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Last Updated: 04/18/2013
Disunity in Palestine: Its History and Implications for the Peace Process
Mahmoud Abdou

Mahmoud Abdou explores the history and implications of political disunity among Palestinian leadership, arguing that a united Palestine is an essential step toward peace for everyone in the region.

photo of the author

The Palestinian Division

One of the main challenges to peace in the Middle East is the internal division among Palestinians between Fatah on the one hand, and Hamas on the other. Not only has such reality invited a policy of divide and control by the Israeli government, thereby compromising the prospects of a two state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it has also fragmented Palestinian society and undermined the cohesiveness and unity of Palestinian decision-making. The Palestinians have come under the effective control of nearly four different entities: Israel, the West Bank government of Fatah, the Gaza Strip government of Hamas, and the United Nations and the different NGOs/INGOs that are operating in the Palestinian territories. Under such a situation, how could it be possible to speak about an effective peace process? Who/which party is supposed to be leading the Palestinians towards peace? Is it even legitimate to demand that the international community brings about a settlement to the conflict, when the Palestinians themselves are not able to unite their national goals?

Roots of the Conflict

The Fatah-Hamas Palestinian divide did not simply start with Hamas’ winning of the last Palestinian municipal and parliamentary elections of late 2006-2007. It is safe to say that ever since the Palestinian Authority was established in 1995 as the governing entity in Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, the two groups have been very hostile to one another. Giving that Fatah (AKA PLO) is the party that established the PA, for the eleven years between 1995-2006 it was mostly the Fatah-controlled security apparatus of the PA that suppressed, and in some cases even tortured, Hamas members. For example, the Preventive Security Forces of the PA arrested nearly 2000 Hamas members, following a wave of suicide bombings inside Israel in 1996. Then-head of the Preventive Security Forces, Mohammed Dahalan, was reportedly said: “Arafat had decided to arrest Hamas military leaders, because they were working against his interests, against the peace process, against the Israeli withdrawal, against everything…He asked the security services to do their job and I have done that job.”[1] Hence, it is not surprising that as soon as Hamas won 56% of the parliamentary seats as a result of the last Palestinian general elections, a struggle over power between the two groups led to a Hamasi coup de tat in Gaza Strip, which stripped Fatah and its supporters of even their civilian jobs.

In the early 2000s, the situation between Israel and Palestine was extremely volatile, which reflected negatively on the relationship between the two Palestinian groups. On one hand, Fatah was the party that recognized Israel’s right to exist and signed the Oslo accords. On the other, Hamas remained the main militant Palestinian group that is contentiously calling for the total removal of Israel from the Middle East. When the second Palestinian Intifada erupted in September, 2000 due to the collapse of the Oslo Accords and their failure to deliver an independent Palestinian State, relative calm was only assured-in after the death of Yasser Arafat in November, 2004. Israel considered Arafat a bad partner for peace and incapable of stopping “Palestinian terrorism,” and soon after his death and Mahmoud Abbas’ winning of the Palestinian Presidential elections of 2005, Israel announced its disengagement plan and withdrew its army and civilian posts from the Gaza Strip.

It could be argued that Hamas took advantage of the Second Intifada to advance its anti-Israel campaign, and Fatah was caught in the dilemma of suppressing Hamas fighters and failing to deliver, through its negotiations and security cooperation with Israel, a better socio-economic standards to its constituents, while hundreds of Palestinians were losing their lives by Israeli attacks and Israeli incursions into Palestinian cities. Needless to say, Fatah lost its popular support and Hamas won the elections.

