JERUSALEM — Palestinians are coming together to present a united front for peace, or confrontation, with Israel. Or so it would seem after a dramatic announcement in Cairo. But one especially critical question remains: who’s got the guns?
Rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas have signed the first part of an agreement that aims to reunify leadership after a decade of animosity.
Salah Aruri, a Hamas leader, and Azzam al-Ahmad, representing Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s ruling Fatah party, signed the deal in Cairo at the headquarters of Egyptian intelligence, which brokered the talks.
Announcing the agreement on Thursday, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said, "We'll go to any length to implement the agreement and turn over a new leaf in the annals of our people, forever closing the book on our divisions." He added, "The most important thing is the agreement's implementation.”
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told the AFP news agency the deal is a "final agreement to end [Palestinian] division."
Palestinian officials said Abbas would visit Gaza for the first time in 10 years if initial implementation is undertaken smoothly.
Internationally backed Fatah, and Hamas, an Islamist militia that the United States, the European Union and Israel classify as a terror organization, have been at loggerheads since 2007, when Hamas forcibly took over power in the Gaza Strip after contested elections.
Today’s images of Aruri and al-Ahmad embracing were a vivid contrast to the images of internecine bloodletting that accompanied the collapse of the unity government in 2007.
The Egyptian government announced that Fatah would take over all the functions of government by December 1, including crucial command of Gaza’s borders with Egypt and Israel, which have been all but sealed around the enclave of 2 million inhabitants for the past decade.
The crippling sanctions imposed on Gaza by Fatah, including limiting electricity to only four hours a day and slashing salary payments to thousands of Hamas bureaucrats who administer Gaza, are scheduled to be lifted immediately.
Announcing the deal, Zacariya al Fakher, a Fatah leader in Gaza, said that agreement had been reached “on all issues we had been discussing in Cairo and nearly all issues about which we had differences have been settled.”
“Nearly” is a crucial word.
Hamas’s military wing, numbering 25,000 armed men, is not under discussion in the current sequence of talks, which are scheduled to reconvene on November 21.
Mustafa Barghouti, a senior Palestinian parliamentarian and leader of the centrist Palestinian National Initiative said that “disarming Hamas is not on the table. It has not been on the table, and it will not be on the table until the end of occupation and it is discussed as part of the security in final status negotiations with Israel.”
Abbas has repeatedly said that he would not accept an armed militia within the Palestinian Authority, comparing Hamas to Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
Numerous previous attempts at unity have failed due to the stumbling block of Hamas's armed militia, which is unacceptable to Israel and threatens the stability of Palestinian rule.
Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was “not prepared to accept imaginary appeasement at Israel’s expense.”
President Abbas’s diplomatic adviser, Majdi Khaldi, cautioned against the term “disarming.”
According to Khaldi, Abbas is sticking to his demand that the Palestinian Authority “will take full control of the government, including ‘one government, one law, one gun,’ and emphasized Egypt’s sponsorship of ongoing talks that will lead to Palestinian national elections, which have been scuttled repeatedly over the past 10 years.
“The demand will never be withdrawn,” Khaldi said, but he added, “We are not here to disarm anyone. We are here to control all aspects of life in Gaza, and this includes arms, the law, a full takeover. It will be the same as in the West Bank,” where the Palestinian government rules.
It is unclear how Hamas’s armed wing would cohabit with the 3,000 members of Abbas’s presidential guard, who, according to Thursday’s announcement, will be transferred from the West Bank capital of Ramallah to Gaza, where they will man the border posts.
In an interview, Barghouti was uncompromising. “It is up to them to think what they want,” he said about Hamas’s status as a terror organization. “Hamas is part of the Palestinian people and is obviously a party to this deal. They will be represented in the government, hopefully, in a manner that will not create any serious resistance from the international community.”
The deal, he said, is “a necessary entry point without which the Palestinian people could not move forward.” But he cautioned that “the most important issues remain. We’ll have to set a date for elections and agree on how to conduct the elections, and decide how to conduct a unity government and come to an agreement on internal security matters. The next month will be the most important test.”