The Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas, bitter rivals for the past 4 years since Hamas overthrew the PA in Gaza, will sign a reconciliation agreement in Cairo next week.
The news was met with Israeli displeasure voiced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said the Palestinian Authority must choose between peace with Israel and rapprochement with Hamas.
There is no doubt that the agreement between the largest of the Palestinian factions is closely related to recent developments in the Arab world.
The toppling of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak removed, from Hamas' viewpoint, an impediment to Palestinian reconciliation. Gaza'a gateway to the Arab world, and indeed the world, is Egypt, and for the past four years Cairo has maintained strict control of the main crossing points between its Territory and Gaza and helped enforce the embargo placed on the strip by the Israelis and the major world powers.
Hamas' political leadership resides in Damascus and the situation in Syria does not bode well for the future of Hamas there which only recently criticized the opponents of the regime in Damascus. The regime there has played its part in the past, reining in Palestinian agreement as part of the regional power play. It may now consider a positive change of tack something that may earn it a few favors as it battles for its life. The interim goal of any resistance/liberation movement is survival and Hamas seems to have judged which way the wind is blowing and deemed it judicious to widen its field of play. That Syria may have also given its blessing to the reconciliation may also be a factor.
Hence the previously unannounced and secret visit last week by a Hamas delegation to Jordan last week. Hamas politburo members Muhammad Nazzal and Muhammad Nasr met in Amman with the Director of General Intelligence Muhammad al-Raqqad. This was the first such meeting between Hamas and Jordan since 2006. We could very well be looking at Hamas relocating its Syrian HQ
Not coincidentally, he Secretary General of the Damascus-based Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine Nayef Hawatmeh, also in Jordan last week, has jumped ship and moved back to his native Jordan after spending the better part of the last 15 years in Syria.
This all comes at the heels of the recent thaw in relations between Qatar and Jordan. Doha has been a strong backer of Hamas, and the recent attacks in Syrian media against Qatar, Sheikh Yusuf Qaradwai's harsh criticism of the regime in Damascus and Al Jazeera's coverage of the uprising in Syria will have given Hamas food for thought.
Vis-a-vis the current uprising in Syria, Hamas, which is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), is now in the uncomfortable and embarrassing position of being at odds with Qaradawi who is considered one of the most senior and influential, albeit unofficial MB figures, as well as the Jordanian and Syrian Muslim Brothers. Meshal took the unprecedented step of lambasting Qaradawi for his attacks on Syria.
The Palestinians by now will have become cognizant of the fact that the cause of Palestine has been put on the back-burner and no longer elicits much interest or passion of the Arab street. Not even the publication of the Palestine Papers managed to rouse the Arab people and inflame their passions for Jerusalem. Not a single demonstration took place in the Arab world against the PA's alleged betrayal of Palestinian rights: the Arabs are busy with their own dreams, desires and battles for freedom and a break with the past. And perhaps they did not buy the Palestine Papers.
Obviously the Israelis and Americans will have been informed ahead of time of the reconciliation between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Netanyahu feigning anger at the deal is political posturing.
The choice is not, as Netanyahu termed it, peace with Israel or rapprochement with Hamas. I would have expected a wise Israeli statesman to say something along the lines of, "We will watch closely these developments. Considering Hamas' stated position of not recognizing Israel and working towards its destruction we will hold the Palestinian Authority to its international obligations and we will also hold it responsible for any future attacks on Israel."
That the PA recognizes Israel will not have escaped the attention of either Netanyahu, or for that matter Hamas. So we are potentially looking at an important development in the position of Hamas. It's premature to comment further on this point at the moment with the text of the agreement as yet unavailable.
If this agreement is signed next week then it may herald a rejuvenation of Palestinian aspirations for statehood. Hamas represent a significant proportion of the Palestinian people, as does Fatah, the PA's backbone. If they do manage to reach a unified position, backed by their Arab patrons, then they may be really ready to govern themselves in an independent sovereign state.
Finally, a word of advice to Netanyahu re his "peace with Israel" statement: Israel, the occupier of the Palestinians, should also consider making peace with them. It's not a one way-street, Mr Prime Minister, and it could very well hasten the release of Gilad Shalit.
The events in Egypt have drawn attention from equally important developments in the Arab world.
