Fatah and Hamas: Spontaneous Combustion

Barely had the pictures of the Palestinian unity government been published, when skirmishes broke out around ATMs in Gaza between Hamas and Fatah government workers. Under the agreement, the Palestinian Authority agreed to pay the salaries of all its civil servants, both the Fatah ones in Gaza who had been paid for staying at home and the Hamas workers who had filled their jobs.

The men had been on half pay, or less, for over a year after funds from Iran had dried up, not to mention the income from over 1300 tax-producing tunnels, most of which had been destroyed after the Egyptian military coup. So, when the unity government was announced, 50,000 Gazans thought that it was pay day.

It was not. Ramallah claimed the Hamas workers were not registered as government employees. In fury, Hamas stopped Fatah from picking up their pay cheques in Gaza. The conflict was only solved when Qatar stepped in to pay Hamas workers' salaries.

No sooner had one fire been put out, when another one ignited. PA security forces arrested 16 Hamas activists in the West Bank. Adnan al-Demeiri, a spokesperson for the PA security apparatus, told the Turkish Anadolu Agency nobody had been detained on political grounds, meaning that, in Northern Ireland parlance, they were ordinary decent criminals. Hamas will not see it that way.

Five days have passed and Mahmoud Abbas's real intentions about running a unity government are clear. Its not just the salaries or the arrests. Abbas kept close to him two men whom Hamas vigorously opposed : Riyad al-Maliki as foreign minister and Mahmoud al-Habbash. He was dropped as religious affairs minister but turned up again as the highest religious authority, the Qadi Alqudah, the judge of judges, with the right to issue fatwas.

So why then, when I met him, was Khaled Meshaal the leader of Hamas so diplomatic about Abbas? Why was Meshaal so on message -- that message being that Palestinians can only challenge the occupation if they remain united ?

One explanation is that Meshaal genuinely believes this. Another is that both Hamas and Fatah are playing for time. These two views are not as contradictory as they may appear.

Some say Abbas is using reconciliation solely as a lever with which to extract concessions from Israel and has no intention of enacting the deal on the ground; and Hamas, at least in Gaza, has run out of cash and needs time to recuperate. As there is zero trust between the two camps, this reconciliation deal will soon go the way of all the others. It will end in a volley of rockets.

I think Meshaal is genuine in his belief that Palestinian unity is a strategic necessity, not least because he has established a track record for his policy. As he says in his interview, reconciliation is not a new policy for Hamas. It was tried on four occasions before and each time either Abbas or the US pulled the plug. The Doha Agreement itself was signed when Hamas's position internationally was much better than it is now. On 7 February 2012, Hamas was about to leave Damascus, but the Arab Spring was still blooming. Hamas still had a sympathetic neighbour in an Egypt that was about to elect Mohamed Morsi. The border at Rafah was ( relatively) easy to pass through. And yet with all those advantages, Meshaal signed an agreement letting Abbas be the prime minister of the unity government. That concession raised eyebrows at the time, but he made it.

And go back to what happened in 2007. Reports that Hamas had thrown Fatah out of Gaza were hardly greeted with rapture by the external leadership in Damascus. Meshaal recognised then what that split would lead to , and prompted by Abbas, tried in vain to intercede. At one point, Hamas in Gaza even cut off their telephone lines. When it was all over, there were stormy scenes at a meeting in which Hamas in Gaza argued that its hand was forced by a pre-emptive coup from Dahlan's "preventative security" force. Meshaal can argue today he has always been consistent.

However, this is not an equal deal. The cabinet is supposed to be composed of technocrats but there are Fatah technocrats and Hamas ones, and none of the ministers are Hamas appointees. The PA prisons in the West Bank still hold Hamas inmates and the charities are still shut down. Further, Abbas has vowed to keep it that way. This is what is meant by security cooperation with Israel and he showed how he intended to implement it this week.

Meshaal is all too aware of this. So why would he say that the unity government forms a platform on which both sides can build? On the evidence of just one week Abbas's interpretation of a unity government is his government.

Maybe Hamas wants it that way. Government has proved to be a heavy and an unwanted burden for Hamas in Gaza. Under conditions of siege, it is a real vote loser. Meshaal's calculation could be that allowing the PA to take over responsibility for government means that Hamas can return to the position it had under Yasser Arafat, as an effective resistance organisation without having the burdens of government. Hamas's statement that it will not recognize the Quartet conditions and is not seeking its legitimacy from anyone might lead to that conclusion. Resistance and government make uncomfortable bedfellows.

This time, though, the Fatah -- Hamas relationship is triangular: there is the presence of Mohamed Dahlan to consider. Dahlan is backed by United Arab Emirates and Egypt's president-elect Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. Abbas's fall out with Dahlan has been spectacular and produced a public slanging match. This could have been prompted by the money Dahlan showered on rival candidates in local elections in the West Bank. Equally, rumors of a deal between Dahlan and Hamas in Gaza -- improbable though that seems -- could have been behind the feud. Either way, Dahlan's resurgence was one factor pushing the Palestinian president towards Hamas.

None of these calculations are complete without Israel's own actions. Netanyahu's response to the unity government appears tailor made to prop it up . The Israeli Premier did not co-ordinate his response with Washington or foresee that America would declare that it would work with the unity government, albeit with heavy caveats. And the Israeli government stiffened Abbas's resolve by issuing tenders for 1,500 housing units, and moving forward with plans for another 1,800 settler homes in the West Bank.

If anything cements the need for unity in the every Palestinian's mind, regardless of where they live, it is the "punitive" announcements by an Israeli cabinet whose key members don't believe in a Palestinian state's right to exist.

If Meshaal is correct in thinking that Abbas has hit a dead end in his negotiations with Israel -- and everything points to that conclusion -- the Palestinian President will soon run out of road too. If he disappears from the scene either through resignation or because of his age, Fatah will return to its composite tribes. Abbas is the last of his generation, from the leadership of the historic organisation. When he goes, Hamas will be in a better position than Fatah to achieve its ultimate political goal, the leadership of the PLO. Hamas's embrace of a unity deal with Fatah thus makes long term sense. As ever, it faces formidable short term obstacles.