4 May 2011

Brothers in arms: Palestinian peace deal signed

Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jonathan Miller on the signing of a deal between former rivals Hamas and Fatah to bring in a joint caretaker government for Palestine.

Unusually for Gaza, there was something to celebrate today.  They danced in the streets as four years of factional fratricide ended with the stroke of a pen down in Cairo.  Fatah, which runs the West Bank from Ramallah, and Hamas, which runs Gaza, patched up their differences.Leaders of Fatah and Hamas meet at signing of Palestinian peace deal

Flag-waving, cheering crowds across the Occupied Territories, rejoiced in reunification.  A young woman, in avaiator shades, said simply:  “We are happy.” Others hailed it as an historic day.

The bloody rift between secular Fatah and the Islamists of Hamas are among the first buds of the Arab Spring.  The surprise deal was mediated by Egypt — marking a sharp shift in foreign policy priorities after the fall of Mubarak.

It paves the way for the creation of a jointly-administered caretaker Palestinian government, before national elections next year.

“We announce to Palestinians that we turn forever the black page of division. We meet to assert a unified will,” declared Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President and Fatah Leader, from the podium in Egypt’s intelligence agency, where the landmark reconciliation deal was proclaimed.

He was scathing in his criticism of Israel:  we will not be blackmailed, he said. The Palestinian President promised to visit the Hamas-held Gaza Strip soon.

Khaled Meshaal, the leader of Hamas, said:  “We will pay any price in order to acheive this agreement. The only real battle we have is with the Israeli occupier, not between the Palestinian people.”

The outoing chief of Israeli security agency Shin Bet, Yuval Diskin, was quoted by the newspaper Haaretz as saying that Hamas had made a “tactical, not a strategic move.” He attributed Hamas’s change of heart to concerns resulting from “developments in the region” — notably the potential collapse of the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria, where Khael Meshaal has long lived in exile.

As Hamas supporters celebrate with what Meshaal called “our brothers and sisters” in Fatah, there is great discomfort in Israel — accompanied by cold comfort from Washington — over Fatah’s pact with a group bent on the destruction of the Jewish state.  It’s written into its founding charter. Two days ago, Hamas eulogised the late Osama bin Laden — grist to the mill of the right-wing Israeli government.

”Would you trust anyone who has just praised Osama Bin Laden?” asked Yigal Palmor, spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry.  “We don’t, and we don’t think anyone could expect us to. As long as Hamas is committed to violence, and violence only, we don’t see how the Palestinian government can play any constructive role, and we will have to take our precautions.”

Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who’s been visiting London put it bluntly:  “What happened today in Cairo is a tremendous blow to peace and a great victory for terrorism,”  he said.

Hamas, elected five years ago to run Gaza, opposes negotiated peace with Israel and remains unreformed.

Tony Blair, Envoy for the Quartet of Middle East Mediators said the international community would want to know: “Does this mean a change of heart on behalf of Hamas or not? Because if that hasn’t happened, then the question is, is this a genuine unity that can hold and can promote peace because that is in the end what we all want to see.”

The deal between Hamas and Fatah
may dash hopes of peace with Israel — although any imminent prospect of that was pretty much dead in the water.  But today, moderates and militants in the occupied Palestinian Territories embraced, and in the rapidly changing Middle East, who knows where that may lead.

In Ramallah, Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian Prime Minister is in no doubt.  “The Palestinian Authority has, in the world’s eyes, crossed the threshold of readiness for statehood in the form of strong and competetent institution of government,” he said.

Mahmoud Abbas was even more direct in his Cairo speech:  “The state of Palestine must be born this year,” he said.

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