This month, Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas signed a reconciliation deal in a move to end the split that has divided the West Bank and the Gaza Strip politically and administratively since 2007.
Hamas officials will now integrate into the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority (PA), which will assume full control of Gaza and end policies that have redoubled the suffering of its already impoverished and blockaded population. Subsequent talks will turn to outstanding issues, including Hamas’s military wing.
Reacting to the news, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged that Israel would not “accept bogus reconciliations … at the expense of our existence.” His government subsequently announced that Israel will not talk with any Palestinian government in which Hamas plays a role. It urged the PA to act against Hamas.
This rejection of Palestinian reconciliation is as counterproductive as it is familiar. My 2011 book analyzes Palestinians’ struggle for national unity over nearly 100 years. I find that, though many obstacles were internal, many were amplified from the outside.
These factional divisions are not only bad for the Palestinian quest for national liberation. They are also bad for Israeli security. To the degree that a national movement is fragmented, it is more likely that its protest will take violent forms. Rival factions have an incentive to carry out attacks against the external adversary as a way of competing against each other. No leadership can enforce cease-fires or discipline the use of force. The movement as a whole lacks the organizational capacity for coordination and restraint necessary to mobilize mass nonviolent protest as an alternative strategy.
The Palestinian national movement has demonstrated these patterns since its inception.
When Palestine was a British mandate, Palestinians’ political divisions were rooted in clan, class and other antagonisms. Colonial policies of divide and conquer exacerbated schisms and undermined Palestinians’ building of strong institutions to advance their cause. Palestinians came together in rebellion in the 1930s, but Britain’s collective punishments fueled descent into devastating intra-Palestinian violence. By the time Palestinians confronted the new state of Israel in 1948, they were too leaderless to mount an effective front.
Fatah and other grass-roots groups later reinvigorated the Palestinian movement from exile. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) developed as an umbrella for autonomous factions. Yet each had its own patrons and ambitions, and the Fatah-PLO leadership lacked power to enforce a single strategy. When it made diplomatic gestures, radical rivals launched attacks to spoil them.
The unarmed First Intifada rose above these divides and brought Palestinians of all walks of life together in a popular uprising in 1987 to end Israel’s occupation of the territories it conquered in 1967. Broad-based unity enabled nonviolent protest on a mass scale but was difficult to sustain under Israel’s crackdowns. With Palestinian statehood continually denied, Hamas grew as a rival to the secular PLO.
The 1993 Oslo accords established the PA as a self-governing apparatus in parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip from which Israel withdrew. Nevertheless, the PA offered a weak institutional basis for political cohesion. President Yasser Arafat flouted good governance, the rule of law and democratic norms. Israel and foreign patrons generally accepted the PA’s corruption as long as it suppressed Palestinian dissenters. Still, Hamas and other groups not only opposed the PA and the peace process, but also carried out suicide bombings in Israel.
Oslo’s failure to deliver security or statehood disappointed Israelis and Palestinians alike. When the Second Intifada began in 2000, it brought into relief the fragility of Palestinians’ national institutions and the intensity of their simmering divisions. In the absence of consensus on goals and means, and fomented by Israeli repression, the “dysfunctional revolt” deteriorated into a violent free-for-all.
Arafat’s death in 2004 opened space for political renewal, and Hamas, Fatah and other groups entered PA elections in 2006. Such inclusive participation might have ushered in a new national unity insofar as all major players agreed to integrate under a single set of rules. Sweeping turnout in free and fair balloting confirmed a mandate for the new system.
However, Hamas’s unexpected victory revealed that many parties rejected democratic contestation as a mechanism for governing Palestinian unity. Israel, the United States and the European Union boycotted the PA until Hamas recognized Israel, denounced terrorism and complied with previous agreements.
Fatah officially recognized its defeat but unofficially maneuvered to make the Hamas-led government fail. After a year of tension, the Mecca Agreement brought Fatah and Hamas together in a unity government. At the same time, Fatah leaders colluded with Israel and the United States to overthrow Hamas rule, investigative reports and leaked documents later detailed.
Citing these conspiracies, Hamas fighters routed Fatah forces and violently seized control of the PA in the Gaza Strip in June 2007. Israel sealed Gaza’s borders, and Hamas launched rockets. Conflict exploded into Israel-Hamas wars in 2008-09, 2012 and 2014, leaving a toll of thousands dead, tens of thousands injured and billions of dollars in damage.
Meanwhile, Fatah and Hamas continued to denounce each other while paying lip service to the goal of unity. Opinion polls showed the rise of “no one” as Palestinians’ most-trusted political party. In 2011, as Arab publics protested authoritarian regimes, Palestinians rallied under the chant, “The people want the end of the schism.”
Pressured from below, Fatah and Hamas announced the Cairo Agreement in April 2011. They pledged to form a government of technocrats, hold new elections and discuss Hamas’s integration into the PLO. Subsequent agreements in 2012 and 2014 sought to implement these principles. Israel consistently opposed these initiatives, and all ultimately collapsed.
Netanyahu’s tweets that the latest Palestinian reconciliation effort “makes peace much harder to achieve” ignore the lessons of history. Palestinian disunity makes peace impossible to achieve, as do actions from Israel or other states that feed disunity and sabotage initiatives to surmount it.
Wendy Pearlman is an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University. She is the author of two books on Palestinian society and politics. Her third book, published last June, is “We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices From Syria.”