Analysis: Palestinian unity deal going nowhere fast

NABLUS, West Bank Thu Jun 2, 2011 6:48am EDT

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attends a meeting of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in the West Bank city of Ramallah May 25, 2011. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attends a meeting of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in the West Bank city of Ramallah May 25, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Mohamad Torokman

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NABLUS, West Bank (Reuters) - In the West Bank, men suspected of belonging to Hamas are still in jail for opposing President Mahmoud Abbas's Western-backed Palestinian Authority.

In Gaza, where Hamas rules, Abbas's supporters continue to face harassment by the Islamist group's security forces.

In the month since it was announced, a deal aimed at ending the feud between Hamas and Abbas's Fatah has made little headway toward repairing the damage of four years of civil strife.

The lack of progress on the ground, where security is in the hands of the rival administrations, has already raised questions about whether elections can be held within a year, as promised in the agreement brokered by Egypt.

"So far, the reconciliation is no more than pen on paper," said Mona Mansour, a pro-Hamas member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, the defunct Palestinian parliament.

"It's impossible for elections to be held in this atmosphere," she said at her office in the West Bank city of Nablus, detailing ongoing PA measures against Hamas suspects, who are being routinely summoned for questioning.

"We have not felt any change on the ground."

Concluded in Cairo on May 4, Palestinian reconciliation was the result of the regional upheaval that toppled one president in Egypt and is challenging another in Syria -- both countries with heavy influence over the Palestinians.

Under the agreement, the Palestinians have committed to form a new cabinet to govern the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. That is seen as the easy part of the deal, though the rivals have yet to agree on a prime minister.

More difficult will be restoring political freedoms which have been one of the main casualties of the Palestinian crisis and without which, observers say, elections cannot happen.

While Fatah and Hamas flags have reappeared in the streets of Gaza and Ramallah for the first time in years, members of both groups say any changes are so far cosmetic.

Distrust means both are nervous about reorganizing in areas where security remains firmly in the control of their rivals.

"People are scared," said one Hamas activist, explaining the low turnout at a rally held by the group in Ramallah last month, one of the first Hamas showings in the Palestinian's administrative capital in several years.

SECURITY AN OBSTACLE

In both Gaza and the West Bank, security arrangements will stay as they are for the foreseeable future, meaning Hamas will continue to control Gaza and the PA will still police major towns in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

"There is an atmosphere of reconciliation but there is no actual reconciliation," said a senior Fatah figure in Gaza, who did not want to be named because of sensitivity of the topic.

Hamas says that in the four years since it seized control of Gaza, the PA has tried to weaken the group in the West Bank by shutting down its charities, jailing and torturing its members and sacking suspected sympathizers from government jobs.

Fatah has its own narrative of oppression at the hands of Hamas in Gaza. In the agreement, Hamas and Fatah agreed to release political detainees, though both have denied holding any.

Hamas says the Palestinian Authority has 200 political detainees in its jails. One of them is Amjad Awwad. He is serving a three-year sentence for "opposing the policies of the PA," according to an official document held by his family.

"We were very optimistic that the prisoners would be released but unfortunately our hopes have been dashed," said May Hammad, Awwad's wife.

"I feel it's all for nothing. It seems like something theoretical that is just happening for the cameras," she said.

In Gaza this week, Hamas police broke up a youth event sponsored by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the movement dominated by Fatah and to which Hamas does not belong.

"Such measures poison the reconciliatory atmosphere and they do not indicate that division on ground has ended," PLO official Ahmed Majdalani said in a statement. Palestinian political commentator Hany al-Masri described the reconciliation deal as fragile because the sides were forced into it by regional events rather than their own conviction.

But the regional pressures that brought them to sign could yet bring about more progress toward reconciliation, he added.

"People are betting that the atmosphere of reconciliation will generate momentum that will make elections inescapable," he said. "But there are risks which are not to be underestimated: that the continuation of the security situation in its current state will represent a great obstacle to elections."

(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; editing by Crispian Balmer and Elizabeth Piper)

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