The rollout of the war-ending ceasefire agreement between Israel and Palestine last month was impressive. With almost perfect synchronization, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced the end of the war on Gaza in a televised broadcast from his Ramallah headquarters, while Hamas leaders called on Palestinians in Gaza to take to the streets to celebrate their supposed victory.
Of course, with more than 2,200 Palestinians — mostly civilians — killed, over 10,000 injured, and thousands of homes, schools, mosques and other structures destroyed, the war’s outcome can hardly be called a victory.
Nonetheless, this is the first time that Palestinians have been able to create something close to mutual deterrence with the Israelis.
Strengthening Palestine’s position further is the United Nations General Assembly’s recognition of Palestine as a nonmember observer state, which Palestinian diplomats can use to exert political pressure on Israel to take their national aspirations seriously. Palestine’s membership in U.N. agencies, not to mention the possibility of joining the International Criminal Court, has also boosted its leaders’ bargaining power.
All of these levers — not to mention the tremendous sympathy and support Palestinians have received from international observers — will be essential to ensure that the high price Palestinians paid during the 51-day war was not in vain. But the levers will be useless if the leaders of Hamas and Fatah, the two dominant Palestinian factions, fail to maintain a united front.
The effectiveness of such a cooperative approach was apparent in the Egypt-sponsored indirect talks with Israel. The unified Palestinian delegation was convenient for Egypt and Israel, both of which consider Hamas a terrorist organization, and for Palestine, because it helped to bring an end to the violence. And it was a political boon for Abbas, who was able to field a delegation headed by one of his confidants, Azzam al-Ahmad, and thus claim the right to announce the ceasefire.
Having withstood the test of war, the Palestinian unity government that was created less than two months before the conflict began will now become the main vehicle for Gaza’s reconstruction. But Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah will face considerable challenges — beginning with Gaza, where his executive authority is severely limited.
More broadly, the unity government’s success depends on the ability of the Fatah-led Palestinian government and Hamas — and, to whatever extent possible, Islamic Jihad — to cement their cooperation by agreeing on a path toward liberation and freedom. A clear, realistic strategy will be integral to Palestine’s efforts to win support from regional and international actors eager to end the decades-old conflict with Israel.
This will, of course, require compromises from all sides. Hamas must reconsider its refusal to recognize Israel. For its part, the Palestinian leadership must pursue active resistance alongside negotiations with Israel, while defending more vigorously Palestinians’ right of return, which it has often ignored in an effort to appease the Israelis.
But establishing a unified strategy is only the first step. Ordinary Palestinians, who will undoubtedly have to make sacrifices, must be brought on board — especially given the heavy price they incurred during the recent conflict, in which they had no say.
With broad public support, Palestine’s unity government will be able to rally the international community behind its fair and reasonable demands for a truly independent state, free of sieges, separation barriers and foreign settlements — demands that fall squarely within the realm of basic human rights. Just as the international community isolated South Africa until it abandoned apartheid, it can put pressure on Israel through boycotts, divestment, and sanctions, while calling upon Israel’s allies to stop providing aid and arms.
If Palestine’s leaders truly want to end the cycle of violence in Gaza, they must begin by resolving their own internal disagreements and present themselves as a cohesive, reliable and committed negotiating party. They must band together behind the simple but powerful goal expressed by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to the General Assembly in New York: “We will build again, but this must be the last time to rebuild.”
For Palestine’s unity government, the time to begin the rebuilding process is now. If Fatah and Hamas are willing to do what it takes to achieve peace, this may well be their best chance.
Daoud Kuttab, a former professor at Princeton University and the founder and former director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al-Quds University in Ramallah, is a leading activist for media freedom in the Middle East. © 2014 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)