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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

Interview with Avi Issacharoff on Palestinian Reconciliation

Senior Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmad, center right, and Hamas' representative, Saleh al-Arouri, center left, sign a reconciliation agreement during an Oct. 12 press conference at the Egyptian intelligence complex in Cairo, Egypt. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

Last month, the Palestinian political party Fatah and the terrorist organization Hamas signed a reconciliation deal that would bring the Gaza Strip—controlled by Hamas—back under the civil control of Fatah. The two fought a bloody war nearly ten years ago; subsequently, Fatah was expelled from the Gaza Strip. This most recent reconciliation attempt has resulted in some progress, raising questions and concerns. The Near East Report caught up with Times of Israel analyst and Palestinian expert Avi Issacharoff to find out more:

Q: What is your view of the most recent Palestinian reconciliation attempt? Is it different from previous attempts? What do you hear from Palestinians and Israelis?

Let me leave aside the Israeli perspective for now. I do believe that something new is going on. Maybe I am a bit more optimistic than the average Israeli analyst, especially compared to the “old school analysts” who have been very skeptical about it. I believe that something is going on here that is different from the former reconciliation attempts, for the simple fact that Hamas is willing to give up civil control of the Gaza Strip. Now, I know it is not much from the Israeli perspective given that Hamas still has its military wing, but from the Hamas perspective it is kind of a statement—meaning they are saying “we give up the control or rule of the government and we acknowledge that we fail on the governmental side. Meaning we cannot really manage issues like municipality, sewage, water, electricity, and at the end of the day we are good to be a resistance organization but not to be a real government.” This is why I do look at this attempt differently.

I think there are a few additional reasons: One of the most dominant and major ones is Egypt. The Egyptian approach is very, very supportive of reconciliation. Even the U.S. and Israeli approaches are very, very careful about it—no one is looking to stop or ruin the reconciliation that is going on.

Being realistic about it, I do not expect now that we might have genuine reconciliation—that there could be real unity. Hamas will keep its armed forces in Gaza. It will keep its military wing in Gaza. There’s no chance that we’ll see them give up their weapons, rockets, etc. etc. What we might see is the PA [Palestinian Authority] taking over. They took over passages, they took over the Erez checkpoint, they took over the Kerem Shalom checkpoint. That’s dramatic; that’s a change for Palestinians living in Gaza.

Q: What is motivating Hamas and Fatah to pursue a unity government at this time? How likely is it that Hamas will agree to disarm and to accept the Quartet Principles (namely, to recognize Israel, renounce terror and accept prior agreements)?

Hamas will not [pursue a unity government], but no one is asking them to. They are not supposed to be part of the government – at most they are supposed to be part of a technocratic organization, if there is any sort of new government. So, it is not that Hamas as an organization needs to recognize anything. If there will be a unity government—that government will need to recognize the Quartet demands. But Hamas will never recognize the State of Israel – it is as simple as that.

I think that part of the motivation for Hamas withdrawing from the civil control of Gaza is their understanding that they cannot comply with the international demands—the Quartet demands— and at the same time continue to meet the demands of the local population. If you ask Hamas and Fatah, the fear of having a ‘Gaza Spring’ or ‘Palestinian Spring’ in Gaza—meaning that there would be demonstrations, marches and protests against Hamas—is one of the issues that pushed them. They understand that the humanitarian situation in Gaza is on the edge of a catastrophe, and I do believe this is what led and pushed Hamas to understand that they must avert this.

Why should Hamas continue to manage issues like sewage and electricity if they can pass it to the PA? Yes, the PA would get the taxes, but Hamas already knows how to survive without the tax revenue and they will continue to survive without it. I think this is the approach it is taking in Gaza now.

And we must keep in mind that the leaders of Hamas today are different from those who led Hamas about six months ago – or a bit more than that. Yahya Sinwar and Ismail Haniyeh are the ones who are leading the reconciliation approach. And they are pushing very, very aggressively for some kind of reconciliation.

Q: How would reconciliation affect the PA’s security cooperation with Israel?

As of now, in the West Bank, it doesn’t.  I recently had an interview with the PA chief of police, Hazem Atallah, who acknowledged that security coordination between Israel and the PA has been renewed.

If you remember, on July 14 after the crisis at the Temple Mount, the PA announced that it will stop security coordination. It didn’t stop completely, but yes, the profile was lowered. Now, they are back on track to the classic coordination—meetings, arresting Hamas and Islamic Jihad, etc.

I think this cooperation could really accelerate the coordination over the Gaza Strip. Meaning if you now have the PA completely in control of checkpoints—in Erez and Kerem Shalom—it means Israelis and the PA will need to coordinate more regarding the Gaza passages. You don’t have any more Hamas checkpoints on the southern part of Erez. I know it doesn’t mean much for Americans or Israelis, but for Palestinians living in Gaza…not having a Hamas checkpoint one kilometer away from the Erez checkpoint, this is huge. Meaning: When you go to Israel for medical treatment or business or whatever, you don’t need to go through Hamas investigation time after time. You don’t have to come under pressure to becoming an informant for Hamas security forces, meaning: go back to Israel, collect the information, and return to Hamas. They did it. They were doing it all the years that they controlled the south points of the Erez checkpoint. And now the Palestinians are free. They can even bring alcohol—I know that it sounds minor—but think about it, for last 10 years they couldn’t even bring alcohol from Israel because of Hamas’ regulation.

