Palestinians, Israel and the Quartet: Pulling Back from the Brink 
Middle East Report N°54
13 June 2006


Throughout years of uprising and Israeli military actions, siege of West Bank cities and President Arafat’s de facto house arrest, it was hard to imagine the situation getting worse for Palestinians. It has. On all fronts – Palestinian/Palestinian, Palestinian/Israeli and Palestinian/ international – prevailing dynamics are leading to a dangerous breakdown. Subjected to the cumulative effects of a military occupation in its 40th year and now what is effectively an international sanctions regime, the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority (PA) government cannot pay salaries or deliver basic services. Diplomacy is frozen, with scant prospect of thaw – and none at all of breakthrough. And Hamas’s electoral victory and the reactions it provoked among Fatah loyalists have intensified chaos and brought the nation near civil war. There is an urgent need for all relevant players to pragmatically reassess their positions, with the immediate objectives of:

  • avoiding inter-Palestinian violence and the PA’s collapse;
  • encouraging Hamas to adopt more pragmatic policies rather than merely punishing it for not doing so;
  • achieving a mutual and sustained Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire to prevent a resumption of full-scale hostilities; and
  • preventing activity that jeopardises the possibility of a two-state solution.

Of all the dangers threatening the Palestinians, the most acute may well be internal strife. Facing one of the most hostile external environments in its history, the national movement also confronts one of its most acute domestic crises. Even as Hamas and Fatah leaders repeatedly profess their determination to avoid violent conflict, they act in ways that promote it. Fatah, unable to digest its electoral loss, is behaving as if still in power. It treats the new government as a usurper, blatantly subverting its ability to govern, relying on its partisans’ overwhelming presence throughout the civil service and, especially, the security forces. Hamas, unprepared for its triumph, is behaving as if it remains in opposition. It invokes steadfastness as a substitute for policy and has proved incapable so far of adjusting to its new status, while introducing provocative measures of its own.

In this increasingly bloody power struggle, both camps (as well as the myriad camps within camps) are mobilising armed militias, stockpiling weapons, resorting to killings and spreading bedlam. The latest move was political. Mahmoud Abbas, PA President, Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) Executive Committee and Fatah Deputy Chairman, on 25 May 2006 threatened that if Hamas did not accept within ten days a proposal signed by a number of Israel’s most prominent Palestinian detainees – the Prisoners’ Initiative – which implicitly endorses a negotiated two-state solution, he would submit it to a popular referendum. Making good on his ultimatum after a short extension, he issued a presidential decree on 10 June calling for a referendum on 26 July.

The result has been an increasingly bitter, and perilously violent, relationship, bringing the Palestinians to the brink of internecine conflict. The National Dialogue that was launched in late May to forge a political consensus appears to be as much about partisan posturing as about strategic compromise. While Abbas understandably is averse to interminable negotiations, his determination to hold a referendum opposed by Hamas carries a serious risk of further polarisation and violence – the very outcome that, by seeking to bring the Islamists into the political arena, he had tried to avoid. Today, the situation is but one tragic step – the assassination of a senior Fatah or Hamas leader, for example – from all-out chaos.

Faced with the intensifying inter-Palestinian struggle, the calculus of the Quartet – the U.S., EU, Russia and the UN, who have been in charge of the disappearing peace process – and other outside actors has been simple: pressure the government, count on popular dissatisfaction with its (non-) performance and find ways to strengthen Abbas and ensure the Hamas experience in power comes to a rapid and unsuccessful end. The approach comes in different variants, from the more confrontational (seeking to subvert the Hamas-led government through political and economic isolation), to the more subtle (hoping to circumvent the government through Abbas’s empowerment). Yet in both cases outside actors, by openly bolstering one faction against the other, exacerbate internal strife.

Of late, limited signs of pragmatism have come from Washington regarding the need to prevent collapse within the occupied territories. However, the U.S. still appears reluctant to endorse a European proposal to fund priority social sectors while bypassing the government or at least wishes to postpone implementation of such a mechanism until after a referendum is held and the political context altered. The tightness of the grip aside, all, including Israel and even Arab states, appear convinced that squeezing the government unless it meets the Quartet’s three demands (recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence, and acceptance of past agreements) is the best way to end its tenure and accelerate the restoration of its more pragmatic predecessors.

There are important elements of Hamas’s ideology and charter, including its refusal to recognise Israel and the call for its destruction, that are incompatible with the international community’s principles for a resolution of this conflict as well as the views of most Palestinians; pressure certainly needs to be brought upon it to change these. Without this necessary evolution, it cannot expect international recognition, nor can the government it leads expect genuine international support. But the approaches currently being applied or contemplated – to deprive it of resources, isolate or bypass it, force a referendum, or even stage early elections – suffer from the same fundamental flaws: the absence of a day-after strategy and an almost total disregard for Hamas’s very recent democratic mandate as well as the longer-term consequences of short-term success.

Feeling cheated of its right to govern, Hamas would be unlikely to go quietly. Having reached the conclusion that its experiment in the mainstream has failed and political integration is no longer a viable option, and with its back against the wall, Hamas almost certainly would revert to internal violence or violence targeting Israel, causing maximum chaos, possibly bringing down the PA and allowing the Islamists to re-emerge as a resistance movement. The recent mutual escalation of violence with Israel shows how perilous this situation quickly can become. Nor should one expect poverty and despair to encourage the Palestinians toward greater moderation; those are the very conditions that helped propel Hamas to power in the first place, and it is difficult to imagine how they could assist Fatah in the near future. Regionally as well, the engineered failure of the first elected Sunni Islamist government could have unwelcome repercussions, buttressing jihadi Islamists at the expense of their more political counterparts.

