By David M. Halbfinger
October 2, 2017
Beleaguered Gazans exulted at seeing the two main Palestinian factions take an important step toward reconciliation on Monday, as the Palestinian Authority’s prime minister arrived to take the reins of their impoverished territory’s government.
If the effort succeeds, the Palestinians could have a unified leadership for the first time in a decade, potentially giving them more leverage in their push for an independent state.
Thousands lined the streets and cheered as a motorcade carrying the prime minister, Rami Hamdallah of the Fatah faction, crossed into Gaza at an Israeli checkpoint, leading a delegation from the Palestinian Authority based in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
The delegation will hold talks on taking charge of Gaza’s government from Hamas, the militant Islamic faction that evicted Fatah in 2007 and has run it ever since.
While major decisions on how that transfer might unfold have yet to be made, Mr. Hamdallah’s trip punctuated the most ambitious effort yet to reconcile the animosity between the Fatah and Hamas factions after repeated failures in recent years.
Mr. Hamdallah promised that his first priority was easing Gazans’ suffering, which has deepened because of repeated wars with Israel since the Hamas takeover and under a dual Israeli-Egyptian blockade.
“I realize that the situation in Gaza has become unbearable because of wars and division,” Mr. Hamdallah said.
He also said reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas was necessary if the Palestinians were to confront Israel effectively.
“The world will not pay attention to a torn people,” he said. “The main winner of a continued split is the occupation.”
The deprivations in Gaza have grown only more acute since Mr. Hamdallah’s boss, President Mahmoud Abbas, imposed harsh restrictions on Hamas over the summer. Mr. Abbas stopped paying for Gaza’s electricity and reduced the salaries of thousands of bureaucrats, teachers and police officers, who have been on the payroll for years though Mr. Abbas ordered them not to work for Hamas.
Water quality has become dangerously poor, the air reeks of raw sewage, and the unemployment rate is approaching 50 percent, worse among the young.
Fatah and Hamas have made many attempts at reconciliation, and even formed a government together in 2014, but within weeks that agreement fell apart and a new war between Hamas and Israel intervened.
This time, however, Hamas has responded to Mr. Abbas’s pressure by effectively daring him to step up and take responsibility for Gaza. And the new Hamas leaders — who attended a lunch on Monday with Mr. Hamdallah at the home of Ahmed Hiles, the leader of a Fatah-aligned clan that has clashed violently with Hamas — insist they are serious about making concessions in the name of unity.
“I will break the neck of anyone who doesn’t want the reconciliation, whoever he is, from Hamas or any other faction,” Yehya Sinwar, the prime minister of Gaza, told a group of Gazan youths in a speech late last week.
Mr. Hamdallah is to lead a cabinet meeting in Gaza City on Tuesday, but the real work of resolving how Gaza will be run, and when Mr. Abbas’s restrictions may be lifted, is to wait until next week, when both sides are to begin talks in earnest in Cairo.
A key issue is whether Hamas or the Palestinian Authority will truly control the border crossings with Israel and Egypt, particularly the Rafah crossing with Egypt, Gaza’s main gateway to the world. The Gaza-Egypt border has been mostly closed since President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt took power in 2013.
Other serious obstacles threaten any agreement, notably what will become of the Qassam Brigades, the armed faction of Hamas, which has as many as 20,000 fighters. Hamas leaders have said disarming those fighters is not up for discussion.
Israel, which considers Hamas a terrorist organization, also presents a major challenge to any Fatah-Hamas reconciliation. How the Israelis might respond is not yet clear.
In one sign of possible movement on the division of responsibilities in Gaza, Salah Al Bardawil, a senior Hamas leader, said shortly before Mr. Hamdallah’s arrival on Monday that 3,000 Palestinian Authority security officers would be added to the Gaza police force over the next year.
Analysts say that leaving the Hamas military intact while the Palestinian Authority provides police and other government services in Gaza would threaten to replicate the situation in Lebanon, where Hezbollah holds far greater power than the Lebanese government — a situation that Mr. Abbas is likely to find unacceptable.
But Egypt, through its General Intelligence Service, which has been brokering the reconciliation talks, has been pressing both sides to take the first steps and then to see what unfolds.
Eran Lerman, a former deputy director of Israel’s National Security Council, said that while a Hezbollah-like arrangement in Gaza would be no improvement in Israel’s eyes, there were good reasons Israel had not yet responded negatively to the Palestinian reconciliation efforts.
“One is that the Egyptian role is overt, aggressive, and we basically have the same instincts as the Egyptians do when it comes to Hamas, but of course they have ways of influencing what is happening in Gaza that Israel no longer has,” he said. “The consequence is that we basically trust them to take steps that restrain Hamas and undermine their legitimacy in the long run.”
Another reason for Israel’s forbearance, Mr. Lerman said, was that Hamas had grasped “that the people of Gaza are sick and tired of the deprivation that is caused by aspects of Hamas rule,” whether in prioritizing military over civilian spending or in provoking Mr. Abbas to impose sanctions.
“If there is an underlying theme here,” Mr. Lerman said, “it is that Hamas as a government has come to terms with things that Hamas as a terror organization had refused to come to terms with, and that’s a positive.”
No less problematic than what becomes of the Hamas fighters, who are the heart of the organization, is the question of which workers will be employed by an overhauled Gaza government: the 40,000 Hamas loyalists who have been holding those jobs for the past 10 years, or the thousands more Fatah workers who performed those functions until the Hamas takeover.
Standing outside the Hamas-run checkpoint at the Erez crossing, where police officers beat some onlookers with clubs to clear a path for the Palestinian Authority’s motorcade, Ashraf al-Kfarna, 30, said he had once worked inside Gaza when it was run by Fatah, and now hoped to get his old job back or work for the police.
He said his brother had been killed during the fighting between Hamas and Fatah that led to Fatah’s ouster from Gaza.
Beyond his own situation, Mr. Kfrana said he hoped Mr. Hamdallah would “create job opportunities for young men like me,” and pointed to two friends at the front of a crush of Gazans, young and old. “These guys don’t work — they have no pennies in their pockets.”
The issues dividing Hamas and Fatah also include Muhammad Dahlan, a former Fatah security chief in Gaza, who has been in exile in the United Arab Emirates since a 2011 break with Mr. Abbas. Mr. Dahlan has forged close ties with Hamas and promoted improved relations between Hamas and Egypt.
On Sunday, when Hamas released five Fatah prisoners, one of them publicly thanked Mr. Dahlan.
But Mr. Abbas rejects any role for Mr. Dahlan in a reconciled Palestinian government.
If reconciliation faces so many hurdles as to seem a still-remote possibility, it appeared meaningfully closer on Monday, judging by the reception the Palestinian Authority delegation received.
Young boys danced, women ululated, teenagers climbed trees, cars and rooftops, and chanting crowds waved yellow Fatah flags and the red, white and blue flag of Egypt.
Seated in the shadow of a vendor’s cart, Naama Tluli, 72, said she was overjoyed. “I want to fly in the sky,” she said. “If I could, I’d go to the West Bank.”
Iyad Abuheweila contributed reporting from Gaza City, and Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem.