Hamas-Fatah Peace: Religious Crackdowns in Gaza Will Kill Chances for Unity

Recent reports have indicated that young men in Gaza have been arrested, beaten, and had their hair forcibly shaved by Hamas police. The news is not entirely surprising considering the history of Hamas in Gaza and its attempts to enforce its strict interpretation of "public morality." The party, which controls the Gaza Strip, reelected longtime leader Khaled Mashal only weeks after moderate Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salem Fayyad resigned in the West Bank. The time now seems ripe for national reconciliation between longtime rivals Hamas and Fatah, but as the recent crackdown has shown, Mashal still has plenty of internal issues to deal with, most notably the balance between appealing to the West as a legitimate leader on the international scene, and appeasing the Islamic fundamentalist elements in Gaza.

Former Palestinian Prime Minister Salem Fayyad had previously been seen as an obstacle to Hamas-Fatah unity. Fayyad’s close ties to the West, secular views, and role as the champion of nonviolent resistance clashed with the ideological and tactical militancy of Hamas. But the opposition to Fayyad was no more than an excuse to avoid any real efforts at unity. It was not long ago that Hamas and Fatah were waging a bloody, albeit brief, war in the streets of Gaza for control of the enclave. In reality, the space between Fatah and Hamas in their vision of a Palestinian state is even larger than the geographic distance between Gaza and the West Bank.

Mashal’s reelection may have also been a product of his ties with Turkey, Qatar, and the new regime in Egypt. Hamas understands it cannot survive on its own, and Mashal is a practical leader whose recent statements appear to suggest some compromise may be possible with Israel. However, he still must contend with the radical elements of his own party and those outside his immediate control. Hamas has clashed repeatedly with hardcore Salafist groups that have been allowed to proliferate in the Gaza Strip. Ideologically, their views are different, and the last thing Hamas needs are groups claiming affiliation or affinity with Al-Qaeda in Gaza. Even more concerning, Mashal seems unwilling or at least unable to seriously crackdown on rocket fire from these groups into Israel. Internal rifts within Hamas suggest that portions of the party have pushed closer to a more radicalized ideology than the blend of nationalism and Islamism Hamas has traditionally followed.  

Mashal’s attempts to appease both the fundamentalists in his own party and the Salafists outside of regime control will be the downfall of Palestinian unity. Fatah is a secular, nationalist organization and the Palestinian Authority receives almost $500 million annually from the United States in both economic and security aid, something that Fatah knows in cannot risk losing, a real possibility if the Hamas government continues to appease fundamentalist elements of its party. And since reports of crackdowns will most likely continue in the Gaza Strip, Mashal may have to use a tactic perfected by former Fatah founder and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat: talking out of both sides of his mouth. Indicating a willingness to compromise with the international community while appealing to the hardliners in his own party through enforcing rigid religious standards on society and allowing extremist groups to operate with limited autonomy may become the status quo once again.