Burning bridges: Hamas and reconciliation

Palestinians from Fatah (yellow flags) and Hamas (green flags) celebrated the reconciliation agreement between the factions in 2011, but little progress in the region has been made since. EPA/Mohammed Saber

Recently, Musheer al-Masri, a Hamas member and spokesperson, blamed his Palestinian political rivals Fatah yet again for hindering the implementation of the Palestinian Reconciliation Agreement. The agreement, signed in Cairo in May 2011, is yet to show any tangible outcomes.

Fatah and Hamas, the two Palestinian rivals, continue to blame each other for lack of progress, and so far both groups have only paid lip service to the agreement. However, if the Palestinian Reconciliation Agreement is to succeed, Hamas in particular needs to initiate a number of trust building measures to counterbalance the religious and political polarisation it has created in Palestine.

This is not to imply that Fatah has not done its share of harm. The violence and atrocities were mutual since mid-2007, when Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas dismissed the democratically elected Hamas government.

Violent clashes had started before then, but intensified steadily afterwards. Abbas’ decree led to an administrative and political division whereby the West Bank is controlled by an appointed Fatah-led government and the Gaza Strip is governed by Hamas.

In its daily statements in Arabic, published on its website from 2006 until the end of 2012, Hamas discourse has influenced a sharp religious and political polarisation in Palestinian politics. This discourse has shaped the attitudes of its members and local constituency and was reaffirmed with acts of violence against Fatah.

Religious polarisation

One noticeable change in Hamas discourse since 2006 is the decline of denouncing Israel based on religious factors. Instead the religious other has become Fatah. Fatah’s members and leaders were described throughout 2006 to early 2011 as “sinful faces”, “an erring group”, and “hypocrites”. These are terms from the Qur'an taken out of context to antagonise Fatah as the irreligious political actor.

Hamas also claims superiority based on its Islamic identity. Hamas continuously argues that it has a covenant with God to protect the Palestinians. On January 26, 2009, Hamas stated that:

the spark of a movement that takes its light and power from Allah, will not fade and it will not stop its blessed pathway of giving. Allah is our helper and protector.

Hamas advocates itself as the religious Palestinian political actor. Therefore, when the religious Hamas is fighting the irreligious Fatah, God will support them! So goes the logic of Hamas.

Hamas’ manipulation of religion remains problematic on many fronts. This is one of them. Hamas implies that it is not only a political actor but also one that is endowed with divine righteousness.

Hamas concluded the introduction of its 2005 Election Platform with the Qur'anic verse: “and this is my path, straight; so do you follow it, and follow not divers paths lest they scatter you from His path”. This self-proclaimed righteousness announces that the political choices of Hamas are divine plans. Any opposition to its political choices are targeted against Islam, not against Hamas the political movement.

Political polarisation

The question of political polarisation is a complex one. BBC’s brief summary of both movements clarifies roots of the conflict, and Al Jazeera’s timeline of this conflict clarifies its dynamics.

Between mid-2006 to April 2011, Hamas increasingly used criminal adjectives to describe the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority Security Forces. Throughout its statements, Hamas described them as “killers”, “mercenaries”, and “gangs”.

This language was used in context of the Security Forces having arrested Hamas members or crushed Palestinian protesters. Yet, the language ignores the law and order role of these forces. Hamas has not used legal and administrative factors to challenge the role played by the Security Forces.

In this and similar contexts, Hamas described Fatah as a collaborator with Israel. Yet, certain aspects of Fatah’s cooperation with Israel are a necessity of its role in the Palestinian Authority (PA). Any Palestinian party that heads the PA will have to cooperate with Israel on certain aspects like crossings, electricity, and taxes. Hamas never defined the line between cooperation out of necessity and collaboration with Israel.

One interesting contradiction of Hamas behaviour in this context is how it refers to Abbas. Abbas’ official term as Palestinian President ended in January 2009. From January 2009 to May 2011, Hamas referred to Abbas in its daily statements as “President Abbas, whose term has ended”.

But this is the same Abbas - who is still illegitimately holding the title and authorities of the Palestinian president - with whom Khaled Mishal, head of the Political Bureau of Hamas, signed the Reconciliation Agreement in 2011.

New language, but no reconciliation

After signing the Reconciliation Agreement in May 2011, Hamas stopped the use of criminal labels against Fatah and refrained from labelling Fatah and its members in unfavourable religious language.

Decisions and policies by Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has caused much political friction between Hamas and Fatah. EPA/Jamal Nasrallah

Instead, Hamas refers to Fatah and its members since then as “our brothers in Fatah”. Yet one wonders if a shift to using the term “brothers” can wash away the polarisation that has been influenced by Hamas discourse for almost six years.

The more important question is: can the Reconciliation Agreement between the two succeed?

Two measures might help in this direction. Articulating political opposition to Fatah in strictly political discourse is a skill that Hamas is yet to develop. This requires efforts not only on the level of the leadership of Hamas, but also on the local level. The change is to come from local members who write these daily statements and who mobilise the local constituency.

It is the responsibility of the Hamas Political Bureau to cultivate and train its members in political communication. For decades now, Hamas discourse has been one of blame: blaming Israel and Fatah for the state of Palestinian politics. The rise of Hamas as a political party after winning the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections has not changed the discourse of its local leadership. Developing a discourse based on human rights and international law can attain Hamas some credibility when voicing its political opposition.

In addition, Hamas has no option but to engage in trust building measures. Hamas local members will have to sit across the table from Fatah to discuss local problems, apologise for past atrocities, and acknowledge the wrongs that have been done. Any reconciliation agreement cannot claim to be so unless it engages in an acknowledgement and apologies process. And Hamas has the local presence and networks to achieve that.

For a movement that boasts about its Islamic identity, the first step to take in that direction is to initiate an ambitious and courageous process to formally apologise for the religious language used to antagonise Fatah. For this, Hamas can organise local sulhas (mediation sessions) with respected local elders who would facilitate the process of formal apology.

Hamas can also use its animation productions, graffiti artists, singers, and bands to influence cooperation with Fatah and to encourage cooperation and joint engagement by youth from both sides. Activities in mosques are also to advocate the unity that the agreement claims to encourage.

For some, the emphasis on apology and trust-building seems idealistic for the thorny politics of the Middle East. Whether it is on the level of international governments or local parties, politics remain a business of relationships. And for Palestinians to achieve practical outcomes of the Reconciliation Agreement, a process of acknowledgements and apologies is an absolute necessity.