x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Gaza rejoices in peace and rise of Hamas

Ceasefire agreement undermines years of US, European Union and Israeli marginalisation of Hamas, which they consider to be a terrorist organisation.

Members of the Al Attar family, displaced during the eight-day conflict with Israel, return to their home in the northern Gaza Strip a day after a ceasefire took hold in and around Gaza.
Members of the Al Attar family, displaced during the eight-day conflict with Israel, return to their home in the northern Gaza Strip a day after a ceasefire took hold in and around Gaza.

RAFAH, GAZA STRIP // Gazans cleared rubble and attended funerals yesterday, and expressed hope that the truce between Hamas and Israel would end the blockade of their tiny enclave.

After eight days of hostilities many in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip celebrated the end to the Israeli bombings, and regarded it as a boost to the Islamist group's legitimacy.

Even members of Fatah, Hamas's rivals that control the West Bank, rejoiced in the halt to the violence that started on November 14 with the assassination of a Hamas leader and ended on Wednesday night.

Israeli air strikes on Gaza killed 162 Palestinians, including 37 children and 11 women, while rocket attacks on Israel left six dead.

Waving black and yellow flags, Fatah supporters and those from other Palestinian factions took part in festive street demonstrations across the territory.

"We won," said Salem Al Ashi, 22, owner of a plumbing-supply shop in Gaza City. "Israel fears Hamas and its rockets. It fears the rockets of all Palestinian factions."

Like scores of other business owners, he opened his shop for the first time in more than a week, as streets bustled with pedestrians and traffic.

He did so to a world in which Hamas has begun emerging from diplomatic isolation, pushed by Israel and supported by its allies in Washington and Europe.

Its leaders took centre stage during indirect negotiations with Israel, brokered by Egypt's president Mohammed Morsi and approved by the US.

Wednesday's agreement undermined years of US, European Union and Israeli marginalisation of Hamas, which they consider to be a terrorist organisation.

After the crisis, if any organisation seemed isolated it was the US-backed Palestinian Authority (PA) that administers the West Bank, said Zakaria Al Qaq, professor of security studies at Jerusalem's Al Quds University.

"Hamas's credibility, its diplomatic stature and its popularity have increased during this crisis," Prof Al Qaq said. But the PA president Mahmoud Abbas "was almost totally absent".

Mr Abbas spoke to Gaza's Hamas premier Ismail Haniyeh and congratulated him on his victory, Hamas said yesterday.

But Prof Al Qaq and others say a key question is whether Hamas can translate its improved fortunes into concrete changes.

That would require a serious loosening of Israel's blockade over the territory, considered by most Gazans to be of paramount importance.

The ceasefire agreement vaguely outlined changes to the Israeli restrictions on movement of people and goods through the territory, although negotiators were still thrashing out the accord's long-term details yesterday.

Some already see encouraging signs.

"Hamas understands our predicament and how it affects so many Gazans, and they are pushing this agreement for us," said Nizar Ayyash, the head of Gaza's fishermen syndicate.

Since Israel's three-week war on Gaza that began in late 2008, fishermen have been to restricted waters only five kilometres from shore and regularly harassed by Israeli naval vessels.

Mr Ayyash has asked the Islamist group to try to increase that limit to 50km.

"We consider this a practical request," he said.

Perhaps most pressing for Hamas is the status of its Rafah crossing point on the border with Egypt. Despite the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Mr Morsi's government has so far refused to open the crossing to commercial trade.

Such restrictions have led to Gazans bringing goods including cars, building materials and weapons into the territory through tunnels.

But tunnel operators yesterday predicted their days could be numbered.

Two officials from the Hamas interior ministry arrived in the morning, telling them not to repair tunnels damaged by Israeli air strikes, operators said.

"That can mean only one thing," said one operator, calling himself Abu Mohammed, 28, who brings concrete into Gaza. "They're going to open Rafah."

If anything, Israeli and Palestinian analysts said, the eight-day war has undermined the Israeli government's security justification for upholding its Gaza restriction.

Coming to a head when Hamas took control of Gaza five years ago from Fatah, those restrictions have since been loosened, but they are still formidable.

Writing in Israel's online +972 Magazine, a liberal publication on Wednesday, Noam Sheizaf said the fighting showed Israel's Gaza restriction had "almost nothing to do with Israeli national security, since military supplies arrive through the tunnels".

Those supplies included long-range rockets that rained on Tel Aviv, among other Israeli cities.

Sari Bashi, executive director of the Gisha organisation that promotes the freedom of Palestinian movement in Gaza, said negotiators could use as a template a 2005 agreement for Rafah that was brokered by the US and monitored by the EU.

That arrangement provided for pedestrian and commercial traffic through Rafah, and between Gaza and the West Bank.

But it was never fully implemented and fell apart after the capture of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier, by Gaza militants in 2006.

"There is an opportunity now come to regional arrangement to allow access for civilians and civilian goods while providing a better response to Israel's security concerns," Ms Bashi said.

Back in Gaza City, some were too busy grappling with the damage of Israeli bombardments to express confidence in either Hamas or its truce with Israel.

"Tell me something," said Alaa Aashour, 50, a lawyer whose home was damaged by an Israeli air raid that struck the nearby Hamas prime ministry this week.

"How would you feel if women and children were bombed to death in your country and you didn't know whether it could happen again in an instant?

"I'll be happy when I know I won't get bombed again."

hnaylor@thenational.ae

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