Additionally, giving the context of the broader U.S. War on Terror, the situation was not free from external interference. Israeli policy makers at that time successfully linked their campaign to putdown the Second Intifada to the broader War on Terror, which gave legitimacy to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land. Rather than being seen as a popular “Spring,” Israeli policy makers took advantage of the 9/11 attacks and launched a campaign of advertising the Intifada as a terror operation against Israel, which they contended was the same in its nature as that of Al-Qaeda’s against the Americans and their interests.[2]

The George W. Bush administration supported Palestinian democracy and the municipal and parliamentary elections of 2006-2007. However, it was not exactly content with the fact that Hamas, which is classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department, won those elections. As part of its War on Terror, “the Bush administration launched an Iran-Contra” styled operation in Gaza Strip in order to deprive Hamas from the power positions it has held as a result of winning the Palestinian elections.[3] The first shipment of weapons to support the Fatah PA forces in Gaza Strip crossed the Egyptian borders in early 2007, which sparked armed confrontations between the two groups.[4] Through the mediation of Saudi Arabia, however; in February 2007 the two groups signed an agreement to establish a unitary-Palestinian government in Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Needless to say, the conflict did not end there.

To prevent the implementation of this agreement until Hamas has modified its covenant in favor of recognizing Israel’s right to exist, the United States and the European Union immediately withdrew their financial support of the PA and the Bush administration officially launched the so called Action Plan for Palestinian Presidency. General Keith Dayton and Mohammed Dahalan arranged for “specialized training abroad” for an elite of Fatah fighters and arrangements were made for Abbas to replace the unitary-government with an emergency government by the end of 2007.[5] This group was to increase its “level and capacity” to 15,000 personal during the following five years with all costs incurred in training them, paying their salaries, and providing them with latest weaponries being paid by the US. As Dahalan’s aid, Basel Jaber, puts it: the plan was “to create a security establishment that could protect and strengthen a peaceful Palestinian state living side by side with Israel.”[6] However, as is suggested by referring to it as an Iran-Contra styled operation, the Plan backfired.

A Jordanian newspaper called Al Majd leaked reports about the plan, which led to renewed clashes between Fatah and Hamas, and the arrival of the first group of 500 elite Fatah fighters from training camps in Egypt only made the situation deteriorate.[7] On June 7, 2007, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz also reported about negotiations between Abbas and General Dayton on the one hand and Israel on the other, “to authorize the biggest Egyptian arms shipment yet,” including armored cars, armor-piercing rockets, hand grenades, and millions of rounds of ammunition.[8] Within a few days of the second report, Hamas took over the Gaza Strip by killing more than 700 Fatah fighters and PA forces, Abbas dismissed the unitary government agreement, and an emergency government under Abbas’ control was established in the West Bank.[9] Further, the Gaza Strip became placed under tighter Israeli siege, the EU and the US redirected their financial support of the Palestinians to Abbas’ government in the West Bank, and Hamas’ government in the Gaza Strip became primarily dependent on the financial support of Iran.

Structural Change

As is suggested by the structural change model to conflict mapping and analysis, “heavy tactics used by Party produce structural changes in Other…,” which encourage a harsh reaction from Other…, producing structural changes in Party…, which encourage further heavy tactics from Party…, and so on around and around.”[10] In effect, this results in a persisting cycle of escalation. The conflict between Fatah and Hamas followed similar patterns, with the heavy tactics used by Fatah against Hamas members and supporters in late 1996 planting the seeds of antagonism between the two sides.

As the Second Intifada erupted and the Peace Process collapsed, Hamas was given the opportunity to regroup and re-organize, thereby strengthening the structural capacities of the organization and preparing it for even entering politics and nominating candidates for elections for the first time. Thereafter, Hamas’ winning of those elections led to the use of additional and more aggressive tactics by Fatah, which culminated in attempting to implement the American Action Plan for Palestinian Presidency. Finally, Hamas launched a coup de tat in Gaza Strip in late 2007, and Fatah established an emergency government in the West Bank. This geographic separation between the two groups brought about a stalemate between them, and armed confrontations were almost brought to an end.

