By Omar Karmi
25 June 2009
The National

On June 14, Fatah and Hamas, the estranged main Palestinian factions, seemingly moved a step closer to reconciliation when representatives met in Ramallah and Gaza City and agreed to begin releasing prisoners held by both sides.

But 10 days later, with a security sweep in the West Bank that netted more than 100 Hamas members, and the closing of a Gaza newspaper and the arrest of its editor, the rivals appear instead to have taken two strides backward.

These developments do not bode well for a happy conclusion to the Egyptian-mediated unity talks, for which exasperated Egyptian officials have set a July 7 deadline. Officials from both factions, as well as independent observers, agree that successful intra-Palestinian reconciliation cannot be achieved if the prisoner issue is not successfully resolved.

The arrests by the Palestinian Authority contradicts their previous public positions. On June 22, a statement was released from the office of Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority and head of Fatah, that all Hamas prisoners in PA prisons in the West Bank would be released as a goodwill gesture before the resumption of unity negotiations.

Yet, the same day, Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman, accused PA security forces of arresting more than 100 Hamas members in the West Bank over 24 hours, providing the names of over 60 of them.

Yesterday, the tit-for-tat clampdown escalated. PA security forces arrested a further 40 Hamas officials, including the mayor of Nablus, while Hamas security forces in Gaza raided the offices of the pro-Fatah As-Subeh (The Morning) newspaper, confiscating equipment and documents and arresting the editor, Sari al Qudweh.

The raid came even as Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister, urged Palestinian factions to unite and “stand steadfast” against the Israeli occupation.

Both Fatah and Hamas maintain that those targeted in their respective areas of control are detained either for security or criminal reasons and accuse each other of engaging in politically motivated arrest campaigns.

To independent observers, however, both sides are simply engaged in reactionary politics.

“Both sides are using security as an excuse,” said Sahar Francis, the head of the Ramallah-based Addameer prisoner rights’ organisation. “But they are really using the arrests either as a political tool to pressure the other or simply as revenge for what the other has done.”

Exact figures for how many detainees the two sides are holding are hard to come by, but Palestinian human rights organisations say the total is more than 1,000, with an estimated 800 Hamas members in detention in the West Bank and 400 Fatah members held in Gaza Strip prisons.

“The intra-Palestinian arrests are unacceptable to the public,” said Mustafa Abu Sway, a political analyst at Al Quds University.“They are politically motivated and both sides are merely reacting to each other. There is no good justification.”

Mr Abu Sway, however, argued that both sides also understand that the prisoner issue needs to be resolved for the reconciliation process to stand any chance and that the change in the international climate ushered in by the election of Barack Obama, the US president, has provided momentum for that process.

“An invigorated US foreign policy is pushing the two sides to come to a solution,” Mr Abu Sway said. “This is mainly because intra-Palestinian reconciliation is seen as a prerequisite for making political progress in any process with Israel.”

The past 10 days have seen more serious talk about prisoner releases than at any time since the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip in June 2007. Nevertheless, Ms Francis said talk had yet to translate into any concrete deadlines for prisoner releases.

“Both sides are continuing their arrests, so we still don’t see serious progress on the issue,” Ms Francis said. Further inflaming passions, she said, is what she called the “very widespread and very severe” use of torture and abuse in Palestinian prisons.

“We are seeing the same methods of abuse against detainees that Israel used to apply to Palestinian prisoners in the 1970s through the 1990s. This will only create even more bad feeling between the factions and make reconciliation even harder,” she said.

Much rests on an amicable settlement between the two. Gaza’s economy is in tatters and will remain that way unless the international community can apply pressure on Israel to open crossings to more than essential humanitarian goods. This will not happen in the absence of a unity government under the internationally acceptable umbrella of the PA.

Conversely, the legitimacy of the PA in the West Bank will be questioned for as long as it continues being appointed by presidential decree in the absence of a functioning (and Hamas-dominated) Palestinian legislature, and for as long as security services operate under military, rather than civilian law.

“The prisoners will have to be released, if not now, then later,” Mr Abu Sway said. “I think this principle is understood by both factions. Better then that it happens now.”