In Jordan King Abdullah II has appointed a new cabinet with instruction to begin political and economic reforms. Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh has announced he will not seek a new term, will leave office in 2013 and will not hand over power to his son. Syria's Bashar al-Assad has also acknowledged the "disease" afflicting the region. Incidentally, today marks the 29th anniversary of the start of the crushing in 1982 of the Hama rebellion, (Hama massacre) by the president's late father Hafez al-Assad. The revolt was led by the Syrian branch of the Muslim brotherhood.
These developments highlight the explicit and implicit recognition by Arab leaders of the gravity of the situation and the sentiments and resentments of the people.
Also, sensing the seriousness of the situation in the region, the Emir of Qatar has postponed a state visit to Ecuador scheduled for February 15th. This does not imply that Qatar is at any risk of political upheaval. Rather it means that leaders with little to worry about at home recognize the need to keep close tabs on the situation in these critical times.
(This post is also published on Mideasposts)
The Arab world is in a state of flux. After decades of paralysis Arab societies are awakening with a fury that autocratic regimes hiding under the guise of republicanism have never seen before.
The Tunisian people's overthrow of Ben Ali (facilitated by the military's non-participation in the repression of the uprising) opened the floodgates to popular expressions of the people's frustrations.
The Arab world's most populous nation, Egypt, teeming with some 80 million people is witnessing massive street demonstrations whose anger is not aimed at a rise in the price of bread or fuel. Rather, the target is the political system first brought into existence by President Nasser some 60 years ago and kept in a state of suspended animation by President Mubarak for the last 29 plus years.
There have also been demonstrations in Yemen calling for President Saleh to quit after 32 years in power, street anger expressed in Libya (whose president Gaddafi – holding onto the reins for over 40 years - denounced the overthrow of Ben Ali) and loud outbursts of protest in both Jordan and Algeria at the state of the economy and consequent suffering of the people.
What I find heartening is the new generation of protestors who are coming to the fore, the youth and the young at heart who are using the 21st Century's powerful tools of new media to organize, spread the word and display a brave, highly organized and civilized face of protest.
No longer are anti-regime demonstrations organized and led by the traditional forces of opposition, usually Islamist. There's a new face of protest emerging in the Arab world, and the world-at-large should take note.
I find all of this very promising and yet I'm under no illusion that regimes will topple in a domino effect. But I trust that what we are witnessing is the beginning of the end of the age of mediocrity that has plagued the Arab world since the end of World War II.
The Arab world has regressed considerably since the Arab awakening of the late 19th-early 20th Centuries. It makes me wonder where it all went wrong when I consider that Egyptian women were granted the right to vote before British women.
What happened was the end of colonialism and toppling of the traditional monarchies were replaced by so-called revolutionary, nationalistic regimes that set about disassembling all the facets of a properly functioning society and state. And all this was done with the tacit approval of Western governments more interested in preserving stability than progress in a crucial region. Well, the chickens have come home to roost.
The Arab regimes, unbeknownst to them, were nurturing through their convoluted form of government a form of extremism unseen in modern times. Then, also unbeknownst to them, they started exporting it. When the liberation of Palestine became a lost cause, secretly admitted yet never publicly acknowledged by the Arab leaders, there was an inward focus. Torture became a sadistic art form. Repression a byword for government. Development and education took a distant backseat to the sole aim of regime longevity.
And so Arab societies regressed, cowered in fear, husbands whispered political protests to wives while looking over their shoulders and children were taught never to repeat what's said at home about the infallible leadership.
For years I've observed with great sadness and frustration, nations of Arabs who glorified the achievements of a distant past while offering nothing in a bankrupt present for a challenging future. I watched as the art movement floundered, literature take a dive, educational systems produce graduates inadequately equipped for a rapidly changing world, sports teams take humiliating beatings on the world stage and creativity and freedom of expression being stifled. Fear. That is the overwhelming emotion in the Arab world. Fear of government, fear of uniforms. And as long as the West got its oil everything was fine. Well obviously it wasn't.
Arab governments are now trying to block access to social networks. What they don't understand is that if you close the door people go in through a window.
A few years ago I bought a T-shirt from a Zendik commune member on a street corner in Washington, DC. Emblazoned on the front is the slogan: “Stop bitching. Start a revolution”. Indeed.
I believe we are witnessing the beginning of the end of the age of mediocrity. For the good of the world I sincerely I hope I am not proven wrong.
A man on a long journey through a perpetual desert.
The opinions expressed in this blog are mine and mine alone. They do not represent the views of any of my employers, past, present or future.