Palestinian reconciliation: A cul-de-sac?

Ahmed Eleiba , Friday 25 Jan 2019

Hamas and Fatah officials
Hamas and Fatah officials sign the reconciliation deal in Cairo in 2017 (Photo: Reuters)

Tactics aimed at separating the West Bank from Gaza are no longer restricted to the topographic, as was the case when Israel closed the “safe corridor” between them two decades ago.

Political and economic “safe corridors” have also been closed one by one, thanks to measures taken by the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah and Hamas in Gaza.

Foremost among these measures are the freeze in the reconciliation process, the withdrawal of PA officials from the Rafah crossing, and the dissolution of parliament followed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ call for elections within six months, elections that are unlikely to include Gaza or Jerusalem.

Abbas (who also goes by the nom de guerre Abu Mazen) put the reconciliation question behind him after the failure of the last round of talks, in August 2018, on amending the October 2017 agreement between the two sides.

Abu Mazen, at the time, said the talks were the last opportunity for a reconciliation process Cairo has been steering for nearly a decade.

Although several agreements were concluded during this time, the first in May 2011, none were put into effect due to a lack of will, or so sources instrumental in formulating some of the agreements told Al-Ahram Weekly.

One of these sources added: “We cannot abandon the process regardless of the obstacles the parties create. There is still hope and Egypt will continue to work for Palestinian reconciliation.”

A delegation from Egypt’s General Intelligence Service (GIS), headed by the Deputy Chief of GIS General Ayman Badie, and General Ahmed Abdel-Khalek, responsible for Palestinian affairs, shuttled between Gaza and the West Bank two weeks ago in order to discuss issues related to the reconciliation process.

Neither side was prepared to alter its position, with each blaming the other for the failure of the process.

Hamas accused Abu Mazen of inflicting punitive measures on Gaza while pressing his ultimatum that if the PA does not regain full control over the Strip it will cut Gaza off. Abu Mazen said not only was Hamas determined to perpetuate its control over Gaza, it was colluding in a scheme to create a “Gaza statelet” in order to pave the way for the so-called deal of the century.

Azzam Al-Ahmed, a member of the Fatah Central Committee and head of the PA negotiating delegation, suggested the same, arguing that the purpose of the last proposed modification to the reconciliation agreement was to protect it from the repercussions of the so-called deal of the century the Trump administration is expected to propose soon.

With the PA’s withdrawal of its officials from the Rafah crossing this month any visible manifestation of PA legitimacy in Gaza vanished.

Cairo has been forced to operate the crossing unilaterally, allowing people from the outside to enter Gaza and, according to a source familiar with operations at the crossing, only opening it in the opposite direction for humanitarian purposes.

Despite the lack of international observers since 2007, Cairo had allowed the crossing to operate in both directions when PA officials were posted on the other side.

The GIS delegation tried to address this issue in its recent meeting with Hamas Political Bureau Chairman Ismail Haniyeh and Hamas leader Yehia Al-Sinwar.

The delegation pledged that Cairo would reopen the crossing for normal operations if Hamas and Fatah could overcome their differences, although observers in Cairo hold out little hope for a breakthrough.

Mohamed Gomaa of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies told the Weekly, “I think that, rather than getting simpler, the situation is going to grow more complicated.

The crossing is going to become a major problem in the future. I do not think we will be able to arrive at an acceptable mechanism for managing it soon.

Instead, it will be added to the rest of the crises between the two sides until a strategic shift occurs to jolt things in a different direction. I cannot see this happening now.”

A number of people in Gaza have said they will stage a demonstration at the crossing on Thursday to protest its closure.

“Hamas will try to calm the situation publicly and it will not support the activities secretly. It realises that the Egyptian position is correct,” said a source in Gaza.

Earlier this week the PA published a Supreme Constitutional Court ruling dissolving the Palestinian Legislative Council, a move Abbas called for weeks ago. Abbas has also called for new elections to usher in a new government. All this is very problematic, according to experts in Cairo and Ramallah contacted by the Weekly.

Shadi Zamaara, a political analyst from Ramallah, said that an official from Fatah Central Committee was clear that the new government would be drawn from Palestinian factions that are members of the PLO, which means it would not include Hamas or factions in Gaza under the Hamas umbrella.

“Only over our dead bodies will we include Hamas in a government,” Fatah Central Committee member Hussein Al-Sheikh is reported to have said.

Hassan Asfour, a Palestinian politician and former minister, criticised the call for elections and underscored recent remarks by Hisham Kahil, the director of the Central Elections Committee, who said: “Holding election does not only require preparations and executive plans but before all else the preparation of a climate conducive to holding elections in complete freedom.”

“There are a number of challenges impeding a Palestinian consensus emerging over elections being held. There is the ongoing internal rift and the continued Israeli blockade of Gaza and the West Bank. Not least, there is the question of the status of Jerusalem, which requires regional and international interventions.”

Such issues are of critical importance and need to be addressed even before discussing the nature of the elections, and whether they should be for the government, the legislature, the presidency or all three.

Hamas, for its part, has condemned Abu Mazen’s actions which it says are unconstitutional and politicised. Mohamed Gomaa interprets this as a sign that if, indeed, elections are held within six months, they will not include Gaza. “The positions of both sides tell us as much,” he says.

The EU missions in Jerusalem and Ramallah have aired international concerns over recent developments in Palestine. In a Local EU statement on the dissolution of the Palestinian Legislative Council, the missions noted that the dissolution of the PLC “formally brings to an end the mandate of the only elected governing body of the Palestinian Authority, a development the EU missions regard with concern.”

The statement adds, “in light of the announced elections, the EU missions in Jerusalem and Ramallah encourage the Palestinian leadership to work towards strong, inclusive, accountable and democratic institutions, based on respect for the rule of law and human rights. Hence, the EU calls upon the government to work towards genuine and democratic elections for all Palestinians.”

Funds from Qatar have also contributed to dissolving the remaining links between the PA and Gaza. Abu Mazen had used funding as part of a carrot-and-stick approach to furthering the implementation of the reconciliation agreement and compelling Hamas to transfer control of Gaza to the PA and its officials. Qatar then stepped, playing the role of paymaster for Hamas “government” employees, routing the payments via Israel.

It thus robbed Abu Mazen of a pressure card, effectively placing it in Israeli hands to use in exchange for calm along the Gaza-Israeli border. As testimony to this new dynamic, a widely circulated video showed the Qatari Ambassador Mohamed Al-Amadi arriving in Gaza to deliver the money, after first landing at Ben-Gurion airport. As he hands over the money he tells Hamas, “we want calm”.

The video triggered such widespread lampooning of the Qatari role that Al-Amadi vowed he would never again act as a money courier.

Avi Issacharoff, in the Times of Israel, also picked up on this ironic dynamic beneath the headline, “To get its cash, Hamas may drag Gaza into yet another fight”.

If Israel blocks the transfer of the Qatari funds, Issacharoff wrote, Hamas only has to “resort to its time-worn trick: to pressure Israel into allowing the transfer, all it must do is increase the tensions on the border. Within a few days, without fail, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is sure to agree to allow the cash into the Strip.”

* A version of this article appears in print in the 24 January, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Reconciliation cul-de-sac

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