There is reason to believe that the Hamas regime, which has suffered several severe political and economic blows this year, is using reconciliation as a way to soften Egypt’s policy toward it, and perhaps gain some easing of the blockade that Cairo has imposed on the group and on the Gaza Strip. Many Palestinian observers predict that the collapse of the PA – assuming Israel sticks to its policy of weakening it – would help strengthen the position of Hamas and its government. If Hamas joins the PLO, it will become a major force within it, and if it doesn’t join, it will be perceived as a true and legitimate representative of the Palestinians. These mutual suspicions about the motives of the other party could end up scuttling reconciliation once again.
The announcements on Wednesday bypassed the security questions: The reconciliation agreement will demand far-reaching changes in the security cooperation between the PA and Israel, on the one hand, and on the other will obligate Hamas to stop using weapons in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. A halt to PA-Israel security cooperation, however, is liable to lead to an Israeli military escalation that will force Hamas into the position of having to choose between its commitment to armed resistance and its obligation to the principle of “uniformity in setting policy.”
Beyond the political issues, and despite a trend of increasing religiosity among the Palestinian public, the PLO and Hamas have different, if not contradictory, worldviews. The nationalist PLO will continue to suspect Hamas of being more committed to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic principles than to national and social Palestinian interests. Hamas will go on being hostile toward the secular culture that has always been part and parcel of the PLO, and see it as the result of negative Western influences. The reconciliation agreement is a way for each side to bring more adherents to its ranks and grow stronger.
The Palestinians welcomed the declaration of the agreement (or the agreement to implement an agreement) with skepticism and caution. They know, or at least sense, the obstacles to its implementation. They know that Israel may take revenge for the reconciliation efforts, and that the United States also opposes them. But if they believe that both sides are honestly taking this step as a way to strengthen the Palestinians internally, they will be willing to bear the consequences of any Israeli or American punishment.