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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

Palestinian Authority cabinet meets in Gaza for first time in three years

The ministers came together amid concerns that demands for Hamas to disarm could derail the reconciliation with Fatah

Palestinian Authority ministers met in Gaza today for the first time in three years in a meeting overshadowed by a warning from president Mahmoud Abbas over Hamas’s weapons.

Speaking at during the meeting, prime minister Rami Hamdallah said: "Today, we stand before an important, historical moment as we begin to get over our wounds, put our differences aside and place the higher national interest above all else."

His ministers, whose responsibilities had been confined to the West Bank, tentatively resumed their roles in the crowded coastal territory that Hamas has controlled since ousting PA forces in a brief civil war a decade ago.

Ahead of the meeting, Mr Abbas staked out a tough line on reconciliation with Hamas, warning he would not tolerate any solution short of the disarming of its Izzedin Al Qasam militia.

Mr Abbas told Egypt's CBC television station late on Monday that he would jail any Hamas members who possess illegal weapons in defiance of what he said will be a policy of all weaponry being in the hands of the PA.

His comments came hours after Mr Hamdallah arrived in Gaza and held talks with Hamas leaders at the start of a bid to end a decade old Hamas-Fatah split

"Everything must be in the hands of the authority. We won't accept a reproduction of the experience of Hizbollah in Lebanon," where the Shiite organisation runs an armed wing beyond the state's control, Mr Abbas said.

"There will be one state, one regime, one law and one weapon. If someone from Hamas has a weapon I will put him in prison, just as if someone from Fatah [in the West Bank] has a weapon I put him in prison," the Palestinian president said.

Mr Abbas's comments, in the face of Hamas insistence that it will continue to bear arms and that this is non-negotiable, dampen hopes that the reconciliation will bear fruit. Egypt is overseeing the effort to bring the two factions together and the parties are scheduled to hold talks in Cairo next week on the details of the unity bid.

Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El Sisi said Palestinian reconciliation could be an "opportunity" for wider regional peace, and called for global support for the initiative.

"The whole world is waiting for your efforts to achieve reconciliation among the Palestinian people and appreciates your determination to address all obstacles," Mr Sisi said in a pre-recorded address on Tuesday.

"There is a chance to realise peace in the region, providing all the parties are united."

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Palestinians were engaging in "fictitious reconciliations" and he referred to Iranian funding for Hamas.

"The way we see it is very simple: Recognise the State of Israel, dismantle the Hamas military wing, cut the ties to Iran, which calls for our destruction," he said in remarks broadcast on Army Radio.

For Hamas, the disarming of the Qassam brigades has been a red line. Hamas deputy political chief Musa Abu Marzouk said recently that Hamas would not agree to discuss a change in the brigade’s status with Fatah since the purpose of its weapons "is to defend the Palestinian people" and that its military wing has to be "ready for every scenario" as long as the Israeli occupation persists.

Mr Abbas also ruled out any lifting of the crippling sanctions including halting payments for Gaza’s electricity and slashing salaries of government employees that he imposed on Gaza over the last six months in response to Hamas's naming of an administrative committee to govern Gaza. Hamas expected the sanctions to be lifted after it dismantled the committee and invited the PA to return to Gaza. The halt to electricity payments has caused frequent blackouts, further disrupting daily life in the territory.

Mr Abbas said the sanctions will not be lifted until the PA fully takes over border crossings, ministries and security. He said the halted budgets would be restored only "when the government is able to carry out all its work — all of it — as it does in the West Bank."

Mr Abbas attributed Hamas's dismantling of the administrative committee to the sanctions he imposed. Analysts say the weakening and isolation of Hamas's main financial backer Qatar after Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain imposed an economic boycott over its alleged support for terrorism also played a role.

Mr Abbas said "differences remain" with Hamas. "They differ from us in ideology but are part of the Palestinian people. If they want to join the PLO, they must commit themselves to PLO policies."

During the cabinet meeting, Mr Hamdallah said the achievement of reconciliation would cause donor countries to fulfill their financial commitments to the PA. He also called for international pressure on Israel to lift its economic "siege" of the Gaza.

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After crossing from Israel into Gaza on Monday Mr hamdallah said: "We return to Gaza for the sake of achieving reconciliation, national unity and ending the division. We declare to the world from the heart of Gaza that the Palestinian state cannot be without unity of the West Bank and Gaza." He called for reconciliation to overcome narrow party differences, saying the only beneficiary of the division is the Israeli occupation.

He promised the government would focus on rebuilding Gaza from the devastation incurred from Israeli bombardments in the 2014 war and work to improve living conditions hampered by a decade of Israeli and Egyptian partial blockade.

"The time has come to work for ending the suffering of Gaza and its people and we are preparing a series of steps for this. "He said the government had already formed committees for taking up its mission and responsibilities in Gaza.

Meanwhile, Egyptian intelligence chief Khaled Fawzy held talks in Ramallah with Mr Abbas and was scheduled to travel to Gaza for meetings with Hamas leaders.

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