The reconciliation between the leaders of the two major Palestinian groups, Hamas and Fatah, that has just been negotiated in Saudi Arabia is being hailed as a major political breakthrough. But the national unity government created as a result of this agreement faces many daunting challenges. The agreement needs to be followed by an effort to end the economic and administrative siege of Palestine, as well as serious peace talks with Israel aimed at ending the 39-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. At home, the new government needs to pay its civil servants, restore law and order, and end the chaos that has become the norm in the Palestinian territories.
The internal fighting in Palestine began in part as a result of the political impasse caused after Israel and the international community imposed an economic embargo on the Palestinian Authority. This economic siege, zealously enforced even by Arab and Islamic banks, followed the new Hamas-led government’s refusal to accept the demand by the “quartet” – the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia – that it recognize Israel, accept all previous agreements with Israel, and renounce terrorism.
Palestinians complained that the international community acted unjustly, simply because they were unhappy with the result of a free and fair election in the Palestinian territories, which Hamas won overwhelmingly. The government created after the January 2006 elections has been unable to pay civil servants because of the international banking blockade and the refusal of Israel to transfer millions of tax dollars collected on behalf of the Palestinian people.
After months without pay, the government, headed by Hamas’s Ismael Haniyeh, was confronted with a serious challenge in September, when civil servants went on strike, demanding to be paid. The differences between the Fatah-led presidency of Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas’s Islamist government spilled into the streets. Threats by Abbas to hold elections to resolve the deadlock seemed to add oil to the fire.