(Updated September 2014)
What is the reconciliation deal?
On April 24, 2014, the two main Palestinian political factions - Hamas and Fatah - signed a reconciliation agreement to unite their disparate parts of the Palestinian Authority. The two rivals split seven years ago following Hamas' violent coup that wrested control of the Gaza Strip from Fatah and the PA.
The deal was struck during a 22-hour period of negotiations in Gaza between members of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), headed by Fatah, and Hamas leaders. Under the terms of the agreement, the two sides must uphold past PLO agreements, form a unity government and call for elections.
"National reconciliation is imperative in order to achieve a just and lasting peace," said Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat. "We hope that we will be able to successfully close this dark chapter of our history." Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said, "[I am] happy to declare the end of the period of inter-Palestinian division."
Palestinian legislator Mustafa Barghouti said, "What we've managed to do is open the road to regain back what we've lost … and [create] a pluralistic system rather than a one-party rule in the West Bank and another one-party rule in the Gaza Strip."
Fatah and Hamas representatives met in Cairo on September 24 to resume talks relating to finalizing their interim reconcilliation government. The talks focused on specifics and final details of the new unity government, and the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip after it was pounded by Israel during Operation Protective Edge. Fatah was represented in Cairo by al-Ahmad, Zakariyya al-Agha, Sakhr Bseiso and Hussein al-Sheikh, and the Hamas representatives were Mousa Abu Marzouq, Khalil al-Hayya, and Mahmoud Zahhar. Members of the Palestinian organization Islamic Jihad were also present during the meetings. In addition to planning for the reconstruction of Gaza, the groups also planned for upcoming elections that will be held as soon as possible (pursuant to the unity agreement).
Four months after the agreement was reached, the Palestinian Unity Government met in Gaza for the first time on October 8 2014. This marks the first time since 2007 that Palestinian Authority leaders have travelled from the West Bank to Gaza, in a historic and symbolic display of unity. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was not present at the meeting, although the meeting was held in his old residence in Gaza. The Palestinian Authority members from the West Bank also toured the war-torn Gaza Strip in addition to their meetings.
Is there a timetable for implementation of the reconciliation deal?
The reconciliation deal called for PA President Mahmoud Abbas to set up an interim unity government within five weeks which would be followed by national elections for president, the legislative council and the PLO central committee within six months. The date of those elections will be set by Abbas.
On June 2, Abbas announced a new unity cabinet, fulfilling the first aspect of the reconciliation agreement. The new government will be led by Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and is made up largely of lawyers, businessmen and academics who have no formal ties to either Hamas or Fatah. The Cabinet includes three women and four Gaza residents.
Have the Palestinians attempted reconciliation in the past?
The reconciliation deal signed in April is actually a deal built on the back of previous agreements reached between Hamas and Fatah in 2011 (signed in Cairo) and in 2012 (signed in Doha). These agreements, however, were never implemented.
The two agreements previously signed were themselves parts of an extended effort at forging reconciliation in 2008, 2009 and again in 2010.
Does the reconciliation deal address Palestinian security issues?
The deal actually sidestepped the sensitive issue of which faction will be in control of Palestinian internal security. Fatah maintains the Palestinian Authority Security Forces (PASF), which are based in Ramallah and have achieved a relatively high degree of coordination and collaboration with the Israel Defense Forces. Hamas, meanwhile, has an armed wing of at least 20,000 men - known as the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades - that police the Gaza Strip.
Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar commented that Hamas will not disband its forces nor cede control over them irrespective of who wins in the upcoming Palestinian elections. "Nobody will touch the security sections in Gaza," said Zahar.
In early May 2014, Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal met in Qatar to discuss internal security issues. Around the same time, Abdul Salam Siyam, Hamas secretary-general, announced that the two sides had agreed to incorporate 3,000 PA security men from the West Bank into Hamas' Gaza security apparatus. Siyam added that Hamas would not backtrack on its policy of criminalizing security cooperation with the IDF.
Does reconciliation mean Hamas will change its stance vis-à-vis Israel?
Shortly after the reconciliation deal was signed, Abbas said that a Palestinian unity government would recognize Israel. Hamas officials, however, quickly denied this.
Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal affirmed that Hamas remains committed to wage "jihad" against Israel., while Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar added that the unity pact does not mean the organization will recognize the Jewish State or cease its terrorist activities in Gaza.
"We have turned the page on this division [with Fatah]," said Mashaal. "Hamas has already made sacrifices and this was necessary to be closer with our brothers, but with the invader [Israel] we will not make any compromises."
Hamas political bureau deputy chief Moussa Abu Marzouk also reiterated that Hamas will not abandon its territorial and nationalist goals. "We have rejected and continue to reject any conditions detracting from Palestinian rights," said Marzouk. "Hamas will remain loyal to the right of return and to liberation."
Sheikh Hassan Youssef, a Hamas official in the West Bank, similarly noted that reconciliation would never change Hamas' stance toward Israel. "The question of recognition is non-debatable as long as [Israel] occupies our land … Hamas is not responsible for its relations with Israel."
What is Israel's reaction to Palestinian reconciliation?
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the Palestinian reconciliation and suspended Israel's participation in the American-led peace negotiations. "[Abbas] has formed an alliance with an organization whose covenant calls for Muslims to fight and kill Jews," said Netanyahu. "Whoever chooses the terrorism of Hamas does not want peace."
Tzipi Livni, Israel's chief peace negotiator and Justice Minister, called the reconciliation deal a "bad step" in the peace process that has "cast a heavy shadow" on progress. Livni stressed that recognition of Israel, an end to violence and recognition of all previously signed agreements is a precondition for any peace deal with the Palestinians. "In front of us now lies a complicated new challenge, which I'm afraid serves the extremists," Livni added.
"[Reconciliation] is a move by President Abbas away from peace," said Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev. "We will not talk to a government that has in it people who say my country should be destroyed. Hamas says clearly that Israel should be obliterated."
What is the international response to Palestinian reconciliation?
The United States remains optimistic about reconciliation but insists that the Palestinian government remain committed to the peace process. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki noted that, "Any Palestinian government must unambiguously and explicitly commit to nonviolence, recognition of the state of Israel and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations." She added that Secretary of State John Kerry was "disappointed in the [reconciliation] announcement" and that the deal "raises concerns about our efforts to extend the negotiations."
U.S. lawmakers, however, are working to cut aid to the PA - the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, passed by Congress in 2006, prohibits funding to the PA if Hamas joins the government but does not recognize Israel. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen [R-FL] called for an immediate suspension of U.S. aid, a warning seconded by Rep. Ted Deutch [D-FL]. Rep. Nita Lowey [D-NY] similarly said that the reconciliation "jeopardizes U.S. assistance" to the Palestinians. Rep. Kay Granger [R-TX] said that the reconciliation deal "is an irresponsible path forward and this agreement should be abandoned immediately."
The European Union welcomed the Palestinian reconciliation though emphasized that peace talks should still be a top priority. "The [EU] believes that the reconciliation … is an important step toward a two-state solution," said Michael Mann, spokesperson of EU High Representative for Foreign Affair Catherine Ashton. "But the top priority remains the continuation of peace talks."
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, meanwhile, commented that Canada views Israel's decision to suspend peace talks as "understandable" and that his country will "take it one step at a time" in deciding what diplomatic actions to take.
The Russian government supported reconciliation. "We are convinced that without Palestinian unity any agreement that may be reached between Palestine and Israel will not be sustainable," noted Vitaly Churkin, Russia's Permanent Representative to the United Nations. "We believe that questioning the national unity of the Palestinians is a political mistake."
Sources: Al Monitor (April 23, 2014); BBC News (April 23, 2014); Globe & Mail (April 25, 2014); Gulf News (April 23, 2014); Haaretz (April 23, 2014, April 25, 2014, April 25, 2014, April 25, 2014); The Independent (April 25, 2014); Israel Prime Minister's Office; JCPA (April 25, 2014); Jerusalem Post (April 30, 2014); JTA (April 24, 2014); New York Times (May 3, 2014, June 3, 2014); Reuters (April 24, 2014, April 29, 2014; May 20, 2014); Times of Israel (April 24, April 27, May 4, May 5, May 5); U.S. State Department; Voiec of Russia (April 30, 2014)