RAMALLAH – The Egyptian revolution, and the threat to autocratic Arab regimes all over the region, have forced rapid changes on the Palestinian political scene – with major players Hamas and Fatah scrambling to catch up.
"We’ve reached the point of no return. A Palestinian state is in the making," Samir Awad, from Birzeit University near Ramallah, told IPS. "The deadline for the birth of an independent Palestinian state is only months away. Palestinians will soon be part of the U.N. and equal members of the international community."
During the last few weeks the Palestinian Authority (PA) has been shaken to its core as it has witnessed several Arab countries – ruled by autocratic regimes bankrolled and sustained by the West – capitulate to the demands of the Arab street. Regional capitals are facing unprecedented revolts with their respective leaderships tottering in the balance.
For several years the PA has refused to hold either legislative or parliamentary elections despite repeated promises. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s term in office expired in January 2009, and his government’s in January 2010.
While the Ramallah-based government has desperately tried to suppress street protests supporting the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings in the West Bank, it has announced major democratic steps in an endeavor to boost its credibility with the people.
On Monday the PA announced the dissolution of its cabinet. This followed its dramatic decision last week to hold elections in September. This is the month the PA has set as a deadline for the establishment of a Palestinian state.
PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad said that the PA would take its case for statehood to the U.N. Security Council in September, and has spent the last two years building and strengthening state institutions in preparation.
"The PA is worried about events in Egypt and Tunisia and is trying to preempt a similar situation in the West Bank," explained Awad.
The cabinet reshuffle is an effort to bolster Abbas among Palestinians dissatisfied with the workings of a cabinet regarded by many as dysfunctional.
The loss of a major ally against Hamas in ousted former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has also been a wake-up call for the PA.
"We in Gaza suffered a lot under the Mubarak regime. A new strong, democratic and independent Egypt will strengthen Arab unity," Ahmed Youssef, a political advisor to Gaza’s Hamas leader Ismail Hanniyeh, told IPS.
"There is no doubt Hamas is drawing succor from Israel’s co-conspirator of the Gaza blockade falling from power, and Hamas’s ideological bedfellows the Muslim Brotherhood emerging strengthened from the Egyptian revolution," Moshe Maoz, professor at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, told IPS.
However, developments in Cairo are also putting pressure on the Hamas leadership in Gaza, which has refused to take part in the PA’s September elections, calling them illegal moves by an expired and unrepresentative government. Its popularity has also slumped since it swept legislative elections in 2006.
"Unlike Egypt, the PA is not under social or economic pressure to reform as Fayyad has enabled an economically secure Palestinian middle-class to emerge. The PA is, however, under significant political pressure to reform," Awad explained to IPS.
"Hamas for its part is under economic pressure due to the extreme levels of poverty in the Gaza Strip. The Gaza government is also worried that growing dissatisfaction with the situation in the coastal territory could lead to unrest there and this is a major incentive for Hamas to work towards reconciliation," added Awad.
While the tumultuous events in Tunis and Cairo have forced both Fatah and Hamas to re-evaluate their respective positions, both major Palestinian political factions view the chances of reconciliation in the current circumstances as having improved significantly.
"There is a new language coming from the West Bank leadership," said Youssef. "Mubarak was responsible to a significant degree for Abbas being so inflexible."
Ghassan Khatib, a spokesman for Abbas, told IPS that any new Egyptian leadership would be supportive of Palestinian unity – as the Egyptian street has always rallied to this calling.
Maoz also believes that chances of reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah may have been strengthened by regional developments.
Meanwhile, both political factions are united in the belief that increased pressure on Israel – as Washington is forced to take into consideration the Arab streets’ opinion – will be beneficial to both of their parties.
They also agree that the collapse of pro-American Arab regimes will place a positive spin on the Palestinian cause.
"The U.S. can no longer just take Arab support for granted," Youssef told IPS. "We believe the Arab masses will support the Palestinians to a far greater extent than the unrepresentative ousted regimes," Khatib told IPS.
But left-wing Palestinian parties and independents remain skeptical of both sides of the Palestinian divide.
Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) member Jamil Mezher accused Fatah and Hamas of "barricading themselves behind factional interests, giving Palestinians no choice but to go for revolution."
The people, Mezher said, "are calling for an end to division, to partisan politics," and the leaders continue to be deaf to the calls. "Thousands have offered their lives, tens of thousands, have been jailed and injured on our path to freedom and independence. We will not accept the continued failure of our leaders."
(Inter Press Service)