(CNSNews.com) – Following the recent Israeli elections and military operation in Gaza, Palestinian factions are due to meet in Cairo on Wednesday, but recent Hamas attacks on the once-sacrosanct Palestine Liberation Organization are complicating attempts to achieve Palestinian unity.
Spokesmen for both Hamas, the Islamist group that won Palestinian elections in 2006 and then seized control of Gaza in mid-2007, and Fatah, Palestinian Authority (P.A.) president Mahmoud Abbas’ West Bank-based organization, have welcomed the Egypt-mediated talks, which also will involve smaller factions.
But differences between the feuding organizations have deepened significantly. During the three-week Gaza conflict, Hamas gunmen killed dozens of Fatah members and others accused of collaborating with Israel, according to Palestinian human rights advocacy groups
There have been arrests of Hamas supporters in the West Bank and Fatah supporters in Gaza. On Monday, Hamas announced it had arrested Fatah security officers on suspicion of collaborating with the Israeli military.
Hamas recently caused a stir in the Arab world when its Damascus-based leader, Khaled Meshaal, publicly challenged the PLO, the organization that for decades has been viewed as the primary vehicle and voice for Palestinian aspirations.
Speaking at a rally in Qatar on January 28, Meshaal said the PLO was no longer a “unifying point of reference” for Palestinians, but had instead become impotent and a tool used to deepen divisions among Palestinians.
“The Palestinian resistance forces are discussing the building of a national authority at home and abroad, including all the national forces and trends of our people,” he said.
Meshaal’s appeal for the creation of a new umbrella structure was widely interpreted as a call for the PLO’s replacement, although some Hamas figures later disputed this. Various Palestinian faction representatives have been weighing in via Arab media, invariably voicing support for the PLO while acknowledging the need for reform.
Formed in 1964 and for decades responsible for the world’s most heinous terrorist attacks, the PLO won recognition in various international forums as the “sole and legitimate” representative of the Palestinians.
The PLO is dominated by Fatah, whose leader, Abbas, is also PLO chairman. Abbas also heads the P.A., the self-rule administration set up under the Oslo peace accords, and supposedly subordinate to the PLO.
Hamas is not a member of the PLO. In its 1988 founding charter, the Islamist group said it would support the PLO “in confronting the enemies” but would only “become its soldiers” once the predominantly secular PLO “adopts Islam as its way of life.”
In 2005, Hamas and Fatah explored the possibility of Hamas being included in a reformed PLO, but the initiative stalled. The following year Hamas won legislative elections, and relations between the two since then have deteriorated, at times reaching the point of open warfare.
Hamas’ position has been strengthened by divisions within Fatah and the PLO, most prominently the stance taken by veteran activist Farouk Kaddoumi, who for decades served as the PLO’s “foreign minister,” but rejected the Oslo accords and refused to return from exile in Tunisia. Viewed as a rival to and frequent critic of Abbas, the septuagenarian Kaddoumi has been moving closer to Hamas’ Damascus-based leadership.
Within Fatah, younger and more radical members affiliated with the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades also favor Hamas’ “resistance”-based approach over that of Fatah.
Abbas responded to Meshaal’s comments by warning that any attempt to create an alternative leadership to the PLO would “consolidate” internecine divisions.
One of the topics on the agenda at the Cairo talks will be looking for ways not to replace the PLO, but to reform it.
According to the Palestinian Ma’an news agency, PLO reform will be the focus of one of five committees that will be set up at the talks. The others will deal with the formation of a unity government, security, elections and reconciliation, it said.
‘Every hand span of Palestine’
In an apparent attempt to exploit the intra-Palestinian differences, al-Qaeda ideologue Ayman al-Zawahiri, in a newly released audio message, argued that it was pointless to try to reform the PLO. He derided it as “a secularist organization which doesn’t rule by Islamic shari’a,” which recognized the legitimacy of Israel and which had given up demands for Israeli territory beyond the West Bank and Gaza.
He hypothesized that a reformed PLO, which opened its doors to all organizations not currently participating, could then vote in favor of accepting a “two-state solution,” a stance that would fly in the face of Islamic fundamentals.
“The rules of shari’a are not subject to referendum, and jihad in Palestine is an individual duty to expel the invaders from every hand span of it and from every occupied Muslim land, whether the majority agrees or disagrees,” Zawahiri said.
The message from the fugitive Egyptian terrorist was translated and released at the weekend by the NEFA Foundation, a terrorism watchdog. In it, he also urged Palestinians in Gaza not to sign a truce with Israel, but to continue the “jihad to liberate Palestine.” Zawahiri has in the past been critical of Hamas, accusing it of having sold out the struggle in favor of the comforts of government.
Previous Egyptian attempts to unite the rival Palestinian factions failed last November, when Hamas pulled out to protest the arrest of its members in the West Bank.
The imperatives driving the current push include the need for unity to facilitate the entry of financial and humanitarian aid into Gaza and an end to Israel’s security blockade, and Palestinian concerns about the implications of Israel’s political transition.
Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu is negotiating with other parties in a bid to build as broad a coalition as possible. Although talks are still at an early stage, cool responses so far from the centrist Kadima and center-left Labor suggest that he may end up with a right-leaning coalition leery of making concessions to Palestinian representatives.
Egypt next week hosts another meeting relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – an international donors’ conference for reconstruction efforts in the Gaza Strip.
The U.S. delegation, to be led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is expected to offer substantial aid, but the money will have to be channeled through the P.A. or U.N. agencies.
The U.S. and others have refused to deal with Hamas unless it meets three conditions laid down by the Mideast Quartet – the U.S., U.N., Russia and European Union – three years ago: recognize Israel, renounce violence, and accept all prior agreements signed between Israel and the PLO.
Hamas leaders have given no indication that the organization has moved any closer to meeting the Quartet criteria.