In an unexpected move, Fatah and Hamas, the two factions each ruling half of Palestine, has signed a deal to create a unity government.

Initial news reports, which may surprise many intelligent observers of Palestine, Israel and the broader Middle East, is that the two split and hostile halves of the Palestinian government, Fatah and Hamas, have just signed a reconciliation deal.  Some articles:

Associated Press
Maan News

In brief, from AP:

Fatah and Hamas officials said the plan, brokered by Egypt, calls for the formation of a single caretaker government in the coming days. The government would administer day-to-day business until new presidential and legislative elections are held in exactly one year.

Al-Ahmed said that under the deal, Fatah and Hamas security forces would be unified and "restructured" under "Arab supervision."

In a sign of the sticky issues that remain unresolved, Hamas officials in Gaza said their security forces would retain control over the coastal strip for the time being. The Hamas officials spoke on condition of anonymity pending a formal announcement in Cairo later Wednesday.

From Haaretz:

The deal, which took many officials by surprise, was thrashed out in Egypt and followed a series of secret meetings.

"The two sides signed initial letters on an agreement. All points of differences have been overcome," said Taher Al-Nono, the Hamas government spokesman in Gaza. He added that Cairo would shortly invite both sides to a signing ceremony.

It said the agreement would allow Egypt to invite all Palestinian factions to sign a national reconciliation agreement in Cairo in the next few days.

Restoring Palestinian unity is seen as crucial to reviving any prospect for a Palestinian state based on peaceful co-existence alongside Israel. Fatah, the mainstream Palestinian movement until a 2006 election victory by Hamas, backs negotiated peace but the Islamists reject it.

Al-Ahmad and Abu Marzouk said the agreement covered all points of contention, including forming a transitional government, security arrangements and the restructuring of the Palestine Liberation Organization to allow Hamas to join it.

A few more details from Ynet:

the agreement includes clauses that stipulate the release of political prisoners and the establishment of a joint security higher committee.

This is big.  The two sides of been talking (in an unserious manner) for years, and have moved into serious talks only recently.  Some of the important factors driving this:

1)    The protests across the Middle East and inside Palestine.  While Fatah and Hamas do not give credit to the Palestinian people, the fact is that protests across the Middle East have made these governments extremely nervous.  Given that tens of thousands of Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza had protested for unity, it was becoming increasingly risky for the two parties to stand again it.  

2)     The PA’s diplomatic successes.  Many readers will know that I am no fan of the PA.  Nonetheless, their diplomatic successes have been notable in recent months.  Most of Latin America has recognized Palestine.  Several countries in Europe have upgraded the status of the Palestinian Mission.  The EU signed export agreements with the PA reducing tariffs.  The World Bank and IMF recognized the PA as having the institutions of a functioning state. Most of the world supported a UN condemnation of the Israeli settlements, breaking with the US.  And most of the world has signaled it was willing to support a declaration of a Palestinian state at the UN in September.  Hamas was in serious danger of being left behind, and was forced to move forward.

3)    Israel.  Israel, which has so long cherished and cultivated the Palestinian split, should not discount its own part in this move.  By ensuring that negotiations could not possibly bear any fruit (as documented in the Palestine Papers) , and by continually humiliating the PA whenever possible (right now, PA police have been forced out of Tulkarem by Israeli forces after one of them fired a single shot in the air), Israel forced the PA to seek only other routes  to independence, including an international campaign and making peace with the hated Hamas.  Israel’s immediate response as seen in AP, which will only help the deal:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a quick rejection of a Hamas role in a Palestinian unity government. Israel refuses to deal with Hamas, which does not recognize a place for a Jewish state in an Islamic Middle East and has sent dozens of suicide bombers and thousands of rockets into Israel.
"The Palestinian Authority must choose between peace with Israel and peace with Hamas," Netanyahu said in a statement. "Peace with both is impossible because of the Hamas goal of destroying the state of Israel, which it expresses openly," he said, pointing to the ongoing rocket attacks.

4)    The US.  The US has long opposed any peace between Hamas and Fatah (whatever it might say publicly), and has reportedly threatened to cut off all aid to the PA (amounting to hundreds of millions) if Fatah joins a unity government.  However, by constantly giving into all Israeli demands (such as abandoning any support for a freeze of settlements, of steadily increasing military aid to Israel, and vetoing a resolution denouncing settlements which matches the US public position), the US has helped back Fatah and the PA into a corner from which it must act even at the risk to its own aid.

5)    Egypt.  Egypt has long played host to unity talks.  From Maan:  “The [Palestinian] teams were to meet Egypt's new spy chief Murad Muwafi, whose predecessor Omar Suleiman tried unsuccessfully to bridge a split that has left Gaza and the West Bank ruled by rival administrations.”  However, Egyptian Intelligence chief Suleiman has never been interested in unity.  He has been a constant ally of the US and Israel, and a constant and tenacious enemy of Hamas.  It is no surprise that unity talks under his aegis have always failed.  However, the new Egyptian government, though still having no love for Hamas, has less love for Israel and more interest in the stability a unity government might yield.

6)    The Arab world.  Simply put, the revolutions across the Arab world are shaking the world order to its core.  This unity move is a desperate by two unrepresentative governments to avoid being drowned by the tide of history.  This move is another great victory for the Arab people, whether or not they are even given the credit they deserve.

what does this all mean?  Hard to say specifically.  Neither Hamas nor Fatah like each other, and each could crash the deal, or outside pressure from the US and Israel (and  others) could.  More than anything, this is a sign that the ground is shifting, and the old patterns that the ruling class was so comfortable with (Hamas in Gaza, Fatah in the West Bank, Israel over all, under the protection of the US) are gone, and a new world is being shaped.

Keep watching.

Originally posted to Adalah — A Just Middle East on Wed Apr 27, 2011 at 11:42 AM PDT.

Also republished by Foreign Relations and Eyes on Egypt and the Region.

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