Adel Zaanoun, AFP
Last updated: 7 May, 2014

Was Hamas forced into the Palestinian unity deal?

Unprecedented pressure on Hamas, from both Israel’s blockade of Gaza and a hostile Egypt, forced the Islamist movement to accept reconciliation terms dictated by Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, analysts say.

But Hamas’s subservience to the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in the context of the unity deal could work to its advantage, allowing it to return to its militant roots, freed from the responsibilities of governance.

Hamas and the Western-backed PLO, which is dominated by Abbas’s secular Fatah party, signed a surprise reconciliation agreement on April 23 in a bid to end years of bitter and sometime bloody rivalry.

Under terms of the deal, the two sides would work together to form an “independent government” of technocrats, to be headed by Abbas, that would pave the way for long-delayed elections.

– Easing the pressure –

Abbas has insisted the government will follow his policy of recognising Israel, rejecting violence and abiding by past peace agreements.

Hamas has insisted however that as a movement it remains committed to Israel’s destruction, and it’s unclear how it would reconcile that stance with support for such a government.

Pressure on Hamas has been growing steadily since last July, when the Egyptian army ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas is the Palestinian offshoot of the Brotherhood and had warm relations with Morsi.

After Morsi’s ouster, Egypt began destroying hundreds of tunnels along the Gaza border used to import construction materials, fuel, arms and money, plunging the besieged Strip into its worst-ever energy crisis and exacerbating an already-dire humanitarian situation.

“The fall of the Brotherhood in Egypt and its effect on Gaza with the closure of tunnels and the border crossing, as well as resultant financial difficulties, forced Hamas to seek a solution,” said Naji Sharab, politics professor at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University.

“The movement moved towards reconciliation as the best option” to relieve that pressure, he told AFP.

Hani Habib, a Gaza-based political analyst, said the blow dealt to the Brotherhood in Egypt had helped the Hamas leadership both in Gaza and abroad to “push radicals in the movement to accept reconciliation.”

The unity deal could give the Islamist movement a new lease on life by handing over the challenging task of governing Gaza to an administration headquartered in the West Bank.

An alliance with the PLO would help Hamas gain “international recognition and acceptance without having to make political concessions on its own, such as recognising the state of Israel,” Habib said.

Hamas refuses to recognise Israel and its charter calls for the eventual destruction of the Jewish state.

– ‘Burden’ of government –

The movement’s acceptance of an agreement that could see it cede power “proves that being in government was a burden that sapped its energy and popularity,” Hamas official Ahmad Yusef said.

Hamas found itself unable to pay the salaries of nearly half its 50,000 government employees after Egypt’s political sea-change, and it no longer enjoys the popularity that brought it victory in 2006 Palestinian legislative elections.

“Hamas has realised it can’t reconcile its status of liberation and resistance movement with the harsh reality of politics, especially given regional developments,” said Walid al-Mudallal, politics professor at the Islamic University of Gaza.

“The feeling inside the movement is that it would be better to quit power and just keep military and security forces active on the ground.”

Last week, Hamas’s overseas deputy Mussa Abu Marzuk said there would be “no question” of disarming the movement’s armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades.

But Hamas security forces may end up working hand-in-hand with some 3,000 Palestinian Authority forces from the West Bank for a transitional period, an official said Sunday.

Last week, a former head of Israel’s Mossad spy service said the Jewish state should take advantage of Hamas’s current weakness by either eradicating it or opening some form of dialogue.

“This is the moment the Israeli government should consider eradicating Hamas by storm. Nobody will come to its assistance, nobody will awaken global public opinion to save it,” Efraim Halevy wrote in Yediot Aharonot newspaper.

But given the bloodshed that would involve, the other option was for Israel to “talk to the rival at precisely the time that it is in an inferior position.”

“If Israel does not capitalise on this rare opportunity … Hamas will survive and again grow stronger.”