The real challenge of Palestinian unity

Will the west recognise Wednesday’s Fatah-Hamas union?

After four years of internal schism, the Palestinians have agreed on forming a united government backed by the rival factions Hamas and Fatah.

The implementation of the deal that will be ceremonially signed in Cairo on Wednesday poses a number of challenges, the biggest of which will have to be faced by western decision-makers: will the west recognise the new government, or will the new government again be subjected to sanctions and boycotts? As of yet, the decision is still pending.

The Egyptian-brokered unity deal that is backed by 13 Palestinian factions in effect ends the split of the Palestinian Territory into two competing parts. Following Palestinian elections in 2006 and a violent takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas in 2007, Palestinians have been governed by two distinct governments from Gaza and Ramallah.

Whereas the Palestinian Authority under President Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in Ramallah was internationally recognised and bolstered with western aid, the Hamas-run Gaza was targeted with a comprehensive blockade. As economic stagnation spread in Gaza, significant progress was attained in state-building efforts instituted in the West Bank.

At the same time, the intra-Palestinian split severely weakened the Palestinian negotiating position vis-à-vis Israel. After all, the Palestinian president in effect represented only one half of two bitterly divided entities.

Newly regained Palestinian unity has once more changed the parameters of Middle East peacemaking. For the first time in years, Palestinians will be represented by a single government. This will strengthen their bargaining power and enable the Palestinian leadership to follow through on the plan to obtain statehood through a vote in the UN General Assembly in September from a position of much more influence.

Good news for democracy

Although the composition of the transitional government will not be finalised for a few more weeks, the government's main task has already been defined: the government will be charged with rebuilding war-torn Gaza and will focus on the preparation of presidential and parliamentary elections within the coming year. Given tht the political mandates of President Abbas and both governments in Ramallah and Gaza have long expired, this is good news for democracy in Palestine.

On the ground, the agreement largely maintains the status quo. The Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority in Ramallah will, for the time being, be left in charge of the West Bank, while security in Gaza will remain under the control of Hamas.

While a "higher security council" will work on integrating armed forces into a "professional security service", this approach reflects the realities of two movements that have deeply entrenched themselves in both parts of Palestine.

Notably missing from the new government's portfolio are negotiations with Israel. In view of the fact that the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, also holds office as chairman of the Palestine Liberation Movement (PLO), the factions have agreed that bilateral contacts will continue to be managed by Abbas.

At the same time, Hamas officials were quoted as saying that the Islamist group would implement an unofficial truce with Israel and cease firing missiles.

Despite widespread Palestinian enthusiasm surrounding the agreement, many challenges of implementation persist. Will elections take place as scheduled? Will the agreement be honoured by internal oppositional forces? Will political prisoners be released? Will Ramallah-paid civil servants in Gaza return to their offices? Many questions remain.

Back to boycott?

This also holds true for the question of who will lead the transitional government. In all likelihood, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad will not be allowed to extend his premiership. Yet, given that the premier will ultimately be chosen by Abbas, Fayyad might eventually stay in office until elections take place.

Abbas himself has already declared that he will not again run for office.

While these are important matters, a key challenge will have to be tackled by western decision-makers. After all, the establishment of a Palestinian government of national unity is hardly without precedent.

In 2006, following Hamas's victory in elections to the Palestinian Legislative Assembly, the international community reacted to a Palestinian unity government that included Hamas with a comprehensive boycott.

In view of Hamas's violent history of terror attacks, the Middle East Quartet presented it with three conditions for political engagement: Hamas was called upon to recognise Israel's right to exist, to forswear violence and to recognise previous agreements reached between the Palestinians and Israel. The movement's refusal resulted in four years of political boycott.

Wriggle room

Though these policies have failed to oust Hamas from power in Gaza, they have made progress in diplomatic efforts elusive. Diplomacy that sidelines important veto-players such as Hamas might appear easier to launch, but is certainly more difficult to conclude, given that any agreement will need to be embraced by the people on the ground.

Today, the west risks repeating the mistakes of 2006. On Sunday, the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, ruled out any contact between a Hamas-backed government and Israel, declaring that the Palestinians "cannot have peace with both Israel and Hamas". At the same time, Tel Aviv announced its decision to withhold financial transfers to the Palestinian Authority if it does not receive prior guarantees that the funds will not reach Hamas.

In Washington, a confrontation between Congress and the White House is unfolding. While prominent lawmakers have called for a renewed financial boycott, the Obama administration has opted for a more cautious approach. Calling on the new government but not on Hamas as a movement to fulfil the Quartet conditions, the White House has created some leeway for future engagement. This room for manoeuvre should be used.

The stance taken in Washington and European capitals will have far-reaching repercussions. A renewed financial boycott of the Palestinian Authority would jeopardise any prospects for a jumpstart of final-status negotiations.

This, last but not least, is in view of the fact that a relaunched boycott would probably result in a prolonged deadlock that will prove difficult to break. Also, a new round of sanctions would endanger any progress in institution-building attained under Prime Minister Fayyad.

Just last month, the World Bank declared that the Palestinian Authority "will be well positioned to establish a state at any time in the near future", acknowledging the ambitious two-year plan of state-building so far implemented by Fayyad. Given the Palestinian Authority's dependency on western support, these achievements are now at stake.

In many ways, finding the right response to the Fatah-Hamas agreement might well prove to be the true challenge posed by Palestinian unity.

Michael Bröning is director of the East Jerusalem office of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, a political foundation affiliated with Germany's Social Democratic Party. He is the author of "The Politics of Change in Palestine: State-Building and Non-Violent Resistance" (Pluto Press, March 2011).

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.