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While Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas was on an official five-day visit to Egypt, he received a call from Saudi Arabia asking him to come to the capital Riyadh on 6 November 2017. He flew immediately to Riyadh where he met King Salman and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The focus of the conversation, according to a senior Palestinian who attended the meeting, was the status of the reconciliation deal between Abbas’ Fatah party and Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, and a visit by a high-level Hamas delegation to Iran.
For Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, its number one enemy is Shia Muslim Iran and any party or country it supports. This includes Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Hamas and Qatar, against which Saudi Arabia instigated a blockade in June 2017 for its alleged support of terrorism.
Abbas was told in no uncertain terms that the reconciliation must result in Hamas and its military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, being severely weakened. Hamas’ audacity at going to Tehran and refusing to surrender its weapons after it handed over the Gaza Strip’s border crossings to the PA in November 2017 was seen by Saudi Arabia as a clear provocation to it and its blockade of Qatar.
The lessons from Lebanon are still very fresh in Saudi minds. Hezbollah has become so strong, the Saudis believe, because it was allowed to keep its weapons and as a result has hijacked the Lebanese government.
Abbas was aware of this even before he was summoned to Riyadh. In a press statement, he said that he would not allow Gaza to have two rulers and two sets of security forces and that the Palestinian government would not tolerate a repeat of the Hezbollah model in Gaza. The ten-year-old Palestinian split occurred after the election of the pro-Hamas Justice and Reform list headed by Ismael Haniyeh in January 2006. The natural outcome of this result was that Abbas asked Haniyeh to become prime minister. He was quickly able to form a government and gain the confidence of a majority of the Palestinian Legislative Council members. However, the global community refused to recognize Hamas’ victory unless the Palestinian government met three conditions: to abide by previous agreements (i.e. the Oslo Accords), recognize Israel and denounce terrorism.
Hamas was not able to function effectively without international recognition. Its position became even more difficult when banks around the world refused to recognize the signature of the Palestinian minister of finance in the Haniyeh government.
At the same time, the situation in Gaza was quickly deteriorating. Hamas had no access to a security apparatus, which was still under the control of the PA in Ramallah in the West Bank. As a result, it created an executive force, which meant that two competing armed security entities were operating in the same area. This was clearly a disaster in the making and, indeed, by June 2007, when fighting and violence resulted in the routing of the pro-PLO security forces, the executive force was able to cement its control of the Gaza Strip.
One of the first casualties of this new status quo was the Palestinian Presidential Guard, which fled to Egypt via the Rafah border crossing or to Ramallah with the help of the Israelis. Without the Presidential Guard, European observers did not stay long either, leaving the Rafah border crossing without any recognized government on the Palestinian side. In response, the Egyptians closed the border. This closure coupled with the Israeli blockade has resulted in a decade-long humanitarian crisis for the nearly 2 million Palestinians living in Gaza. Israel has been able to control the flow of people and goods into and out of the enclave, prompting some officials to claim that it wants to put Gazans on a strict diet but not starve them completely. The Hamas leadership reacted in two ways. It forged strong relations with Syria, Qatar and Iran, as well as with Mohamed Morsi’s short-lived Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt. At the same time, it began building tunnels to Egypt, allowing it to bypass the border closure.
Meanwhile, it continued to pay lip service to efforts at reconciliation with the PLO and Fatah, without any real intention of making it happen. Morsi’s short reign gave Hamas breathing space and delayed an eventual reconciliation. The Arab Spring also gave Hamas a chance to establish links with the Islamic opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a move that proved to be counterproductive when al-Assad survived the early protests. This brought down the Syrian branch of Hamas’ support. Khaled Meshaal and other exiled Hamas leaders had been deported from Jordan, and with Hezbollah militants supporting the al-Assad regime, Lebanon was also out of the question, thus Hamas leaders had nowhere left to go except Qatar. Even Iran, which was also supporting al-Assad, was not as forthcoming with Hamas as it had been previously, and the takeover in Egypt by the staunchly anti-Islamist Abdel Fattah al-Sisi closed the door to that country as well.
But perhaps the hardest blow for Hamas came when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt formed an anti-Qatar coalition. This meant an end to Hamas’ last physical and financial refuge, even as Qatar was claiming not to bow to the coalition’s demands regarding Hamas.
The house of cards that Hamas had built over the years quickly began to fall. Elections for the Hamas leadership took place and among those elected was hardliner Yehia Sinwar to represent the Gaza branch, and Ismael Haniyeh as head of the movement’s politburo. More importantly, the new leadership realized quickly that the only way for the movement to survive was to re-engage with its rivals in Ramallah.
This realization propelled the reconciliation deal and a total acceptance of the conditions set by Abbas. These conditions included dissolving the executive administration, empowering the Ramallah-based government and agreeing to general parliamentary and presidential elections.
Hamas’ seriousness was not only reflected in its total capitulation to Ramallah but also in a statement made by Sinwar, who warned that he would “tear off the head of anyone that delays or creates obstacles in the way of reconciliation”.
However, two obstacles have emerged. The first is the unwillingness of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades to surrender their weapons. The second is the visit to Tehran by the Hamas officials, who made the same commitments not to surrender their weapons.
This appears to have been the trigger that caused Saudi Arabia to react so forcibly, and it seems to have been the reason why Abbas was summoned to Riyadh.
The balancing act that Hamas and Fatah are now forced to play requires some external pressure, and it appears that the Egyptians are willing to apply this pressure, especially against Hamas. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is able to exert similar pressure on the PLO, mostly by means of its financial support to the Palestinian government.