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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

Palestinian prime minister rolls into Gaza amid reconciliation hopes

A crowd of hundreds of Palestinians, many of them waving flags, and a Hamas police honour guard greeted Mr Hamdallah and his delegation

People gather as the convoy of Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and his government ministers arrive to take control of Gaza from the Islamist Hamas group, in the northern Gaza Strip October 2, 2017.
People gather as the convoy of Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and his government ministers arrive to take control of Gaza from the Islamist Hamas group, in the northern Gaza Strip October 2, 2017.

Jerusalem // Palestinian Authority prime minister Rami Hamdallah travelled to Gaza on Monday amid expressions of optimism that the rival Fatah and Hamas movements would finally reconcile and end a decade old division that has set back statehood aspirations.

A crowd of hundreds of Palestinians, many of them waving flags, and a Hamas police honour guard greeted Mr Hamdallah and his delegation of ministers and officials as they arrived from the West Bank. He was due to meet senior Hamas leaders later in the day.

On Tuesday, the prime minister will chair the first meeting of the PA cabinet in Gaza in three years as his ministers, whose responsibilities had been confined to the West Bank, resume their roles in the crowded coastal enclave that Hamas has controlled since ousting PA forces in a brief civil war a decade ago.

The coup left Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah movement in control only of self-rule enclaves in the West Bank. Repeated bids to heal the rift failed, with each side unwilling to give up its monopoly on power in its area. The current reconciliation effort is seen as having a better chance of success due to Hamas weakness and its need to maintain good ties with Egypt, which is brokering the reconciliation. But differences over security and in particular the role of Hamas's Izzedin Al Qassam armed wing are among remaining major challenges to unity.

The resumption of the PA role in Gaza — and Hamdallah's visit — were made possible when Hamas decided to scrap an administrative committee it named to govern Gaza six months ago. At the same time, the movement said it would welcome the PA back in the Strip.

Analysts say the Hamas shift came about because of factors including hard-hitting economic steps imposed by Mr Abbas such as cutting electricity payments to Israel, which caused blackouts, and the slashing of salaries of civil servants. But they also 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.

According to Palestinian media reports, Mr Hamdallah said after crossing from Israel into Gaza that "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.

Mr Hamdallah promised the government would focus on rebuilding Gaza from 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.

Hamas spokesman Fawzy Barhoum told the Maan news agency that he was optimistic about the success of reconciliation, citing "unprecedented Palestinian will by all parties."

He said Hamas will push for the success of bilateral talks with Fatah under Egyptian supervision next week in Cairo that will follow up the restart of the PA government in Gaza.

A major challenge will be to reconcile — if at all possible — Mr Abbas and the PA's desire for full security control of Gaza with Hamas's insistence that Izzedin Al Qassam be left intact so that it can resist Israel. Hamas leader Yihya Sinwar boasted over the weekend of the brigades' ability to barrage Tel Aviv with many rockets in a short period of time.

"The Palestinian leadership doesn't want to reach a situation where the Qassam brigades control the situation in the Gaza Strip like Hizbollah does in Lebanon," said Ashraf Ajrami, a former PA minister for prisoner affairs. "They want a united security services without having double security services."

Mr Ajrami said it is possible, however, that in order to allow the reconciliation to proceed Abbas will agree that the Qassam brigades keep their weapons for now as long as they do not interfere in the working of the PA government or take actions that could cause war with Israel.

"One of the issues is whether Hamas will be able to retain its arms. If it does it's a non-starter for Israel," Israeli deputy minister Michael Oren told Reuters on Monday.

Meanwhile, West Bank politicians voiced optimism on Monday about the reconciliation bid. "Hamas and Fatah are serious," said Palestinian Legislative Council deputy speaker Hasan Khreisheh, an independent. "Hamas needs Egypt and needs to open the borders while the authority wants to show America and Israel that they represent all Palestinian people whether in Gaza or the West Bank. Both sides have an interest. This marriage is a necessity and I think they will do it."

Abdullah Abdullah, a legislator who supports Abbas, said: "There is a good chance it will work. We have to make it a success."

"When we are united we will be stronger politically and internationally in confronting Israeli designs and that's in our interest." He played down the differences over security. "After 11 years of division of course we'll have different views on different files and one of them is security. But we are determined to tackle every issue and solve it in the best interest of our national cause. With the help of the Egyptians, I'm sure we will overcome [differences] and Egypt will be able to bridge between us and Hamas. We both are determined to have this plan to end this division succeed and nothing will stop this implementation."

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