On Monday, Feb 6, Palestinian leaders agreed to the formation of a “unity government” between Fatah, the dominant party in the Palestinian Authority governing the West Bank, and Hamas, the Islamist militant movement controlling the Gaza Strip. Current Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would lead this government until national elections are held later this year. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, credited with building civil institutions and improving security in the West Bank, would step down.
In the short 2007 civil war between Fatah and Hamas the Palestinian Authority lost control of the Gaza Strip, encompassing 40% of the Palestinian population. Hamas remains committed to the destruction of Israel and unequivocally rejects the two-state solution. A government with Hamas as a major participant, therefore, will not have the support of the international community, and will be unable to negotiate peace with Israel.
Advancement of the two-state solution requires that both governments, Israeli and Palestinian, be firmly committed to peace and able to deliver on commitments. For the Palestinians, this means disarming Hamas, regaining control of the Gaza Strip, and electing a government committed to peace. The next Palestinian elections can therefore be pivotal in advancing Palestinian statehood, and the power to do so lies solely in the hands of the Palestinian people.
Free elections require free speech and a free and independent media. Palestinians have made progress, but are still some distance from the freedoms necessary for genuinely free elections, particularly in Gaza.
As a recent case in point, Palestinian activist Mahmoud abu Rahma was stabbed and critically injured in January outside his home in Gaza (Palestinian activist attacked). Rahma is known for speaking out against Palestinian militants and leaders. The attack was most likely motivated by a recent article Rahma penned for the Palestinian Maan News Agency titled “The Gap Between Resistance and Governance”. The article criticized Palestinian government officials and armed militant groups for silencing critics, detaining and torturing political opponents, and endangering civilians by firing rockets at Israel from residential neighborhoods.
With so much media focus on negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, not enough attention is focused on the need to build a strong consensus for peace within each society. If Palestinians reject violence and embrace peaceful coexistence with Israel, they can take control of their own destiny. They face major hurdles, and need more people willing to speak out against Hamas, as Mr. Rahma bravely did.