Q: Following the reconciliation announcement, Hamas’ leader in the Gaza Strip, Yahya Sinwar, declared that it is still Hamas’ intention to “wipe Israel out.” What do you make of this?

This is the Hamas that we know; I’m not surprised at all. You know they don’t like us. But they understand that for now they need to be open to some sort of concession. Yet, bottom line, if they could push a button and wipe us out, they would do it. But they understand they cannot, although Yahya Sinwar has been one of the most radical political leaders of Hamas. Since he’s been released from jail, he has understood slowly, slowly, that Hamas could not win. If he thought he could win a war and wipe Israel from the map, he would go for a war. He has all the rockets and explosives, but he doesn’t use them.

Coincidentally, he’s arresting members of Al-Qaeda and ISIS-affiliated groups operating in Gaza in order to prevent escalation. I feel that that says a lot. Of course, in order to be seen as the same old classic Hamas, for the sake of public relations they have to say they will wipe out Israel one day…whatever. The bottom line is that despite the statement, Sinwar is doing the opposite and that’s what’s important.

Q: You recently tweeted: “PA received from Hamas the control over the border passages of Gaza. Reconciliation behind the corner or just a PR move?” Can you elaborate on this? And what has the progress of the PA taking over control of Gaza’s border crossings looked like?

There’s one word that I can sum it up with—money. Money. Money. The tweet is an old tweet, before we understood what happened on the ground. The bottom line is that Hamas removed the checkpoints outside of the Kerem Shalom checkpoint, and with it all of the taxes that it used to collect. Think about it, 1,000 trucks a day and each and every truck needed to pay taxes to Hamas’ government. Hamas gave it up. It’s millions of dollars a month. It’s tens or hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Big money. And they gave it up for the reconciliation. This is dramatic.

And then, there is what the Palestinians call the Arba-Arba checkpoint south of Erez—it’s a major concession from Hamas’ side related to security issues. It was one of the best locations for them to urge people to become their agents, their informants. It was one of the best ways for them to control the entrance to Gaza strip, so that they knew who is getting in—and they stopped it.

Q: What role is there for America to play in Palestinian reconciliation?

I think that America played a very major role by not intervening—meaning they didn’t try to stop it, they didn’t try to block it. When PA President Mahmoud Abbas felt that there was no resistance, and that the United States wasn’t going against it, he understood that he could move forward. I believe that the American approach, and don’t be mistaken… also the Israeli approach, is that in a way it’s better for Israel and the U.S. to have Gaza in a more normal situation humanitarianly speaking, than having it on the brink of a catastrophe and split between Hamas and Fatah. Having the PA over there, giving more money, food and work for the people will probably decrease the chance of another war in the next few years.

Q: Pending U.S. legislation, the Taylor Force Act, would eliminate assistance that directly benefits the PA unless it ends the abhorrent practice of paying salaries to terrorists and their families. Will the bill, if passed, have its intended effect of ending Palestinian prisoner payments? Is there anything that can be done to end this practice, or does Abbas perceive it as so central to his survival that he would never end the payments?

Wow, that’s a tough question. My feeling, according to what I’ve heard and read, is that it is not going to stop, even if it is going to cost Abbas a lot of money. But then again, never say “never” in the ever-changing Middle East—statements, approaches, everything is changing. Even if Abbas is saying today “I will never, ever…” it might be changed after a few months or years, depending on what he gets from the U.S. or from Israel. He might have something to offer to his people and he might give up paying the salaries of killers, terrorists, etc.

Q: As PA President Abbas approaches his 83rd birthday, what is the most likely succession scenario? How could regional actors play a role?

So, this depends on the reconciliation. If we have reconciliation, real reconciliation and elections, there will probably be some kind of very ordinary or organized succession process, meaning two months of some kind of interim government or interim Palestinian president. We don’t know who because we’d need to have the elections before in order to have an interim president. But we can assume that if there is real reconciliation, we will see elections coming after two months.

If we do not see reconciliation—it will be a terrible mess, as there is no real successor. There’s no real succession mechanism in place, and without real reconciliation it’s probably going to be that the PLO and Fatah will take over in one way or another and decide who is going to be the next president.

Avi Issacharoff is the Middle East analyst for Times of Israel and Walla News, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on multiple current affairs programs on radio and television. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper until 2012. In addition, he is the co-creator of the TV series Fauda, which tells the story of Israel’s elite Mista’arvim unit, a group of undercover commandos who infiltrate the Palestinian territories to stop terrorist attacks. In June 2016, the show won six Ophir Awards, including Best Drama Series, at the Israeli Academy Awards.

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