Politics & Policy

Muslim Unity in the Palestinian Territories

Christians hope that it won't bode ill for them.

On Thursday, February 8, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Fatah party and Prime Minister Ismail Hanieyh and Khaled Mashaal of the Islamic Hamas movement met under the auspices of the Saudi royal family in Mecca and agreed to form a government of national unity. The Mecca Agreement, and the implementation of a power-sharing plan, is hoped to end the Palestinian fratricide that now rages on in the territories. Following the signing of the formal agreement, the participants, all in white robes, gathered for Muslim prayers of peace at the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

When the Quartet (the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations) meets today, it will consider whether or not the Mecca Agreement moves the Palestinians far enough down the road toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to warrant resuming aid. In addition, Arab leaders will meet next month to revitalize the Saudi plan for peace with Israel in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal to the 1967 borders. For those who have clamored for a renewed interest in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue, things seem to be moving along once again.

Prime Minister Ismail Haniya called for “an inclusive national reconciliation between Palestinians” as reported by the Palestinian News Agency. He added that the Palestinian people must choose a future of reconciliation and unity. Haniya stated that the United States should understand that the Mecca Agreement is an expression of the will of the Palestinian people and that the Quartet should “end the siege.” Hamas spokesman Mushir al-Masri told a student rally at the Islamic University in Gaza that the agreement represents the Arab and Islamic legitimization of Hamas, which will, in turn, lead to international legitimization. Well, maybe.

Christians under the government of national unity will benefit little. While Islamic Jihad and smaller splinter groups were not represented at the table in Mecca, at least they could have been. On the other hand, Christians, already on the margins of Palestinian society, could never have come to the table because, as non-Muslims, their presence in Mecca is forbidden. Far from being a step toward an “inclusive national reconciliation,” for Christians the agreement appears to be a step further down the road toward Islamic hegemony.

Fatah-related militias Tanzim Fatah and Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade have been blamed by Christians for acts of violence, extortion, and land seizures for over five years. The Palestinian Authority failed to exert security measures to protect Christians, their businesses, and their property. In fact, the Palestinian Security Services have been accused by local residents in Bethlehem, Beit Sahour, and Beit Jallah of participation in some of the illegal activity. Fatah actions and massive corruption have soured many Christians on the party and its leaders.

In an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations last year, Kadura Fares, an advisor to senior Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, indicated that Christian disenchantment with Fatah led many of them to vote for Hamas. He theorized that Hamas will go lightly on Christians and try to make a good impression as they strive to gain legitimacy. Last May, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad nearly gained a majority of seats on the municipal council of Bethlehem. Fatah and the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine now hold a one-vote majority. As Christians went to the polls, they faced a grim choice between bad and worse as they voted for political parties that would probably never take their concerns seriously.

The fact remains that Christians continue to disappear from the areas under the Palestinian Authority. Only 25,000, or 20 percent, of the 150,000 population of the greater Bethlehem area are Christian. Throughout the Palestinian Authority, only 50,000 Christians, or 2.4 percent of the population, remain in what is the birthplace of Christianity. This decline follows a pattern throughout the Middle East, as Islamic fundamentalism gains more power and legitimacy within governments and in the Arab streets.

The Catholic News Service reported that Christians in Gaza organized a delegation that met with the governor and mufti of Gaza and urged them to support the agreement, noting that the involvement of Saudi Arabia should have great weight with the Muslims. Christians, as well as other Palestinians, are desperately hoping for a cessation of violence between the factions. However, the cautious optimism expressed by Christians in Gaza was tempered with the cold reality that involvement by the religiously intolerant Saudi Arabia in Palestinian politics, and a perceived tactical victory for Hamas, might further marginalize the remaining Christians.

It is difficult to believe that a government of national unity, consisting of the corrupt Fatah and its majority partner, Hamas, which has proclaimed that Palestine is an Islamic possession (waqf) that is consecrated for Muslims only and ruled by Islamic law (sharia), will be inclusive. The international Quartet must hold firm to its criteria for the resumption of aid, including the unequivocal recognition of Israel, and also hold the national unity government accountable for the future of non-Muslim minorities within a Palestinian state.

Will international legitimacy for Hamas lead to a future of unity and reconciliation? How inclusive will the process be? In countries with Muslim majorities, the presence of viable non-Muslim minorities is a moderating factor and should thus be supported. In 2002 President Bush challenged Palestinian leaders to build a democratic society based on tolerance and liberty. A continued and secure presence of Christians will provide proof that the Palestinian government is worthy of international legitimacy.

 – Rev. Keith Roderick is Washington representative for Christian Solidarity International and secretary general of the Coalition for the Defense of Human Rights.

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