- - Monday, October 16, 2017

CAIRO — It’s been a decade since the Palestinian terrorist group turned political party Hamas took over the Gaza Strip.

In that time, neither the Hamas nor the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority, whose president, Mahmoud Abbas, and secular Fatah ruling party officially lead the Palestinian strongholds in both Gaza and the West Bank, has made strides toward reconciling their bitter differences or meaningful progress toward their shared dream of statehood.

But reconciliation talks hosted by Egypt signal a new seriousness between the competing movements on a political truce, one that could have far-reaching consequences for the Palestinians, Israel and the region as a whole.

A unity pact could alleviate the deep economic distress in Gaza and scramble the calculations of U.S. diplomats trying to put together what President Trump has dubbed “the ultimate deal” to end the longest-running conflict in the Middle East.

The talks got a major boost last week with the announcement of a “preliminary agreement” that could lead to the Palestinian Authority’s reclaiming of administrative control of Gaza and the end of crippling border restrictions that have devastated Gaza’s economy. But the deal, announced Thursday at a press conference, still may founder on critical details that have torpedoed past attempts at reconciliation.

A senior Palestinian official said Fatah leaders, including the ailing 82-year-old Mr. Abbas, might visit Gaza in the coming weeks, The Associated Press reported. The Western-backed Mr. Abbas hasn’t been able to visit in Gaza since 2007, when the more militant Hamas seized the territory after days of factional street battles.

In the wake of the 2014 conflict between Hamas and Israel that destroyed Gaza’s infrastructure, including 171,000 homes, the United Nations has said the densely populated enclave, occupying a patch of ground smaller than Rhode Island, will be uninhabitable by 2020 without significant investment.

Long-suffering Gazans say the survival of the Palestinian nation and the statehood cause depend on abandoning factionalism and reaching a deal in Cairo.

“The rift has caused endless damage,” said Samyah Maher, an unemployed 22-year-old with a computer engineering degree from a local technical college. “Homes and schools go for hours without electricity. The border crossings need to be opened, and rebuilding from the last war is still not finished. Reconciliation is the only tool we have to create a decent life.”

The talks in Cairo have been focused on nuts-and-bolts governance challenges for the Palestinians.

Hamas, which the U.S. and Israel still condemn as a terrorist organization, put nearly 50,000 loyalists on the civil service payroll. But many of those workers don’t receive paychecks regularly because of disagreements between Hamas and Fatah over who manages tax revenue. Electricity outages are common. Water and sewer service is spotty, leading to polluted drinking water.

“We all know that there are several hard topics and issues to deal with,” said Tayseer Nasrallah, a member of the Fatah Revolutionary Council. “But we now have the positive spirit to achieve this reconciliation with the help of Egypt.”

Last week, the Palestinian Cabinet held its first meeting in Gaza since 2014, with Egypt’s chief of general intelligence, Khaled Fawzi, in attendance. It signaled an expectation for Hamas and Fatah to settle their differences in the interest of improving security and gaining independence.

Mr. Abbas did not attend that meeting, but Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah pledged to “turn the page on division, restore the national project to its correct direction and establish statehood.”

Since his own ascension to power, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has consistently pushed for a conclusive Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. He has cited the lack of Palestinian unity as well as Israel’s policy of permitting new settlements as key obstacles to a deal.

Last month, Mr. el-Sissi put aside his prepared text in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly in New York and appealed directly to the Palestinians to overcome their differences and “not lose the opportunity and be ready to coexist with the Israelis in safety and peace.”

Cairo is providing incentives for a deal by supporting a plan to open its border crossing with Gaza if Hamas allows Fatah to deploy 3,000 police officers in the territory and field a team monitored by the European Union to check goods and people at the Rafah border post. The border has long been a barrier because Egyptian officials have worried that terrorists might ship weapons into the country from Gaza.

“Hamas believes that by unity, under Egyptian supervision, we can achieve what the Palestinians want from their leaders,” said Salah Al-Bardawil, a Hamas leader in Gaza.

Azzam al-Ahmad, head of the Fatah delegation, told the AP that the Palestinian Authority would assume control of the crossing points between Gaza and Israel by Nov. 1 under last week’s accord. He said Mr. Abbas’ presidential guard would assume control of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, but he did not specify a timetable.

Trump and el-Sissi

President Trump, in a sharp departure from his predecessor, has cultivated a close personal relationship with Mr. el-Sissi, and Egyptian officials say they are confident that the new U.S. administration is behind Cairo’s efforts despite widespread doubts in the region that the time is ripe for a comprehensive deal.

“President Trump has made no secret of his ambition to help the Palestinians and the Israelis reach a peace accord,” said Hussein Haridy, an assistant foreign minister under former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted from office during the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011. “But for the American strategy to succeed, Washington will have to keep up that momentum regardless of the domestic situation in Israel.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been openly wary of the Hamas-Palestinian Authority unity talks, even as the negotiations were accelerating in recent weeks.

“We are not interested in a bogus reconciliation in which the Palestinian factions reconcile with each other at the expense of our existence,” the hawkish Mr. Netanyahu said.

The Israeli leader repeated demands for Hamas to sever all links with Iran, dismantle its military wing and recognize Israel as a Jewish state — steps the organization has long resisted.

“Israel objects to a reconciliation that does not include these elements,” he said in a statement after Thursday’s preliminary deal was signed in Cairo. “So long as Hamas does not disarm and continues to call for the destruction of Israel, Israel sees it as responsible for all terror emanating from Gaza.”

But the backing of Egypt and the possible participation of the Americans has kept Israel from rejecting the unity talks out of hand.

“Israel was forced to accept this move,” said Menachem Klein, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University and former negotiator in Israel-PLO talks. “After meetings with Sissi, the Americans and the Russians, the move of the Fatah delegation and their taking the responsibilities over the Gaza Strip was something that got Prime Minister Netanyahu’s quiet agreement.”

Yet Mr. Klein thinks Mr. Netanyahu’s supposedly forced assent to the Palestinian unity project is merely tactical.

Mr. Netanyahu supports continued building in east Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim as their capital, and made hard commitments to Israeli settlers in the West Bank. An actual Palestinian accord could put Mr. Netanyahu in an uncomfortable diplomatic spot.

“He hopes that the unity government talks will break down, that Hamas refuses to disarm and Abbas will put obstacles in the implementation of the reconciliation,” said Mr. Klein, who thought the prime minister’s gambit might not work. “But it seems to me that Hamas is changing dramatically, and Egypt is not going to give up so easily.”

After years of infighting, many ordinary Palestinians appear indifferent to the political maneuvering of their leaders. But there are signs they are allowing themselves at least a cautious optimism for the U.S.-backed Egyptian diplomatic efforts.

“Trump is trying to do what the previous American presidents failed to do,” said Mohammad Ayoub, a 26-year-old graduate in literature from the Islamic University in Gaza who earns $6 a day working at a construction site. “He wants to be the superhero who achieved peace in the Middle East. But all I want is to have good job, earn money, fulfill my dream as any other person in this world.”

Still, he kept the dream of Palestinian statehood alive.

“A two-state solution can be really accepted if Israel and Palestine work seriously to achieve it,” Mr. Ayoub said. “And it is time to find a solution.”

Asma Jawabreh reported from Hebron, West Bank.

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