Maher Abukhater
Bitterlemons (Opinion)
November 22, 2011 - 1:00am

Concerning the peace process, Palestinians in general would say: "what peace process?" No one seems worried about impacting a peace process that is obviously long gone.

As for the Palestinian people, the issue is more serious. On the one hand, a unity government would lead to reunification of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which means strengthening the home front in light of a bleak and uncertain future. In general, there is strong support for this move.

But, on the other, there is apprehension concerning its ramifications on Palestinian daily life.

The United States and Israel are warning that a unity government that includes Hamas would have serious long-term negative repercussions on the Palestinian people in general, and that makes people stop and think.

It wasn't long ago that Palestinians experienced what this means. Tens of thousands of Palestinians went for more than a year without pay when main donors suspended their aid following Hamas' victory in the 2006 legislative elections and its subsequent formation of a government headed and run by Hamas members.

If it hadn't been for handouts and charity from the European Union and some Arab countries that allowed people to put food on the table, the outcome would have been disastrous. Even the short-lived unity government between Fateh and Hamas that came to salvage the situation was not enough to convince the West to end these sanctions and allow a resumption of aid.

The division that subsequently occurred between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas following the latter's takeover of the Gaza Strip in June 2007 was actually a blessing in disguise not only for 200,000 Palestinian public employees and their families, but for the country as a whole. When employees started getting paid again after western aid began to pour into the new Hamas-free government headed by Salam Fayyad, the wheels of the economy started to roll again and the country was salvaged from total anarchy and collapse.

The memories of those dark days are still vivid in the minds of every Palestinian, and therefore when they hear that this may happen again--and very soon--they wonder if the reconciliation is worth the sacrifice.

All being said, one must then ask, why assume that a unity government has to include Hamas? Can't there be a unity government of only independent technocrats as called for by President Mahmoud Abbas?

Of course there can (and everyone expects it to be so). When Abbas signed the reconciliation agreement with Hamas on May 4 he said clearly that he does not want a government that will return sanctions.

Israel has already initiated steps giving Palestinians a taste of what it would be like if there is reconciliation with Hamas, suspending the transfer of more than $100 million of tax revenues it collects monthly on behalf of the Palestinian Authority on goods passing through Israeli ports. The United States is also not that far behind with serious warnings coming from Congress and the Obama administration that all funds will be suspended if Hamas returns to the Palestinian Authority. The US Agency for International Development has already informed hundreds of Palestinians working in projects it is funding that there is no more money coming in for these projects and that they will all soon be shut down. The Palestinians working on these projects are soon going to be unemployed.

Many Palestinians, recently accustomed to a western-style life with big bank loans used to buy new cars and apartments, can no longer afford to be asked to change their lifestyle and tighten their belts for the sake of bringing Hamas into the fold once again. In this case, they would be asked to make a great sacrifice and most are not willing to do it. They are going to demand that reconciliation and a subsequent unity government not come at their expense.

Abbas will have to find a solution to this dilemma, and it has to be soon. It is true that the West, particularly the US, has abandoned him, and he feels bitter about it, and a negotiated peace settlement he has long advocated has faltered. But it is the welfare of his people, who have turned him into a national hero, that he has to think about when he makes his next move.

There are many in Hamas and Fateh who seriously doubt that the reconciliation talks are going to produce a unity government (or end the division, for that matter) because neither side seems ready to trust the other's intentions. Each seems to have demands that the other cannot meet, foremost of which is what kind of government should be formed and who should run it.


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