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Time to Rebalance Power in Palestine

May 17, 2024
  • Zhou Yiqi

    Associate Fellow, Center for West Asian & African Studies, Shanghai Institutes for International Studies

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Chinese diplomat Wang Kejian met with Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh in Qatar on March 17, 2024. Hamas Media Office

At a historic gathering, representatives from the Palestine Liberation Organization and Hamas met in Beijing at the end of April for a conference focused on reconciling their internal differences. The conference proved to be a significant step forward, as progress was made toward future negotiations.

While it is not uncommon for the PLO and Hamas to engage in internal reconciliation talks, what set this instance apart was the involvement of a new mediator — China. It came after China’s successful efforts to improve relations between the two factions. Moreover, recent rounds of negotiations between them in Palestine highlight China’s increasing role in addressing security conflicts within the Middle East.

After nearly seven months of fierce and brutal battles in Gaza, it has become increasingly clear that the solution to the ongoing Palestine issue rests on a rebalancing of the power dynamics in the region through external mediation efforts. However, the current situation is caught in a dilemma, as external attempts to address the issue may only serve to stabilize the conflict rather than find a lasting resolution. The root cause of this problem lies in the imbalanced power structure between Israel and Palestine.

Since the Oslo agreement, there has been a worrisome trend of increasing weakness on the Palestinian side, compounded by internal divisions between Fatah and Hamas. This weakening further hinders the prospects for achieving peace. First, it makes negotiations more challenging as internal rivalries prevent consensus. Second, a weakened Palestine emboldens Israel’s extremist wing to push for an egocentric and unilateral one-state solution.

Furthermore, the existing international mediation framework for the ongoing Palestine-Israel conflict fails to acknowledge and address the significant power imbalance between the two sides. Despite being a key player in the so-called Quartet, the United States has historically played a dominant role in mediating the dispute but it has consistently failed to address Palestine’s weakened position. This is evident in U.S. support for a two-state solution while simultaneously allowing Israel to maintain its current dominance.

The American approach to peace seems to revolve around maintaining the status quo of Israel’s power over Palestine, while disregarding any efforts to empower it. For example, while Palestine relies on humanitarian aid from the U.S., it is not provided with any means to strengthen its defensive capabilities against invasion. Meanwhile, Israel continues to be the top recipient of military aid from the U.S., even during times of intense conflict such as the recent Gaza crisis.

Moreover, a crucial step toward bolstering Palestine’s international legitimacy would be recognition as a sovereign state by the United Nations. However, the United States continues to reject this proposal and insists on linking Palestinian membership to a comprehensive peace agreement that would permanently resolve the conflict. This further exposes the flawed approach of the U.S. towards the Palestine issue — seeking peace negotiations while simultaneously rejecting methods that would provide Palestine with greater bargaining power.

The meeting in Beijing between Hamas and Fatah marks a crucial first step toward internal mediation for Palestine. Despite previous attempts by countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Switzerland to mediate between the two factions, there has been little concrete progress. Could it be different this time with China playing the role of mediator?

One significant aspect of China’s involvement is its approach to the conflict between Hamas and Fatah. The Chinese government has long believed that constructive mediation, rather than military alliances or intervention, is the best way to address security concerns in the Middle East. By choosing to focus on strengthening Palestine as an independent entity, China is staying true to its principles of noninterference and nonalignment. Its diplomatic move to promote unity among the Palestinian factions presents a unique opportunity to make a meaningful contribution.

But China’s decision to involve itself in mediating between Hamas and Fatah also shows pragmatism. With Israel determined to use military force to eliminate Hamas, there is little room for traditional mediation methods. By starting from the Palestinian side and working toward internal unity, China may be able to find a more feasible path toward resolution. This demonstrates China's understanding of the complex dynamics at play and its willingness to think outside the box in pursuit of peace.

Further, China’s involvement with both Hamas and Fatah in the Palestinian territories will have a significant impact on rebalancing power between Palestine and Israel. Not only will this strengthen the unity of Palestine, giving it more leverage in negotiations with Israel, but it will also signal to the global community that investing in a sustainable peace plan for the region is crucial.

China’s participation as a mediator between these two conflicting parties also serves as a concrete step toward creating a more inclusive international mediation framework. The current Quartet, established in the early 2000s, did not include China as a major player in global security governance. However, with its increasing international stature and efforts in global security initiatives, China is now well-equipped to play an important role in resolving conflicts around the world.

Since the beginning of the Gaza conflict, China has advocated for an inclusive international peace conference specifically focused on the issue of Palestine. By actively mediating between Hamas and Fatah, China could potentially pave the way for the establishment of such a mechanism. This would allow for a more comprehensive and diverse range of perspectives to be included in discussions of a solution to the longstanding conflict 

In addition, China holds a unique position. As a rising global power, it possesses significant influence on the international stage to broker peace between Palestine and Fatah. The mediator’s overall impact is crucial in securing the credibility of any peace deal and facilitating necessary compromises during negotiations. With its successful mediation efforts between Saudi Arabia and Iran, China has substantial leverage over the two rival factions within Palestine.

Furthermore, China’s extensive partnerships can serve as a vital cornerstone in achieving lasting peace. In the current conflict in Gaza, the U.S. has primarily worked with Egypt and Qatar to bring about peace with Israel. However, the U.S. may not be viewed as an optimal mediator for Hamas because the U.S. has designated the group as a terrorist organization. On the other hand, China maintains inclusive partnerships throughout the Middle East, which could provide reassurance to anti-U.S. organizations and establish China as a reliable friend.

The timing is also good. Now is an opportune moment for China to exert its positive influence through mediation in the Gaza conflict. Chinese mediation relies on constructive engagement at the right moment. With its recent success in mediating between Saudi Arabia and Iran, China’s involvement comes at a time when both sides are expressing sincere intentions to reach a normalization agreement. It is worth noting that some conflicts have more potential for resolution at certain points in time — known as “ripeness” in mediation literature.

The prospect of internal reconciliation within Palestine is reaching ripeness. After seven months of intense war in Gaza, it has become increasingly clear that a unified Palestine will be the only way to defend their rights and gain support from the international community. In light of this, China’s participation at this critical juncture is timely and appropriate. Additionally, there have been multiple attempts by other influential regional and international players to mediate this issue, paving the way for future involvement by China.

Amid the ongoing conflict in Gaza, it is imperative that China and the United States support each other in finding a final solution. Despite their tense geopolitical relations, the Middle East presents an opportunity for both countries to discover common ground. With their respective roles as key partners in the region, there is potential for a mutually beneficial relationship between them. While the U.S. is seen as a security partner, China has established itself as a reliable development partner in the Middle East. With regard to the Palestine issue, both China and the U.S. are committed to a two-state solution. Furthermore, they share the belief that a stable and peaceful Middle East is in their best interests.

After multiple failed attempts at military intervention — in Iraq, Syria and Libya — it is time for the U.S. to acknowledge that a military solution cannot bring about a resolution. Instead, it should embrace China’s effort to mediate between Fatah and Hamas as a positive contribution toward achieving lasting peace. A sustainable peace requires a rebalancing of Palestine’s status; thus a combined effort from China and the United States would serve as an important guarantor of success.

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