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By David E. Miller
As Palestinian unity talks mark their fifth week, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyah used the funeral of a party official in Gaza on Saturday for a policy statement that underscored the deep ideological rifts with his new coalition partner Mahmoud Abbas.
In the address, the Hamas leader signaled that Hamas - aligned with Iran and opposed to the existence of Israel - would have trouble finding a formula for a coalition with Fatah, which is backed by the West and is committed to reaching a negotiated agreement with the Jewish state. He urged Fatah to follow Hamas in turn to the Muslim world for political and financial support.
"To those who say there is no alternative to our ties with the occupation and the West, I say there is an alternative," Haniyah was quoted by pro-Hamas daily Falasteen as saying. "We have proven over the last five years that there is an Arab and Islamic alternative."
Under popular pressure, the two Palestinian movements are seeking to end four years of acrimony and reunite the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip with the Fatah-ruled West Bank. But since they surprised the world by saying they had put differences aside and would from a coalition, talks have been bogged down over issues ranging from the staffing of a joint cabinet to ideology.
Analysts, however, said Haniyah's proposal is unrealistic, given how deeply reliant the Palestinian Authority (PA) is on Western financial aid, which is contingent on the PA remaining in the peace process.
"There's no way that the Palestinians can rely only on Arab funding," Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, told The Media Line.
Haniyah said the Hamas government in Gaza has a monthly budget of about $25 million from unnamed Arab and Islamic sources, which he said demonstrated that the Palestinians could manage without Western aid. Funding for Hamas comes from Qatar as well as Iran, but other Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia don't help Hamas, said Abusada.
In a Washington Institute policy paper released in January, Ehud Yaari and Eyal Ofer cite the Israeli military intelligence claim that Iran accounts for around $100 million of Hamas' budget. Much of the rest comes from taxes and customs imposed on commodities entering the Gaza Strip through smuggling tunnels and official border crossings with Israel.
Whatever they are, the Hamas budget is tiny compared to the PA's annual budget of some $3 billion, half of which comes from the European Union and the U.S., and the rest from tax revenue, mostly collected by Israel and transferred to the PA. Arab contributions are negligible.
In rhetoric reminiscent of Hizbullah's in Lebanon, Haniyah said that a strategy must be created to protect the "weapons of resistance."
The new unity government is to be announced in Cairo this Tuesday, but no agreement has been reached on the identity of the government's prime minister. Fatah has officially nominated Salam Fayyad, the Fatah prime minister who is backed by the West. But for the same reason Hamas has refused to give him a role even as a cabinet minister.
"I never thought there was any chance of reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah," Hillel Frisch, a researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Tel-Aviv's Bar Ilan University, told The Media Line. "Today, there are basically two effective states in Gaza and the West Bank."
Frisch said that the notion of two separate political entities uniting is almost unheard of in the Arab world over the last 50 years, with the exception of the unity of north and south Yemen in 1990, which was followed by a bloody civil war in the 1990s.
"The idea of unity is very hard to achieve in reality," Frisch said. "The Palestinian political split of 2007 is a very durable phenomenon. The mainstay of the Palestinian Authority is its linkage with the West; while the mainstay of Hamas is its linkage with Iran."
But Abusada said that as long as the unity agreement is not renounced, Hamas will have no choice but to accept a prime minister who does not belong to the Islamic party and is acceptable to the West.
"Abbas knows that the new prime minister must be accepted by the West or there will be no national unity government," he said. "Abbas will not go back to a situation where the Palestinian government is internationally isolated."
The unity government's chances of success will depend on an agreed candidate for prime minister, Abusada said. Hamas' attitude toward Israel isn't relevant, because there is little prospect of peace negotiations resuming in the foreseeable future.
"Haniyah can say whatever he wants, this is just part of the political discourse," he said.
Sameeh Hammoudeh, a political scientist at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah, said that Hamas cannot publicly renounce its "weapons of resistance" which it considers its source of power on the street. But on the ground, Hamas has shown much more pragmatism than in its public statements.
"Hamas is quite similar to the PA in its willingness to act pragmatically and realistically in its Gaza government," Hammoudeh told The Media Line. "The resistance has failed, and there is no other choice for the Palestinians but diplomacy."
Hammoudeh predicted that Hamas will weaken in the upcoming parliamentary elections in comparison with the 2006 elections in which it won a majority. In the next government, he said, Hamas will not be able to veto negotiations with Israel.
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