On Monday June 2nd, a transitional Palestinian unity government was sworn in based on an agreement reached between Fatah and Hamas. The government, which is headed by Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, consists of representatives from Fatah and so-called independent “technocrats” who appear to be not directly affiliated with Hamas. The agreement requires elections to be held within six months.
Although the US administration rushed to publicly say it "would work with" the new government, even they have acknowledged there are many questions regarding the practical implications and viability of this unity government. After all, similar past reconciliations, including the 2011 Cairo Accord and 2012 Doha Declaration, both of which are cited as a basis for parts of the current agreement, quickly fell apart.
At this very early stage, it is foolish to predict how the arrangement will work in practice, and especially whether free and fair Palestinian elections will indeed be held in six months. In fact, in the days since the agreement was signed, there have been public disputes over financial issues between Hamas and Fatah, and security forces of both parties have detained and arrested officials from the other. Hamas retains its control over a highly trained and well-armed terrorist paramilitary force, and an arsenal of rockets and missiles which it has used to target Israeli civilians. Will the Palestinian Authority security forces be deployed in Gaza and will Hamas lay down its weapons? If not, how can the pledge by President Abbas to adhere to the Quartet conditions be taken seriously?
Middle East analyst Ehud Yaari argues that by entering into the unity agreement, Hamas is following the so-called Hezbollah model. Similar to Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas gets political legitimacy and maintains its intimidating and brutally effective military force through their Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigade. Indeed, Hamas’s security forces are larger and better equipped than the Palestinian Authority’s, and the unity agreement makes no mention of Hamas disarming the al-Qassam Brigade.
Other difficult questions about the unity agreement that remain murky include what role the so-called technocrats will play in setting policy for the new government, how much influence Hamas’s leadership will actually have in the Palestinian Authority’s policy making, and if or how financial support to the PA from the US and other international donors will be applied in Hamas’s stronghold over Gaza.
Regarding the independent technocrats, there are likely two reasons why Palestinian President Abbas decided to include them as opposed to actual Hamas officials. First, Abbas calculated that the US and others in the international community would almost certainly reject a Palestinian government which included Hamas, a State Department designated Foreign Terrorist Organization. And second, there are internal Fatah concerns about granting Hamas significant influence within the Palestinian Authority, and how it could undermine Abbas and Fatah’s standing among Palestinians.
Yet even without its direct participation, Hamas’s backing of the new government raises serious questions about President Abbas’s desire and ability to pursue a peaceful end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Despite Palestinian Authority claims that Hamas’s acquiescence to the unity government is sufficient to establish its acceptance of the international community’s criteria for engagement – which includes renouncing terror against Israel, acknowledging Israel’s right to exist and accepting existing Israeli-Palestinian agreements – no senior Hamas official has ever made such a public pronouncement. In fact, when asked recently about the unity deal, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh stated emphatically that Hamas would continue its “resistance” efforts against Israel, even in the face of an agreement.
Thus far, the US administration has little or nothing to say about all of these open questions.
One last big question remains - what if new elections are held in the next six months and Hamas wins again, just as it did in 2006?