Tens of thousands of Palestinians rally in Hamas-controlled Gaza to celebrate the anniversary of Fatah's founding. Thousands more in the Fatah-controlled West Bank cheer on Hamas. The Palestinian public yearns for unity -- and once again Egyptians are talking about a reconciliation conclave in Cairo within two weeks.
What's going on? Could we be witnessing a historic shift toward Palestinian unity? Is there finally a basis for a meaningful Hamas-Fatah deal that might bind up the self-inflicted wounds of the Palestinian people and strengthen their leverage -- if not in negotiations with Israel, then at least in the PR battle against it?
Yes, Israel throws up plenty of obstacles to peace -- its settlements expansion in the West Bank is a big one. But on the Palestinian side, the greatest challenge remains the pesky problem of Noah's Ark. Simply put, the Palestinian national movement has been too successful: It has two of everything -- constitutions, mini-states, security services, funding streams, and patrons.
The absence of a monopoly, or anything close to it, over guns, people, and negotiating positions is the single greatest threat the Palestinians face to the fulfillment of their own aspirations.
And here's the kicker. Even if real unity were achieved, it would likely leave the peace process worse off -- in large part because neither Israel nor the United States would likely accept the new parameters of a Palestinian entity that included Hamas for negotiating a two-state solution.
The idea of unity resonates powerfully within Palestinian society. It's a major psychological blow to see your national movement at war with itself while the real adversary -- Israel -- exploits your weaknesses and divisions.
And yet, the Palestinian national movement has always been divided. Yasir Arafat used to tell us that it was really Palestinian democracy in action. And to a degree, given the challenges Arafat faced -- managing a fractious movement that lacked a secure territorial base and was vulnerable to manipulation by Arab states and Israel -- a decentralized structure was inevitable. Unlike other national movements, such as Algeria's FLN or even the pre-state Zionist underground, there was never a watershed moment when one faction imposed its will on the others.
There was a price to be paid for this lack of control. In June 1990, the United States suspended its dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization when a small Iraqi-backed group launched an attack against Israel that Arafat refused to condemn.
But Arafat was able to manage this gaggle through his iconic stature in the Palestinian national movement. Beginning with the 2000 intifada, however, as Fatah began to split and smaller offshoots like the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades and Islamists began to run their own operations, his authority began to wane. His death in 2004, the corruption in Fatah, the inability to end the occupation, and the rising power of Hamas made a mockery of the idea of a unified Palestinian national movement.
The Palestinian Humpty Dumpty had finally fallen off the wall. And since Hamas's 2007 takeover of Gaza, there have been at least four unsuccessful efforts to put it back together again. Here's why unity efforts keep falling short -- even while all Palestinians say they desperately want them to succeed.
Neither Hamas nor Fatah is really serious: Unity is again being driven by tactical considerations, not by a sincere desire to unify ranks. Hamas's successful rocket attacks against Israel and Abbas's success in winning observer-state status at the United Nations allows each to come to the table with some leverage.