Meanwhile, as Israel launched two major wars against Gaza Strip in December 2008 – January 2009 and in November 2012, Gaza Strip was left in ruins and the two sides undertook a long process of reconciliation that started with signing the Egyptian Paper in 2009. This process is slowly changing the negative and hostile attitudes – “feelings toward or evaluation of” – each other, as well as the negative perceptions – “believes about, or way of viewing” – one another.[11] However, throughout this process the two parties have publically exchanged verbal assaults/accusations and continued practices such as imprisoning and interrogating members and supporters of the antagonist party in their respective areas of territorial control. People became “deindividuated” as they became perceived “as members of a category or a group rather than as individuals.”[12]

The two groups engaged in reconciliation talks under mostly Egyptian sponsorship, but such setbacks in the reconciliation efforts as those highlighted above have slowed down and postponed the implementation of any agreements that the two sides have signed. Moreover, each side has established its own government, its own security apparatuses, and employed its own supports to the exclusion of all others, which has added complications to the efforts of reuniting the two groups and the two sides of the Palestinian territories under one government.

Applying Pruitt and Kim’s structural changes model would make one reach the conclusion that the conflict between Fatah and Hamas has resulted in five main changes, which intensified the situation and hardened the efforts of reconciliation.[13] First, the Palestinian society became highly polarized and divided with Hamas and its supporters being on one extreme end of a spectrum and Fatah and its supporters being on the other. Such polarization has divided the Palestinian community into “two opposing camps” with “the bonds within each camp becom[ing] stronger while those between camps deteriorat[ing].”[14] Second, contentious group goals have developed as some Hamas leaders in Gaza Strip have for instance offered a so-called “temporary state resolution,” in order to give the group a chance to maintain its control over Gaza Strip and establish its own state over that tiny and densely populated piece of land. Third, “runaway norms” supporting the contentious behavior of the two groups become “taught to new group members and imposed on old members who appear to question them,”[15] which did not only entrench the division between the two sides; it also slowed down the efforts to break the logjam.

Fourth, the conflict strengthened group identity and group cohesiveness, “to the extent that their members find them attractive”[16] without questioning where the group is taking them. Such cohesiveness in a group makes it “particularly militant when involved in contentious conflict,”[17] which is a reality that was proven correct by the particularity of Hamas’ killing of Fatah members regardless of the religious, national, and ethnic grounds that link the two Palestinian national resistance groups. Fifth, militant leaders such as Mahmoud Al Zahar from Hamas have taken over the official decision process in Hamas, just as Mohammed Dahaln’s policies towards Hamas members greatly affected the relationship between the two groups. If Mohammed Dahalan’s crackdown on Hamas members led to the coup de tat, Al Zahar’s hardline statements and criticisms of the reconciliation process have definitely given a blow to efforts aimed at building trust.

On the other hand, as the reconciliation efforts were being carried out, “people with bargaining skills”[18] such as Khalid Misha’al, head of Hamas’ politburo, came to the fore and represented Hamas in most of its talks with Fatah. The struggle between the Doves and the Hawks within Hamas was clearly seen when Misha’al signed the Doha Agreement with Mahmoud Abbas in February, 2012 to establish a unitary government led by the latter. While Hamas leaders insisted that the opposition of some of them to the agreement is based on the agreement’s violation of basic Palestinian law that calls for i.e. the separation between the duties of a prime minister and a president, others contended that the “Gaza block” within the Hamas leadership that is represented by i.e. Al Zahar, is simply against losing the grip of power over the Gaza Strip.

In sum, the two groups have been engaged, until recently, in a process of “zero-sum thinking, which tends to make problem solving seem like an unworkable alternative.”[19] For instance, Hamas would be worried that any reconciliation agreement could lead to losing its control over the Gaza Strip and Fatah would contend that unless certain conditions are met, any reconciliation agreement would lead to an international economic and diplomatic boycott of the future government. The two sides did not unit under their common national, religious, and ethnic roots until late 2012, after the eight-days aggressive Israeli assault on Gaza Strip and the upgrade of the status of Palestine at the United Nations General Assembly to an observer “state.” For the first time since 2007, Hamas has recently allowed for a Fatah rally to be held in Gaza Strip and nearly one million people (out of 1.7 million people living in Gaza Strip) joined demonstrations throughout the Strip in celebration of the anniversary of Fatah’s establishment.[20]

