XII. A Palestinian Authority Divided, Israeli Assaults on Gaza, and Peace Process Setbacks

XII. A Palestinian Authority Divided, Israeli Assaults on Gaza, and Peace Process Setbacks

Palestinian Protestors

In the Israeli-occupied village of Bi'lin, Palestinians carry Hamas and Fatah flags at a rally celebrating the reconciliation deal, signed in Cairo in May.

6 May 2011
ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo
Issam Rimawi

The period 2006–2016 witnessed a political and territorial split between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank due to a bitter dispute between the Hamas and Fatah movements after the legislative elections of January 2006. While the United States did not undertake significant efforts toward a fair settlement of the conflict, Israel carried out three major military assaults on Hamas-controlled Gaza, with disastrous consequences for Gaza and its residents, in addition to a war against Lebanon in Summer 2006; and it continued construction of settlements in the West Bank, including Jerusalem. Under these conditions, and given the upheavals in the Arab world, the Palestinians responded by seeking support in the international arena. Their efforts bore modest results; the United Nations and various governments around the world made significant steps toward diplomatic recognition of the Palestinian state.

The bitter dispute between Hamas and Fatah has a lengthy history. Mutual antagonism was fueled further on 25 January 2006, when Hamas won the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) elections. As a result, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazin) appointed Hamas politician Ismail Haniyeh to the position of PA prime minister and approved his cabinet slate without agreeing to his program. Israel and the “Quartet” (United States, European Union, Russia, and the United Nations) refused to deal with the Hamas government until it recognized Israel, accepted previous agreements signed by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and renounced violence. International donors resorted to circumventing Haniyeh’s government and channeling funds to Abbas in his capacity as PLO president. But the internal challenges proved more difficult to evade.

Shortly after the formation of the cabinet, the new minister of interior formed a security force under his command, called the Executive Support Force (ESF). The latter rivalled the official PA security forces, which reported to Abbas and were dominated by Fatah loyalists. Violent clashes between the two sides and their supporters alternated with unity talks between May 2006 and January 2007, until Saudi Arabia intervened and sponsored (in Mecca on 8 February 2007) an agreement between the two parties to form a unity government; this government was announced on 17 March. However, all-out fighting between the two sides resumed in June 2007, with Hamas eliminating security forces loyal to Abbas in Gaza. The latter declared a state of emergency on 14 June and dismissed Haniyeh from his post as prime minister, although in reality there was little the PA, from Ramallah, or Fatah could do about the situation in Gaza. The result was the emergence of two separate Palestinian governments: one headed by Salam Fayyad in the PA-controlled parts of the West Bank and recognized by the international community, and a Hamas-led government under Haniyeh in Gaza.

Immediately thereafter and in a bid to strengthen Abbas by showing some progress in the peace process, Israelis and Palestinians were brought together by the US administration to resume talk on final status issues. From mid-July 2007 until mid-September 2008, numerous and intensive negotiation sessions, including a conference attended by Abbas, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, President George W. Bush, and representatives of forty countries at Annapolis on 27 November 2007 led nowhere on the main four issues: Jerusalem, refugees, borders, and security.

In the meantime, in July-August 2006, war broke out between Israel and Hizballah after the latter abducted two soldiers north of Israel. Despite thirty-four days of heavy bombardment and incursion attempts into South Lebanon, the Israeli army failed to stop Hizballah’s shelling on Israel’s territory and to break its defenses. Against the backdrop of such a failure, a severe blockade of Gaza and Hamas-Israel on-and-off rocket exchanges, the Israeli army launched from 27 December 2008 until 18 January 2009 a war against Gaza (Operation Cast Lead, but called by Hamas the Battle of Right against Wrong), in order to regain its deterrence, greatly damaged by the war on Lebanon, and to test the lessons of that war through massive aerial bombardment and land incursions at the expense of the civilian population (1,400 Palestinians dead, more than 4,000 wounded) and Gaza’s infrastructures and built areas. Just over three years later, from 14–21 November 2012, Israel carried out another campaign of intensive bombardment of Gaza but did not commit ground forces.

President Barack Obama, who was sworn in on 20 January 2009, brought some hope to the possibility of progress in the peace process, especially with his Cairo speech on 4 June, in which he called for stopping Israel’s settlement activities and stated that “just as Israel's right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine's.” However, the US administration resolve on the settlement freeze petered out gradually in the following months, and it applied mounting pressure instead on Abbas to get his agreement to direct talks with Israel’s prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. These talks, held in Washington and Sharm al-Shaykh in September 2010, led nowhere. Obama later directed Secretary of State John Kerry to undertake peace talks with the two sides. From 29 July 2013 through 29 April 2014, no tangible results were achieved. In fact, the Netanyahu government pursued with perseverance its strategy of settlement expansion and even used it as provocative tactics to undermine the credibility of the Ramallah PA and the American mediation efforts.

