August 30, 2010 5:34 pm

Hamas looms large over US peace talks

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When the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority take their seats on Wednesday at a White House dinner marking the start of a new round of Middle East peace talks, the ghost at the table will be Hamas.

The Islamist movement, uninvited yet impossible to ignore, remains implacably opposed to the new diplomatic effort. Boxed into its stronghold in the Gaza Strip, Hamas cannot stop the talks from going ahead.

Yet its dissent highlights a crucial problem faced by the parties meeting in the US: how to make progress when the Palestinian national movement is divided between two rival factions in two increasingly estranged territories.

Hamas fighters ousted the Palestinian Authority, dominated by the moderate Fatah movement, from the Gaza Strip more than three years ago. There have since been numerous efforts to bring the parties together and reunite Gaza and the West Bank under one authority. So far, all have failed.

This has gravely weakened Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the western-backed Palestinian Authority based in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Moreover, the split between Hamas and Fatah has dealt a body blow to Palestinian democracy. This year was supposed to see three vital elections – for a new president, parliament and local councils. All have been cancelled as a result of the simmering dispute, depriving Mr Abbas, whose term has formally expired, and most other leading Palestinian politicians of their democratic mandates.

Many Palestinians believe that the rift will cripple the Washington peace talks.

“In my opinion, negotiations without reconciliation are futile,” says Abd Alraheem Mallouh, from the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. “As long as there is a state of division, the Palestinian position is too weak. How can you negotiate with Israel without having national unity?”

The schism would pose an even greater problem if the talks defy all expectations and produce a comprehensive peace accord. With Hamas in control of Gaza, Mr Abbas would lack the ability to implement any such agreement. The accord would have to be shelved, at least until Fatah and the Palestinian Authority could regain control of the coastal territory. Sooner or later, the fact of Hamas rule in Gaza would have to be tackled.

This view is shared by some members of Fatah. “There is a trend inside Fatah that prioritises [solving] the internal conflict over the issue of peace negotiations,” says Muheeb Awwad, a Fatah member of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

He also believes the new round of talks is “futile” but argues that US insistence left Mr Abbas with little choice but to take part. “How can [he] deal with Hamas requests and with the requests of the international community at the same time? It is a big dilemma.”

Mr Abbas has resolved the dilemma in favour of talks with Israel. This means the slim prospects of reconciliation with Hamas have receded.

“Reconciliation has been postponed until we see the results of the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations,” says Naji Shurrab, a professor of political science at Gaza’s al-Azhar University. “In the meantime, Hamas is strengthening its role in the Gaza Strip, and Fatah is strengthening its role in the west Bank.”

The state of division may not be entirely unwelcome to the rival parties. Fatah and Hamas face almost no internal challenge in their respective strongholds.

“There are people who benefit tremendously from the status quo: all the people who have senior positions inside Fatah and Hamas,” says Hani al-Masri, an independent political analyst in Ramallah.

Hamas, which began as an offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood in 1987, has another reason for avoiding a power-sharing agreement with Fatah. Small and impoverished as Gaza may be, it is the first territory to experience Islamist rule.

“This is the first experiment of a Muslim Brotherhood government,” says Mokhemra Abu Saada, from al-Azhar University. “Hamas is trying every possible way to make a success out of it, in the hope that Gaza can serve as a model for the region.”

Regardless of the outcome of the Washington talks, he believes the two Palestinian territories are destined to drift further apart.

“Even if there [is] an agreement between Israel and Palestine, we will have a Palestinian state only in the West Bank unless Hamas can be brought into the process by force – which is unlikely,” says Mr Abu Saada. “It seems to me that we have reached a point where the Palestinians are going to live in two separate entities: Gaza and the West Bank.”

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