Reconciliatory Agreements Signed by the Two Parties

Hamas’ recent tilt towards accepting the 1967 borders of Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank as the future boundaries of a Palestinian state has definitely been an important factor in uniting the two groups under similar guidelines. Other factors include, but are not limited to, the popular pressure to end all types of division within the Palestinian society. As the Arab Spring demonstrations broke out in many countries in the Middle East, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians went out in the streets in March, 2011 calling for ending the Palestinian division. Additionally, changes in the Egyptian government structure as a result of the Arab Spring have also pushed the reconciliation efforts forward. The Mubarak regime was not only helping enforce the land blockade of Gaza Strip, its intelligence apparatus that sponsored most of the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation talks was viewed very suspiciously by Hamas, as many of its members were prevented from traveling via the Gaza Strip – Egyptian borders.

As stated earlier, two of the main agreements that have been signed between the two sides are the October, 2009 Egyptian Paper and the February, 2012 Doha Agreement. Initially, the Egyptian Paper of October 2009 with regards to forming a unitary government that holds elections was only signed by Fatah, and not Hamas. Hamas did not sign that paper until April 27, 2011, when the two sides also agreed on a Palestinian-Palestinian “‘paper of understandings’ that dealt with the main issues that prevented Hamas from signing the Egyptian paper, such as those concerning security, elections, and the PLO.”[21] The following are the main provisions of the agreement that was reached between the two sides on April 27, 2011:[22]

- Both sides would sign the Egyptian Reconciliation paper of October, 2009, which also calls for setting up five committees on reforming the PLO, holding elections, social and societal reconciliation, forming a joint executive committee, and forming a committee on the status of political prisoners.

- Fatah and Hamas’ signing of the Damascus paper of understandings that was drafted in Autumn, 2010 in the Syrian Capital and discussed issues such as forming a central elections committee that consists of independent individuals agreed upon by both sides.

- Forming an election court that consists of twelve independent personals chosen from both parties in consultation with president Abbas.

- Holding presidential, parliamentary, and Palestinian National Council elections within a period of maximum one-year after the signing of this agreement.

- Forming a committee to discuss reforming the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian National Council, which would be under the chairmanship of President Abbas. Such Committee would include members from both parties, members from the PLO’s Central Committee, the Chairman of the National Council and a few independents.

- Forming a Higher Security Council to deal with issues of relevance to the security forces of the factions, which according to the Egyptian paper, need to be united in a professional and integrated security force.

- Forming a temporary government of independents who hold national and professional qualifications agreed upon by both sides.

According to this agreement, the transitory government would have six main priorities:[23]

1) Preparing for presidential, parliamentary, and National Council elections.

2) Supervising the implementation of the Egyptian paper.

3) Settling conflicts regarding civil institutions and charities.

4) Dealing with security and administrative issues that resulted from the Palestinian divide.

5) Uniting the Palestinian institutions in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Jerusalem.

6) Continuing the efforts that aim at ending the Israeli siege of Gaza and rebuilding the Strip.

Until the two sides signed the Doha Agreement in February, 2012, which calls for making Mahmoud Abbas the head of the transitory government, there were major disagreements on who should be the head of the transitory government, with each side making reservations on the nominees of the other party. Hamas has initially rejected the idea of making Mahmoud Abbas the head of that government. However, since one of the main tasks of this government is to re-build the Gaza Strip using funds that were promised at an International Donor Conference held soon after the 2008-2009 war on Gaza, but were still being put on-hold giving the donor’s rejection of Hamas’ covenant that calls for the destruction of Israel; Hamas finally agreed in Feb. 2012 on making a moderate leader such as Abbas the head of that government, and on making that government up of independent technocrats. This is also a measure of avoiding an international boycott of such a government, should Hamas be a part of it. At the same time, since Feb. 2012 Hamas has prevented the Central Electoral Committee in Gaza Strip from re-opening its office and carrying out its duties of registering new voters and upgrading the records of old voters. The two sides have also stopped and interrogated the members and supporters of the Other, and they continued to publicly exchange verbal assaults and verbal accusations on obstructing the reconciliation process.