The credibility of the Palestinian leadership was in any case undermined intrinsically. Salam Fayyad (who served as prime minister until April 2013) issued in August 2009 a plan for institutional and infrastructural development called “Ending the Occupation, Establishing the State”; the plan made little difference in light of Israel’s encroachments and because Fayyad did not receive sufficient political support from Fatah. The Hamas government in Gaza, incapable of breaking Israel’s economic siege to satisfy the population under its control, found some compensation in the lifeline provided by the tunnels with Egypt, and also in imposing on the population rules it considered part of the right social Islamic order. In addition, Abbas’s PA in Ramallah and Hamas government in Gaza suffered from their divisions, in spite of various initiatives undertaken by some Arab countries and Palestinians not affiliated to either Hamas or Fatah. Abbas and Hamas leader Khalid Mishal, or their representatives, signed successive agreements on 4 May 2011 in Cairo, on 7 February 2012 in Doha, on 20 May in Cairo, providing for the formation of a caretaker government of technocrats and the holding of PLC elections. However, no action was taken on the ground following these three instances.

Finally, on 23 April 2014, the two sides signed an agreement in Gaza (the Shati' Agreement), confirming what had been achieved in Doha and Cairo. On 2 June, Abbas swore in a new unity government, consisting of independents and technocrats and headed by Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, who had been serving already in this capacity in the West Bank since June 2013. But real power in ministerial departments and security services in Gaza remained under Hamas’s control. Many countries, including the United States, welcomed the move, and Israel expressed its displeasure.

Just one month into the new unity government, and in the context of renewed tension, Israel launched a third major attack on Gaza. From 8 July through 26 August 2014, Israeli naval, air, and ground forces assaulted and re-invaded Gaza in what the Israelis called Operation Protective Edge. Over 2,200 Palestinians were killed, the majority of them civilians. Hamas once again launched thousands of rockets into Israel, some striking as far north as Zikhron Ya`akov south of Haifa. Israeli casualties were six civilians and 67 soldiers.

With the Oslo process seemingly dead, the PLO focused on seeking international recognition of an independent Palestinian state. Such efforts included attempts to secure the admission of Palestine into the UN as a full member state. On 23 September 2011, Abbas submitted a formal application for admission into the UN despite knowing that admission into the world body requires the support of the Security Council, where the United States surely would use its veto power. These rules do not apply to membership in subsidiary UN bodies, however, and on 31 October 2011, UNESCO voted to admit Palestine as a full member of that body. Abandoning the plan to petition for full UN membership, the PLO still managed successfully to secure the status of Palestine as a “non-member observer state” in the General Assembly in a 29 November 2012 vote. Meanwhile, civil society groups outside of Palestine have given voice to a campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel, Israeli institutions, and international companies implicated in the occupation and oppression of Palestinians. Progress on these fronts, at both the diplomatic and civil society levels, has been largely symbolic, however.

A series of political events and conflicts inaugurated by the so-called Arab Spring in late 2010 and early 2011 greatly complicated the regional picture. Unrest and conflict, particularly in neighboring Egypt and Syria, drew focus away from the Palestinian issue, while the impact on Palestinian refugees, in Syria in particular, has been harsh. Meanwhile, the forging of new alliances and the opening of new rifts in the Arab world involving non-Arab regional actors (Iran and Turkey) made Palestine an arena of regional competition rather than the focus of Arab and regional support. Given the persistence of internal divisions and the momentous and uncertain character of regional developments, the future for Palestinians remained murky. One of the manifestations of the blocked political horizon in 2015–2016 was the uncoordinated actions by individual Palestinians against settlers and Israeli checkpoints throughout the West Bank and the repeated clashes with Israeli soldiers at the Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem.

Selected Bibliography: 

Bitari, Nidal. “Yarmuk Refugee Camp and the Syrian Uprising: A View from Within.Journal of Palestine Studies 43, no. 1 (Autumn 2013): 61–78.

Commentary: The Kerry Negotiations.Journal of Palestine Studies 43, no. 3 (Spring 2014): 40–55.

Hilal, Jamil. “The Polarization of the Palestinian Political Field.Journal of Palestine Studies 39, no. 3 (Spring 2010): 24–39.

Khalidi, Muhammad Ali. “The Most Moral Army in the World: The New ‘Ethical Code’ of the Israeli Military and the War on Gaza.Journal of Palestine Studies 39, no. 3 (Spring 2010): 6–23.

Parsons, Nigel. The Politics of the Palestinian Authority: From Oslo to al-Aqsa. London: Routledge, 2012.

Usher, Graham. “Letter from the UN: The Palestinian Bid for Membership.Journal of Palestine Studies 41, no. 1 (Autumn 2011): 57–66.