Starved of resources, confronting an increasingly hostile population and unable to realise its agenda, Hamas may well fail. But with widespread violence, chaos and a collapse in Palestinian institutions, it quickly would become hard to chalk up its failure as anybody’s success. Instead, what is required today is a more sophisticated, nuanced approach, pursuing the priority objectives described above with the specific policies summarised below.


To the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) and Palestinian National Resistance Movement (Fatah): 

1.  Reach and implement agreement on the composition and role of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), including the integration of Hamas and recognition of the PLO’s responsibility for political negotiations with Israel.

2.  Form, with the participation of other Palestinian political movements and independents as appropriate, a national coalition government whose program includes endorsement of the 2002 Arab League Beirut Initiative and/or the 2006 Prisoners’ Initiative; designation of the PLO as responsible for political negotiations with Israel; ratification by national institutions and/or a national referendum of any agreement reached with Israel; and recognition of existing Palestinian commitments.

3.  Reactivate the National Security Council under the Palestinian president and including the prime minister, interior minister and heads of security agencies, to ensure the coordination of all security agencies and phased integration or demobilisation of all militias.

To the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas):

4.  Reinstate the truce and extend it for the duration of the current government’s lifespan and declare a permanent moratorium on attacks against civilian targets, to enable Egypt and other mediators to achieve a reciprocal and comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian cessation of hostilities.

To the Government of Israel:

5.  Cease offensive operations, particularly assassinations and incursions, which cannot be justified by imminent military necessity, refraining in particular from unprovoked acts of escalation and operations that harm civilians and damage civilian installations, and support third-party efforts to achieve a reciprocal and comprehensive cessation of Israeli-Palestinian hostilities.

6.  Release all Palestinians in Israeli detention who have not been charged with an offence and respond to Palestinian initiatives to maintain quiet with timely and substantive prisoner releases.

7.  Channel all withheld tax revenues to the Temporary International Mechanism proposed by the EU and maintain utility supplies and banking services to the Palestinian population.

To the Members of the Diplomatic Quartet (U.S., EU, Russian Federation, UN):

8.  Subject to the PA abiding by existing Palestinian commitments and Hamas reinstating a truce, assign a UN-appointed mediator as its representative for contacts with the PLO, PA, Hamas, and other Palestinian organisations to obtain commitments from the PA government on the following matters:

(a)  support for a reciprocal and comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian cessation of hostilities;

(b)  recognition of applicable UN resolutions and the 2002 Arab League Beirut Initiative as the terms of reference for an Israeli-Palestinian political settlement; and

(c)  approval of contacts between Israeli and Palestinian counterparts to improve delivery of services and mutual security, and on other matters of common interest.

9.  Ensure Israel fulfils its humanitarian obligations under international law towards the civilian population of the occupied Palestinian territories, specifically by:

(a)  providing unrestricted access to humanitarian agencies operating in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that have been certified as such by the UN mediator; and

(b)  halting restrictions on the free movement of persons, goods, and services within, between, to and from the occupied territories that cannot be justified by legitimate security interests.

10.  Issue a declaration that, while any Israeli withdrawal from occupied territory is welcome, it will not recognise boundaries situated within occupied territory established through unilateral measures nor the legitimacy of any settlements established in contravention of international law.

11.  Present at an appropriate time a more detailed vision of a viable final status agreement.

To the European Union and its Member States:

12.  Subject to agreement between UN mediator and the Palestinian government as described above:

(a)  suspend the prohibition on contacts with the PA government and Hamas leadership to expedite discussions on core EU concerns relating to the government’s political program, donor relations, the demobilisation and integration of armed factions and terms for the removal of Hamas from the EU blacklist of terrorist organisations; and

(b)  restore 2005 levels and forms of donor support to the PA, including budgetary support.

13.  In the absence of agreement between the UN mediator and the Palestinian government as described above, and subject to the PA government abiding by existing agreements and Hamas reinstating a truce:

(a)  expand the proposed Temporary International Mechanism (TIM) in order to fund basic services in the occupied territories, including PA personnel, recurrent, and where necessary other costs, without distinction between civilian and security sectors, and wherever practicable through direct disbursements to personnel, suppliers, and contractors; and

(b)  modify the proposed Temporary International Mechanism so that UN agencies and the World Bank rather than the PA presidency serve as intermediaries between donors and the PA administration, and proceed with implementation without additional delay.

To the Government of the United States:

14.  Refrain from threats against Palestinian political organisations and individual politicians that obstruct inter-Palestinian dialogue and the formation of a PA coalition government.

15.  Revise the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) directives with respect to Hamas to state specifically that the standing exemption from penalty for dealing with a proscribed organisation provided to select international organisations, including the United Nations and the World Bank, will apply to third parties, such as banks and other institutions and entities, implementing programs for or handling funds received on behalf of those international organisations.

To the Chairman of the Arab League and member states:

16.  Engage with the PA government and Hamas leadership to seek endorsement of the Arab League Beirut Initiative.

Jerusalem/Amman/Brussels, 13 June 2006

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Document symbol: ICG_MiddleEastReportNo54
Document Type: Recommendation, Report, Summary
Document Sources: International Crisis Group (ICG)
Subject: Peace process, Peace proposals and efforts
Publication Date: 13/06/2006