In West Bank, Palestinian Accord Faces Challenges

Jun 23, 2011

A newly minted peace deal between rival Palestinian factions is already fraying. Fatah, which rules the West Bank, and the militant group Hamas, which holds sway in Gaza, have been at odds since a civil war broke out in Gaza in 2007.

Last month, the groups signed a reconciliation agreement. The two factions were supposed to announce the composition of a unity government in Cairo this week, but the meeting was postponed following disagreements over who should assume the post of prime minister.

A Microcosmic Election?

In the West Bank city of Hebron, the task of reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah is playing out on the ground.

It's Election Day in the city. The voting room is crammed with doctors jocularly scribbling names on pink pieces of paper and then depositing them into a plastic ballot box.

For the first time in 16 years, the largest medical association in Hebron is electing a new board. And though it's a private association, the election has political heft.

Out of 14 people running, seven are backed by the West Bank's ruling party, Fatah. Two banners outside list the Fatah candidates. There is no Hamas list here at all.

Despite a reconciliation agreement signed by the rival groups that is supposed to pave the way for parliamentary elections next year, there's not a single candidate running under the Hamas banner.

Hamas members say it's a sign that the reconciliation that's being touted is less than real.

Mohammad Mitlaq, a Hamas lawmaker in the Palestinian parliament, says he's frustrated. He says Fatah is taking advantage of the situation to pack its people into key institutions in elections, like the one in the hospital. He also complains that the pace of reconciliation is slow on the ground.

Process of Reconciliation

Hebron, the most populous city in the West Bank, has been one of the key battlegrounds between Hamas and Fatah.

It's considered a Hamas stronghold, but after the fighting in Gaza in 2007, the Fatah-dominated security forces targeted Hamas supporters and officials in the city, Mitlaq says.

Mitlaq's colleague Sameera al-Halayqa is also a member of the suspended Palestinian Legislative Council. Since 2007, her husband and son have been arrested multiple times by the Palestinian security forces — simply, she says, because of their affiliation to Hamas.

There are hundreds of other similar cases throughout the West Bank, according to human rights groups. As part of the reconciliation agreement, some political detainees are now being released.

Still, Halayqa says she'll never trust the other side. She might be able to forgive, she says, but she cannot forget what happened to her as a mother and as a wife.

At the Fatah offices across town, Kifah al-Awiwi, Fatah's secretary-general in Hebron, says reconciliation is working: Hamas supporters can now gather publicly and hold demonstrations, which used to be prohibited. He says the Fatah leadership is committed to making the unity deal work.

Doubts About Unification

But Israel is far from happy at the prospect of seeing Hamas in a unified Palestinian government. Israel and the U.S. consider Hamas a terrorist organization. In recent weeks, many of the Hamas members released by the Palestinian Authority have been rearrested by Israel Defense Forces.

"As long as Hamas remains loyal to its old charter of fighting Israelis and Jews wherever they find them, there is no reason for optimism," says Yigal Palmor, Israel's foreign ministry spokesman.

Palmor says that at best, the Palestinian unity agreement is a cosmetic one prompted by a Palestinian desire to present a unified front at the U.N. this September. Palestinians are hoping to gain recognition there as an independent state. At worst, he says the deal could see Israel sanction the new Palestinian government.

Back in Hebron, ordinary Palestinians are worried about the future.

Anas Sarabta, a 25-year-old counselor at a youth camp, says that while the arrests of Hamas supporters have grabbed all the headlines, dozens of people affiliated with Hamas have lost their jobs in state-run schools and hospitals. It's a quieter, but no less effective form of purging Hamas support in the West Bank.

He says he fears that this reconciliation is no reconciliation at all.

"We should see something on the ground; we should see changes," he says. "In Hebron we should see changes. In Gaza. Did we see such a changes? I don't think so."

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