Palestinian unity is just the first step

Was there really any surprise about Israel’s condemnation of the Palestinian unity government sworn in on Monday? Opposition to anything the Palestinians do is an aspect of life in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip nearly as reliable as the deprivations caused by the world’s longest military occupation.

Previously, Israeli leaders have resisted dealing with prime minister Mahmoud Abbas because they claimed the split between Fatah and Hamas means he does not represent all Palestinians. But when a reconciliation between the two factions is mooted, Israel says it cannot work with a unified Palestinian leadership because Hamas does not accept Israel’s right to exist and endorses violence. When this unity government announced that none of the 17 cabinet ministers are affiliated with Hamas and it would accept Israel’s legitimacy, renounce violence and adhere to previous agreements, the Israeli government still decided unanimously not to negotiate with it because it is “backed by Hamas”.

Rather more significant is that both the EU and the US have indicated they will deal with the new unity government, even if not formally recognising it. Somewhat predictably, this has infuriated Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which in this context is almost like an endorsement that the Palestinians are proceeding down the right track.

This rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas was only possible because of collapsing support for Hamas from the 1.8 million people living in dire conditions in the besieged Gaza Strip. While ending the schism is clearly in the interests of the vast majority of Palestinians, the focus needs to remain on the ultimate goal: the creation of a Palestinian state. Not even the most optimistic advocate of Palestinian statehood believes this will happen quickly, so the unity government must also pursue the intermediate goal of improving the lives of ordinary Palestinians.

In turn, Hamas must restrain its militants, even though Israel’s overwhelming negotiating strength and apparent policy of perpetuating the stalemate diminishes hopes of reaching a political solution, inevitably enhancing the likelihood of the very militancy Israel opposes.

Without the economic tools of a sovereign state, the unity government’s ability to improve its citizens’ lives is limited. But not wasting energy on infighting has to be a good way to start.