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April 1, 2009
Q&A: Palestinian unity talks between Fatah and Hamas

Worldfocus producer Mohammad al-Kassim interviews Dr. Sameeh Shbaib of Birzeit University in the West Bank.

On Wednesday, a second round of talks between leaders of the rival Palestinian groups Hamas and Fatah began in Egypt. The talks between the two factions are aimed at forming a national unity government that can better work for a common Palestinian cause.

The Islamist Hamas refuses to recognize Israel and has controlled the Gaza Strip since expelling Fatah forces in June 2007. After its victory in 2006 parliamentary elections, Hamas was given the responsibility to form a Palestinian government. This led to tensions and a power struggle with Fatah, a secular movement led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

Fatah is largely in control of the West Bank and supports the creation of a Palestinian state in a land-for-peace deal with Israel based on the 1967 borders.

Dr. Sameeh Shbaib lectures on philosophy and cultural studies at Birzeit University in the West Bank and recently sat down with Worldfocus producer Mohammad al-Kassim to discuss the ongoing talks in Cairo.

Mohammad al-Kassim: What’s your take on the first round Palestinian national reconciliation meetings in Cairo in mid-March?

Sameeh Shbaib: As Palestinians, we are faced with two different powers — Hamas and Fatah. Hamas is a Islamic political movement that has its own ideology, which is different that the national Palestinian political movement established in 1964. The Palestinian National Covenant [the charter of the PLO] has always been the sole representative of the Palestinian people. Hamas carries its own weight and is a real player in the Palestinian political structure and that comes from the majority it enjoys in the Palestinian national legislation. However, it does not speak for the Palestinian people

That’s why we have these deep differences. Hamas has its own view from all the international alliances and national political programs. If we look at the programs of the PLO, we see that they are secular programs and are not religious or partisan. The move toward Palestinian national reconciliation comes after pressure by Arab countries. As we see, there is an environment now among the Arab countries to set aside their differences. There is a thawing of relations is happening between two moderate nations (Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia) and the so-called rejectionist countries (Syria).

This new phase of Arab cooperation is reflected directly or indirectly on the Palestinian issue, which is in dire need of one unified voice. I hope that the national unity government will lift the blockade on Gaza and begin rebuilding.

MAK: Considering the deep divisions between Hamas and Fatah how strong will this government be?

SS: The positive thing about this government is that it’s going to be a transitional government with big responsibilities. The first is the lifting of the blockade and the rebuilding of Gaza. Second, making sure that legislative and presidential elections take place within 10 months or before the end of January 2010. Basically, what we’d have is a general election, which will decide the future of the Palestinian political system, and everyone would have to respect the results, despite the outcome.

MAK: If Hamas joins a national coalition government, will it be implicitly approving or agreeing to all the peace accords the PLO has signed with Israel?

SS: Not necessarily, and that’s because Hamas is a political party and the government is the executive coalition. All the accords that were signed between the Palestinians and Israel, were signed by the PLO and not by one Palestinian faction. And, Hamas is not a member of the PLO.

Hamas has a stronghold on the Gaza Strip.

MAK: If and when the national unity government is created, does this mean the return of the Palestinian Authority to Gaza?

SS: Yes, if an agreement is reached — and that’s what we hope — this transitional government will be a general unity government, which is part of an agreement that includes five major points. The security issue, election issue, the restructuring of the PLO issue and so on. As a result, this government will be able to spread its influence over the Palestinian territories, meaning Gaza and the West Bank.

MAK: What names are on the table as possible candidates for the prime minister position for the national unity government?

SS: In my opinion, it’s going to be an independent candidate that both Fatah and Hamas will agree to.

MAK: What were the motives behind the resignation the current Palestinian government led by prime minister Salam Fayyad? Was his resignation a result of the talks in Cairo or an internal fight?

SS: It doesn’t matter because this government came after the Hamas coup of June 2006. Then a state of emergency was declared because President Abbas desperately needed someone who could uphold the state of emergency and Fayyad took on this historical role. This government was created with certain goals in mind, and once they were accomplished, there was no more need for it.

MAK: What if a unity government fails? What are the implications of the failure on Palestinians?

SS: We hope and pray to God that when a Palestinian government is created, it does not fail in its mission and succeeds in rebuilding the Palestinian house, because its failure this time will be catastrophic. It will lead to a permanent division between the two territories. And the future of the Palestinian state will forever undecided and all Palestinians will lose.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user flyk3r under a Creative Commons license.

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