Meanwhile, a major turning point happened when Fatah and Hamas united to face the latest Israeli aggression on Gaza Strip, both publicly and by actions on the ground. Hamas came out of that war of November, 2012 in support of Abbas’ application to upgrade the status of Palestine at the U.N. based on the 1967 borders and the partition plan, in contrast to public statements made by its leaders before the war. It has become obvious that the two sides have finally agreed on common ground/common guidelines for carrying on the Palestinian struggle for independence and self-determination, and supporting the upgrade of the status of Palestine. This has also re-affirmed a provision of the Doha Agreement, where Hamas has announced its support of adopting popular resistance, rather than an armed struggle, approach to liberating the remaining parts of Occupied Palestine. On January 17th of this year, the two groups also agreed to start the implementation of all of the above mentioned agreements.


In an immediate reaction to the April 2011 agreement, “Netanyahu declared that ‘Abbas has to choose between peace with Israel or peace with Hamas.’”[24] This has certainly been the official Israeli policy towards the Palestinians for the last decade. Its only after the Palestinians have united their vision of having an independent Palestinian state that such Israeli ultimatums become invalid and irrelevant. With the Palestinians united under one flag, the region, including Israel, certainly has a better chance at peace.


Mahmoud Abdou, “The Middle East Peace Process and U.S. Special Interest Groups,” MA Thesis, Heidelberg University, Germany, 2012.

Mahmoud Abdou, “The Palestinian Reconciliation Process,” a report submitted to the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Berlin, Germany, April, 2012 (On file with author)

Alhayat Saudi-Owned newspaper hard prints (January 2011 – April 2012).

David Rose, “The Gaza Bombshell,” Vanity Affairs (April 2008),

Dean G. Pruitt and Sung Hee Kim, “The Structural Change Model,” Ch. 6 in Social Conflict: Escalation, Stalemate, and Settlement 3rd Ed. McGraw Hill 2004, p. 101-120

Palestine Press Agency daily publications:

[1] David Rose, “The Gaza Bombshell,” Vanity Affairs (April 2008),

[2] See Ch. 3 in “The Middle East Peace Process and U.S. Special Interest Groups,” by Mahmoud M.A. Abdou, MA Thesis, Heidelberg University, Germany (2012).

[3] David Rose, “The Gaza Bombshell,” Vanity Affairs (April 2008),

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid.

[6] David Rose, “The Gaza Bombshell.”

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Dean G. Pruitt and Sung Hee Kim, “The Structural Change Model,” Ch. 6 in Social Conflict: Escalation, Stalemate, and Settlement 3rd Ed. McGraw Hill 2004, p. 102

[11] Dean G. Pruitt and Sung Hee Kim, “The Structural Change Model,” p. 106

[12]p. 112

[13] Dean G. Pruitt and Sung Hee Kim, “The Structural Change Model,” p. 116 - 119

[14]p. 119

[15]p. 117

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Dean G. Pruitt and Sung Hee Kim, “The Structural Change Model,” p. 118

[19] Ibid, p. 109

[20] Pal Press Agency, “Abdel Rahim: ‘The One Million People Rally’ in Gaza is a Palestinian Spring and no one was surprised about the crowds.” Jan. 5, 2013 (Translated by the Author)

[21] Jihan Al Husainy, “Signing the Palestinian Reconciliation Agreement within Days in Preparation to September’s Proclaimation,” Alhayat, No.17555, 28/04/2011, p.1 and 6

[22] “The Main Terms of the Palestinian Conciliation Agreement,” Alhayat No.17556, 29/04/2011, p.3 [translated by author from Arabic]

[23] “The Main Terms of the Palestinian Conciliation Agreement,” Alhayat No.17556, 29/04/2011, p.3

[24] “The Main Terms of the Palestinian Conciliation Agreement,” Alhayat No.17556, 29/04/2011, p.3 [translated by author from Arabic]

Mahmoud Abdou is an MA candidate in the Department of International Law at the University for Peace. He received his first MA degree in American Studies from Heidelberg University in Germany, and his BA in Political Science from Middlebury College in Vermont, USA.