BEIT JALA, West Bank — Christian Palestinians, like Muslim residents of the West Bank and Gaza, hope the newest bid for reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, which have been estranged since 2006, will improve their living conditions and lead to the creation of a Palestinian state.
But given the political factions’ long history of enmity, as well as very different ideologies vis-à-vis Israel and battles over money and turf, there is also a great deal of skepticism on the part of the Palestinian public.
The sides have already made several unsuccessful attempts to reconcile.
Hamas, the fundamentalist Muslim movement that is classified a terrorist organization by, among others, the United States and the European Union, due to its many attacks against Israeli civilians, violently ousted Fatah, the political party that rules the West Bank’s Palestinian National Authority, in 2006. Hamas’ official position is that Israel has no right to exist, even within its internationally recognized borders.
In contrast, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of the Fatah party has spent much of the past year in negotiations with Israel. On April 23, Abbas and Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh announced they had agreed to a reconciliation — three weeks after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delayed the scheduled release of Palestinian prisoners. The peace talks collapsed, with Netanyahu telling Fox News that the talks are "essentially buried" if Abbas follows through with his commitment to reconcile with Hamas.
According to an April 1 opinion poll by the Institute of the Arab World for Research and Development taken just before the rapprochement was announced, the Palestinian public is deeply divided over the issue of reconciliation: 50% of those polled were optimistic about reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas and forming a national unity government, while 47% were pessimistic.
Church leaders in the Holy Land hope the unity bid will lead to peace, not further instability. They insist that Christians, whose numbers have dwindled over the decades to less than 2% of the population due to emigration and a relatively low birth rate, have the same aspirations as their Muslim counterparts. Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the custos of the Holy Land, told the Register that Palestinian unity "is important because a unified government can speak with one voice for the Palestinians," something that has been lacking for the past eight years.
At the same time, Father Pizzaballa said, "it is also important to keep alive the negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians," something Netanyahu said he cannot do because Hamas is openly committed to Israel’s destruction.
"Whatever the Palestinians do, it creates challenges," he said.
Bishop William Shomali, auxiliary bishop and patriarchal vicar for Palestine of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, called the unity efforts "a first step towards national and political reconciliation. The second step would be to bring about elections," which have been delayed for four years.
"On election day, the Palestinian people will decide which government they prefer. There will again be a parliament. One of the two parties, Fatah or Hamas, will come into power, and the other will remain in the opposition."
"The future will tell us whether democracy will be respected," Bishop Shomali said.
In an interview with Fides news agency, Father Raed Abusahlia, the director of Caritas Jerusalem, said "all" Palestinians are pleased about the prospects for national reconciliation.
"The people here are all happy, and the Palestinians of Gaza are even happier than us."
Father Abusahlia acknowledged that the reconciliation among Palestinian political forces "has provoked negative reactions in Israel and also in the U.S.A.," which has spent the past year trying to broker a permanent peace deal between Israel and the Palestinian National Authority.
But he believes that the divisions among Palestinian factions were a crucial factor in the collapse of the peace process. "The world thought, ‘What force can the Palestinians [bring to] the peace process if they are divided among themselves?’"
West Bank Reaction
In the West Bank village of Beit Jala, next to Bethlehem, Nicholas Andonia said he and his neighbors "hope good will come of it. In the end, we are all Palestinians, regardless of our religion."
Andonia, who, like most Christians in this mixed Christian-Muslim village, is Greek Orthodox, said, "Palestinians need unity." Without it, he said, there can be no peace between rival Palestinian factions. And without a united government, he added, the Palestinians will not be able to achieve statehood.
At her busy grocery store in downtown Beit Jala, a quiet, hilly village, with stone houses and several Church-related institutions, Hanan Simon, who is Greek Orthodox, said she doubts the unity efforts will succeed.
"The way I see it, the two sides are too far apart to be able to come to any lasting agreement. Each has its own interests and opinions, and I don’t see how they will be able to reconcile their differences in order to work together."
Simon dreams of the day when Palestinians will be able to travel freely between the West Bank and Gaza — which are not contiguous — and Israel without security restrictions imposed by the Israelis, who built roadblocks and a soaring separation barrier between much of the West Bank and Israel proper to prevent terrorist attacks.
"We Christians receive permits to visit Jerusalem only on Easter and Christmas," she noted.
"If we need to go to an Israeli hospital, we need to apply for a permit, and they’re very difficult to obtain. We’re hermetically sealed."
Michele Chabin writes from Jerusalem.