhaps upcoming parliamentary ones as well. For his part, President Abbas will first want to explore the possibility of renewed bilateral negotiations with Israel, which means waiting to see if the Obama administration is going to actively engage once again after the mid-term congressional elections in November. Abbas also wants to ensure he has full control of Fatah before proceeding with new elections. Above all, this means formally expelling those who remain loyal to Muhammad Dahlan during the Seventh Fatah General Conference scheduled for later this year.
Additionally, one cannot ignore that holding such elections under occupation is not solely a Palestinian decision. There are influential external factors, most notably Israel, which can undermine the integrity of the electoral process or prevent elections altogether.
Preparing for new elections was proclaimed the new government’s most prominent task, but conducting them does not seem feasible for the foreseeable future. Perhaps one reasons for President Abbas’s lack of willingness to assume the post of prime minister, leaving this to Hamdallah instead, is that he understands that elections could be indefinitely delayed and that this government will therefore last significantly longer than expected.
As I suggested earlier, a second challenge facing the government is the lack of agreement on a roadmap for the re-unification and restructuring of PA institutions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, particularly the security forces. After the Beach Camp Agreement was signed, Fatah raised this issue but Hamas insisted on adherence to a previous agreement according to which this matter is postponed until after elections.
Without unification of the institutions of the Palestinian political system, the current government will resemble—at best—a confederal body that coordinates between its constituent authorities operating in distinct regions; each has its own, separate civil and security institutions. This situation leads to management of the schism rather than ending it.
Another major and remaining challenge concerns the activation of the PLO pending elections for a new Palestine National Council. This is where, in addition to maintaining power in the Gaza Strip, Hamas hopes to obtain a quid pro quo for the flexibility it demonstrated by leaving the formation of the PA government to Abbas.
These issues—PA and PLO—are deeply linked. Hamas is demanding the activation of the Provisional Leadership Committee, which includes the leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad as well as those of organizations already represented in the PLO, in accordance with the powers identified in the 2011 Cairo Reconciliation Agreement. Fatah however considers its mandate to be merely advisory and largely limited to recommendations to activate and reform the PLO, not set Palestinian national policy
The Beach Camp Agreement is not the first reconciliation agreement, and like its predecessors contains within it the seeds of success, paralysis and collapse. The key question remains as before: will the rival parties reach and implement bilateral agreements on power sharing and participation within the Palestinian political system as represented by the PA and PLO? Or will each use its powers of veto to obstruct further progress towards reconciliation? Either party might also withdraw from its commitments altogether if–as has happened before–significant changes in either the domestic or external environment serve its interests to the extent that it is convinced a new agreement that more adequately reflect its terms can be achieved.