Truce for now: Fatah's Azzam al-Ahmed celebrates with Hamas's PM in the Gaza Strip Ismail Haniya in Gaza City. 23 April. Photo: Getty
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Israel-Palestine: this is the anti-peace process

If the Israeli government was at all committed to a two-state solution, it would have welcomed the agreement between the PLO and Hamas.

If you were in Israel over the past week or so you could be forgiven for thinking a war had broken out, rather than a reconciliation agreement. The Israeli government was outraged at the announcement on 23 April of the deal between the Palestinian rival organisations Fatah and Hamas. It formally withdrew from peace negotiations and issued an array of sanctions. Yet, despite its professed anger, Israel will benefit, regardless of whether the Palestinian pact fails or thrives.

The accord will open the way for the formation of a unity government in Palestine; elections are now scheduled for later this year. For the leader of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, who is 79, this is a last chance to salvage his legitimacy. He is long past the end date of his elected term, and the most visible legacy of his flagship policy – the peace process – has been an increase in Israeli settlements.

Hamas, the militant Islamist faction governing the Gaza Strip, is in an even weaker position. The Syrian civil war and the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt have deprived it of international allies, and inside Gaza weariness with Hamas rule grows. Reconciling with Fatah and joining the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) brings Hamas back into the diplomatic game.

Israel, meanwhile, is in the unusual position of gaining from the agreement regardless of whether the deal unravels or not. If it succeeds, Israel will have a more representative partner to deal with. If it fails, Israel will reap what it can from Palestinian disunity.

If the Israeli government was at all committed to a two-state solution, it would have welcomed the agreement: for years, it has complained that Abbas has not been a credible partner because he represents “less than half of his people”. Moreover, Hamas’s unconditional accession to the PLO signals a quiet acceptance of the PLO’s old commitments, including recognition of Israel’s 1967 borders.

Despite consistently painting the Islamist movement as the devil incarnate, Israel has co-operated with Hamas in the past: for instance, when making prisoner exchanges, and when reaching a ceasefire at the end of 2012 in which Hamas cracked down hard on rival militant groups in Gaza.

For now, Israel is using the agreement as an excuse to shift the full blame for the failure of peace talks on to the Palestinians. Although it has reacted similarly to reconciliation attempts in the past, this time it is spurred on by tensions inside its own governing coalition. The uneasy alliance between the Israeli hard right and centrists gained stability through the abortive peace talks: they gave right-wingers something to rally against without challenging Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu directly, and they legitimised the centre’s participation in the hard-right government. At the same time, centrists agreed to turn a blind eye to construction of settlements in exchange for the right’s support for reforms to limit the special privileges granted to Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community.

The Hamas-Fatah deal has helped the Israeli government maintain its unity: the centre is now absolved from pressure to push for peace talks, and the right will gain greater support for settlement-building.

Israel would rather see a fractured Palestinian Authority that is just functional enough to manage the occupation on its behalf. It will therefore do everything it can to make the pact fail. It’s up to Fatah and Hamas to prove it wrong.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Islam issue

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What it’s like to be a Syrian refugee in Paris

“We fled from terror and it found us again here. It feels like it is always behind us, stalking us.”

Walid al Omari arrived in Paris a little less than a month ago. Having fled the slaughter of his homeland and undertaken the long and dangerous journey, like tens of thousands of other Syrian refugees, to western Europe, he was finally safe.

Ten days later, a wave of brutal violence tore through the French capital as gunmen and suicide bombers put an end to the lives of 130 people who had been out enjoying a drink, dinner, a concert or a football match.

“It felt like terrorism was everywhere,” recalls the 57-year-old Walid, a former small business owner and journalist from the suburbs of Damascus.

“We fled from terror and it found us again here. It feels like it is always behind us, stalking us.”

Syrian refugees, not just in Paris but across Europe and North America, have since found themselves caught up in a storm of suspicion. The backlash started after it emerged that at least two of the attackers arrived in Europe among refugees travelling to Greece, while a Syrian passport was found next to one of the bodies.

It has not yet been confirmed if the two men were really Syrian – all suspects whose identities have so far been made public were either French or Belgian – while the passport is widely believed to be a fake. But, already, several US states have said they will not accept any more refugees from Syria. In Europe, Poland has called for the EU’s quota scheme for resettling refugees to be scrapped, while lawmakers in France, Germany and elsewhere have called for caps on refugee and migrant numbers.

“I fear the worse,” says Sabreen al Rassace, who works for Revivre, a charity that helps Syrian refugees resettle in France. She says she has been swamped by calls by concerned refugees in the days following the attacks.

“They ask me if the papers they have been given since they arrived in France will be taken away, if they’ll be sent back to Syria,” she says.

Anas Fouiz, who arrived in Paris in September, has experienced the backlash against refugees first hand.

“One waiter at a bar asked me where I was from and when I said Syria he said that I must be a terrorist, that all Arab people are terrorists,” says the 27-year-old from Damascus, who had been a fashion student before leaving for Europe.

The irony is that the terrorist organisation that claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, the Islamic State, is, along with Bashar al Assad’s army and other militant groups, responsible for the long list of atrocities that prompted many like Walid and Anas to flee their homes.

“As a man in Syria you have the choice of joining the Syrian army, the Islamic state or another militant group, or you run away,” says Anas.

He remembers seeing news of the attacks unfold on television screens in bars and cafés in the Bastille area of Paris – close to where much of the carnage took place – as he drank with a friend. Desensitised by having seen so much violence and death in his home city, he didn’t feel any shock or fear.

“I just felt bad, because I know this situation,” he says. “You just ask yourself ‘why? Why do these people have to die?’.”

Perhaps a more pressing cause for concern is how easily extremists in Europe can travel to Syria and back again through the porous borders on the EU’s fringes – as several of the Paris attacks suspects are thought to have done.

Both Anas and Walid speak of the lax security they faced when entering Europe.

“Turkey lets people across the border for $20,” says Walid.

“In Greece, they just ask you to write your nationality, they don’t check passports,” adds Anas. “It’s the same in Hungary and Macedonia.”

Nevertheless, and despite his experience with the waiter, Anas says he is happy with the welcome he has received by the vast majority of the French people.

In fact, at a time when fear and violence risk deepening religious and social rifts, Anas’s story is a heartening tale of divisions being bridged.

Upon first arriving in Paris he slept on the streets, before a passer-by, a woman of Moroccan origin, offered him a room in her flat. He then spent time at a Christian organization that provides shelter for refugees, before moving in with a French-Jewish family he was put in touch with through another charity.

He says the biggest problem is that he misses his parents, who are still in Damascus.

“I speak to my mum twice a day on the phone,” he says. “She asks me if I’m okay, if I’m keeping safe. She’s worried about me.”