Palestinian Grassroots Reconciliation Initiatives Expose Failures of Fatah and Hamas Leaders

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Recently, Al Arabiya News Channel reported on “Forgive and Pardon for the Nation,” a grassroots reconciliation initiative launched in Gaza by the Za’noun family. The family had lost its son, who served in the Fatah-controlled National Security Forces, in intra-Palestinian clashes in June 2007. While the recent handshakes between Hamas and Fatah officials were well covered in the media, little attention has been paid to efforts such as this, which aim to overcome the sectarianism that has ripped apart Palestinian society over the last eight years.

The significance of the ‘Forgive and Pardon for the Nation’ initiative is its emphasis on the concept of forgiveness, representing-along with acknowledgement and accountability-one of the key pillars of effective reconciliation. The ability to transcend emotions of anger and revenge in order to forgive is recognized as a major asset in strengthening post-conflict recovery projects. In Christian and Buddhist communities, such as South Africa and Cambodia, particular emphasis was given to these values to facilitate national reconciliation.

For too long, high-profile reconciliation agreements in the Middle East have ignored these pillars, resulting in shallow agreements and minimal public appreciation of reconciliation efforts. Muslim political and religious figures are yet to appreciate the significance and salience of such values in fostering national reconciliation.

Trust-Building Measures  

There is an acute need today, given the serious internal conflicts in the region, to discuss the practice of acknowledgement and forgiveness, and to identify them as Islamic principles for human well-being. We need to recognize that it is local trust-building measures that finally determine the success of any reconciliation agreement. Sectarian conflicts rupture social fabrics and enshrine distrust, suspicion and hatred. 

These feelings have been encouraged and harnessed by Fatah and Hamas during episodes of intra-Palestinian violence. From 2006 onwards, the websites and publications of Hamas and Fatah have criminalized each other’s leaders, exchanged blame for numerous episodes of violence, and targeted each other’s members. Hamas dismissed Fatah leaders as hypocrites and ‘sinful faces’ while Fatah collaborated with Israel in the latter’s attacks on Hamas in 2008 and 2011. Both factions need to take responsibility, acknowledge their mistakes, and embrace initiatives that restore Palestinian relations at the grassroots level.

Common Palestinians

For now, it is common Palestinians who are taking the initiative in launching reconciliation campaigns. The frustration of ‘Alaa Za’noun’s father in the Arabiya report is apparent. Asked why the initiative was launched, he remarked “we Palestinians are suffering and we have just had enough. We [on our part] will forgive and let them [the leaders of Hamas and Fatah] reconcile and relief us.”

No keen observer can fail to notice the spread of local reconciliation initiatives in Palestine. These include the ‘Palestinians above All’ campaign that collected 9,195 signatures between April and June 2013, urging Fatah and Hamas to implement the National Reconciliation Agreement that was signed back in May 2011. Facebook pages urging an end to intra-Palestinian divisions joined with mass protests in March and April 2011 in both the West Bank and Gaza.

The fact remains that Palestinian leaders of both factions have failed to show genuine and practical commitment towards reconciliation. After each significant meeting on the rocky road to Palestinian reconciliation, Palestinian leaders were quick to appeal for donations to facilitate the implementation of reconciliation measures, a pledge that was reiterated in Al Arabiya report. However, the immediate practical needs of local meetings, Sulha gatherings and public apologies needed to heal the wounds of intra-Palestinian fighting remain ignored or largely marginalized.

It is time for both Fatah and Hamas to seriously invest in trust-building measures. Local offices of both factions can channel energies to this cause and invest in the common future of Palestinian youth. Arab and Islamic culture is abounding with examples, principles and tools for doing so. Demonstrations of good will can help curb the tides of mistrust that both factions encouraged in earlier years.

Empowerment and societal recognition of these efforts requires media coverage and the backing of local and regional religious leaders. Donors also have a responsibility in this realm, channeling funds to support local projects for reconciliation while encouraging the participation of victims of inter-Palestinian violence from all sides. These can include income-generating projects, community service projects or local community leadership initiatives.

Needless to say, trust-building measures are not enough on their own. Power-sharing and binding political agreements between all Palestinian political actors are important as well. Solving the long-lasting dispute over the status of the PLO and its membership is a top priority for Palestinian factions to end long-lasting divisions. Together, political agreements and grassroots initiatives can encourage an atmosphere of political and societal cooperation, serving Palestinian national interests. As long as these two tracks are not pursued diligently, the reconciliation agreement will remain ink on paper.

This piece was originally published in Al Arabiya. You can find it here.