The Palestinian Unity Government
In the aftermath of the Second Lebanon War Israel continued to search for a partner with whom it could make peace. The Palestinian Authority had a Hamas-led government that would not meet the minimal preconditions outlined by Israel and the international community that would enable it to be a possible partner for peace negotiations.
It failed to recognize the State of Israel, to accept and implement the agreements signed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and to act to terminate violence and eradicate terrorism, which included rocket attacks on Israel’s southern communities. On numerous occasions, and in various venues, Ismail Haniya and other senior Hamas leaders and officials repeated that the Hamas movement would not recognize Israel under any circumstances and would not deal with it. At the same time, Israel sought the release of Gilad Shalit, the soldier kidnapped in the summer of 2006.
On December 23, 2006, Olmert and Abbas met, in their respective leadership positions, for the first time in an attempt to revive the peace process and to bolster Abbas against Hamas in the internal Palestinian arena. This was the first formal session between Israel and the Palestinians in nearly two years. Olmert promised to transfer frozen tax revenues to Abbas in an effort to ease the Palestinian economic situation.Palestinian efforts to establish a unity government intensified in early 2007.
On February 6, 2007, the leaders of Hamas and Fatah, the two main Palestinian groups, began a Saudi-brokered effort to agree on a unity government that could end the violence between them in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The effort was intended to yield a Palestinian government that would include members of both Hamas and Fatah and be acceptable to Western governments so that they could resume relations with, and provide aid to, the Palestinians and restart the peace negotiations with the Israelis that had been stalled since Hamas’s election victory in 2006.
The agreement that was signed on February 8 by Mahmoud Abbas, PA president, and Khaled Mashal, leader of the political wing of Hamas, included measures to end the internecine violence and an arrangement for the appointment of a new government and steps to incorporate Hamas and Islamic Jihad into the PLO. Nine government portfolios were to be given to Hamas, six to Fatah, four to other parties, and five to independents. Ismail Haniyeh was to remain as prime minister and the Interior Ministry was to be chosen by Mahmoud Abbas from a list of independents recommended by Hamas.
The immediate goal of the accord reached in Mecca between the two Palestinian factions was to end the fighting that had killed nearly 100 people over the preceding months. While that goal was achieved, the question now was whether the new government would adopt a platform that would meet international and Israeli objections so that the peace process and restoration of aid could move forward.On March 17, the Palestinian parliament approved the new unity government.
Abbas called for peace and equality with Israel and urged international donors to end the economic aid boycott that had been in place since Hamas took over the government. However, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh stated that the new government “affirms that resistance in all its forms . . is a legitimate right of the Palestinian people.” On March 18, 2007, the Israeli cabinet voted to limit future talks—even with moderate Palestinian officials—to shared security and humanitarian concerns. It thereby ruled out a formal peace process until the new Palestinian government recognized Israel and renounced terrorism and violence.
The uneasy alliance between Hamas and Fatah ended when Hamas seized full control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007, thereby terminating the power-sharing arrangement with Fatah. Abbas dismissed the unity government and appointed a caretaker Fatah-affiliated government in the West Bank, headed by Salam Fayyad. Hamas refused to recognize its authority and continued to govern in the Gaza Strip, leading to two distinct Palestinian authorities in two territories. Each claimed to be the legitimate Palestinian government and each sought to gain Arab and international legitimacy and support.
The takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas led to a continually deteriorating situation on the border between Israel and Gaza. Hamas operatives, and those of other Palestinian terrorist organizations and groups, strike at Israel, occasionally with suicide bombers entering the country, and usually with rocket attacks across the border at Israeli towns and villages, kibbutzim, and other residential and commercial facilities. While the rockets generally were not targeted with precision, they were effective in inflicting terror upon Israel’s population and destroyed property and killed and maimed individuals.
Preventing the attacks was difficult because of the lack of specific intelligence on the location of the firing groups and their timing. The sustained and intense barrage of rockets fired from Gaza marked the full period following the Hamas takeover and control of the Gaza Strip. Between 2000 and 2008 more than 7,000 rockets and mortars were fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip (2,000 in 2007 alone). rocket fire killed 13 Israelis over seven years. Most of the rockets fell on Israel’s southern city of Sderot.
The United States, Israel, and Europe have since sought to bolster Abbas and his Fatah-led government in the West Bank, strengthening his security forces and facilitating peace talks with Israel. Some referred to this new U.S. effort, which tried to exploit the political split between Hamas and Fatah, as “West Bank First.” To further bolster Abbas’s position and to demonstrate to the Palestinians the benefits of moderation, Israel released tax revenues that had been collected by Israel on behalf of the Palestinian Authority and then withheld after Hamas came to power.
Israel also released 250 Palestinians from Israeli jails and gave immunity to some members of the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades linked to Fatah. West Bank Palestinian terrorists were taken off Israel’s wanted list for handing in weapons and signing pledges to cease violence against Israel. Israel also gave permission for several exiled PlO officials to attend a meeting of the group’s central council in ramallah, West Bank.
Movement toward Peace Until May 2007 the Bush administration was hesitant in its approach to the Arab-Israeli peace process—Bush made it clear that he would not follow the clinton policy of extensive personal involvement. In mid-July 2007, the United States launched a diplomatic effort to revive the moribund peace process.
President Bush, on July 16, announced $80 million in aid to the Palestinian government in the West Bank and called for an international conference in the fall to prepare for the creation of a Palestinian state side by side with Israel. The goal was to rebuild faith in the peace process among Palestinians and Israelis. Bush called upon the Palestinians to reject Hamas and, with it, war, terror, and death and to choose peace and hope instead, by making the Palestinian state a reality.
In a historic visit in late July the foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan traveled to Israel to promote an Arab peace plan. This was the first visit by official representatives of the Arab league to Israel. However, the meeting produced no immediate breakthroughs. On August 6 Olmert met with Abbas in Jericho, West Bank. A statement released by the prime minister’s office noted: “It is our intention to bring about two states for two peoples living side by side in security, as soon as possible.” This was the first meeting between senior Israeli and Palestinian leaders in the West Bank since the start of the intifada in 2000.
On August 16 the United States and Israel signed an arrangement in which Israel would receive $30 billion in military aid over the next decade to counter the perceived threat by Iran. rice told reporters: “There isn’t any doubt, I think, that Iran constitutes the single most important concrete challenge to U.S. interests in the Middle East and to the kind of Middle East we want to see.” At the same time, Secretaries rice and Gates announced plans to provide some $20 billion in military aid to the Arab gulf states, primarily Saudi Arabia, to further contain the Iranian threat.