Interview with Bettina Marx, head of the Heinrich Boll Foundation in Ramallah

Hamas' olive branch: ″Palestinians want reconciliation″

Hamas has made an offer to its Palestinian rival, Fatah, agreeing to hold elections in the Gaza Strip. The head of the Heinrich Boll Foundation in Ramallah, Bettina Marx, sees this as a striking and positive development

Over the past 10 years, Fatah and Hamas have repeatedly failed to make peace with each other. What are the prospects this time?

Bettina Marx: It's really hard to say. Palestinians in both the Gaza Strip and here in the West Bank are very sceptical. Most of them believe that it will all come to nothing – yet again. I myself am a little more optimistic, because Hamas has manoeuvred itself into a blind alley. In the past few months, Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian National Authority (in the West Bank and chairman of Fatah – Ed.) has been putting considerable pressure on Hamas in the Gaza Strip: he has literally turned off the taps, cutting off their water and electricity. I have the impression that the general population, at least in the Gaza Strip, is really exhausted. Something has to happen and that's why I'm actually optimistic.

Does Hamas still have the support of the population in Gaza?

Marx: There are surveys that say Hamas would win the election again if another vote were held and there are surveys that say exactly the opposite. It's very difficult to get people to speak out about this. There is no freedom of expression in the Gaza Strip. My assessment, gleaned from personal conversations, is that people are strongly critical of Hamas because it has bred a great deal of corruption in recent years: those in power in the Hamas system are doing comparatively well, while the remaining 2 million people are really suffering. I honestly doubt that there is still support for Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Things are quite different in the West Bank. Here, the Palestinian Authority is under pressure. The people accuse it of being corrupt. Its government is also accused of becoming increasingly authoritarian, of suppressing freedom of expression and movement – and of co-operating with Israel on security matters at the Palestinians' expense. It is quite possible that in the West Bank approval for Hamas in elections would be much higher.

As part of its offer of reconciliation, Hamas has agreed to a joint election. Is it speculating that a vote would give its claim to power greater legitimacy?

Bettina Marx, director of the Heinrich Boll Foundation in Ramallah (source: Heinrich Boll Foundation)
Bettina Marx has headed the office of the German Green party-affiliated Heinrich Boll Foundation in the West Bank city of Ramallah since 2015. She previously worked as a journalist, including for DW and as a correspondent at ARD's radio studio in Tel Aviv

Marx: That's sure to be one reason. However, I'm sceptical as to whether elections can take place. That's like writing the bill without checking with the manager and the manager here is Israel. Israel has absolutely no interest in Hamas coming to power in the West Bank. If it turns out, in the run-up to such elections, that a lot of people are in favour of Hamas, then the elections will not take place. Israel will prevent it at all costs. Of course, there is a need for elections, since neither of the Palestinian governments has any authority anymore. But practically speaking, I don't see this happening in the foreseeable future.

Israel calls Hamas a terrorist organisation. How was its announcement received in Israel?

Marx: With very great scepticism and some unease. It can't suit the Israeli government, because it is striving for the opposite. The Israeli government doesn't want the Palestinians to unite and reconcile. Whenever serious efforts have been made to form a government of national unity and overcome the division, Israel has stuck its oar in and made sure it didn't happen.

To a certain extent, President Abbas has been working with Israel: at his request, Israel limited the electricity supply to the Gaza Strip. Abbas is currently at the United Nations in New York; he has made a statement welcoming this announcement by Hamas, but can he actually allow himself to negotiate with Hamas at the present time?

Arabic graffiti bearing the message ′division′ in the city of Gaza (photo: picture-alliance/Zuma Press)
Heralding the end of the fratricidal conflict between Fatah and Hamas: ten years after it seized power in Gaza, Hamas recently declared its willingness to relinquish administrative control of the Gaza Strip and to hold general elections. Its rival Fatah spoke of a positive signal. To date, all attempts at reconciliation have failed. In 2007 Hamas wrested control of the Gaza Strip from Fatah by force. Since then, only the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority, which is supported by the West, have been under the more moderate Fatah

Marx: That is precisely the problem. Hamas' announcement has put Abbas in a very difficult position. It's the last thing he needs, especially now, while he's in the U.S.. There have been only very careful comments from his associates in Ramallah. The Americans or the Israelis might say that he's prepared to negotiate with terrorists and that means he's absolutely not a partner.

On the other hand, Abbas is under a lot of pressure. The Palestinian public wants this reconciliation. They have made repeated demands for him to put an end to this division. The steps he took against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, like curtailing electricity supplies and salaries for public officials, have gone down very badly with the public – not just with those affected.

The split between Fatah and Hamas is partly based on fundamentally different attitudes. Hamas recently accepted the formation of a Palestinian state along 1967 borders, but does not recognise Israeli statehood. Fatah, on the other hand, wants peace talks with Israel and a two-state solution. How can there be reconciliation on this basis?

Delivery of a U.N. aid consignment to needy Palestinians in the Gaza Strip (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
At the end of their tether: "People in the Gaza Strip want to have freedom of movement again. They've been completely imprisoned for 10 years with no way of getting out. Even sick people have tremendous difficulty in getting permission to leave the Gaza Strip for treatment. The people want a future for their children. Unemployment is above 60 percent, the poverty rate over 80 percent. Hamas' popularity is also suffering in the face of facts like these," says Bettina Marx

Marx: Hamas is also under pressure from its own population. People in the Gaza Strip want to have freedom of movement again. They've been completely imprisoned for 10 years with no way of getting out. Even sick people have tremendous difficulty in getting permission to leave the Gaza Strip for treatment. The people want a future for their children. Unemployment is above 60 percent, the poverty rate over 80 percent. Hamas' popularity is also suffering in the face of facts like these. Hamas will have to shift and I see that happening already.

What might be the biggest sticking points that could cause an attempt at reconciliation to fail?

Marx: It could fail as a result of the aforementioned pressure from Israel and the international community, because there is no desire for Fatah and Hamas to reach an agreement. There are also, however, a lot of homemade problems. What's supposed to happen to the armed forces? That's completely unclear. In the Gaza Strip we have not only the armed forces of Hamas, but also of smaller organisations and splinter groups. The Palestinian Authority in Ramallah has always said that only the government can have supremacy over the security forces – there can't be any militias. Do you integrate the militias into the security forces? Will they be disarmed? All that would have to be negotiated.

It could also fail because of another point: Hamas has established a group of leaders in the Gaza Strip who profit from the situation and are doing reasonably well for themselves. It's questionable whether these people are prepared to relinquish their privileges without a fight. There are all sorts of snares along this path – perhaps I should reconsider my optimism – but nonetheless I do believe that there is a different quality to this attempt compared to others in the past.

Interview conducted by Uta Steinwehr

© Deutsche Welle 2017

Bettina Marx has headed the office of the German Green party-affiliated Heinrich Boll Foundation in the West Bank city of Ramallah since 2015. She previously worked as a journalist, including for DW and as a correspondent at ARD's radio studio in Tel Aviv.

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