Gazans spirits lifted at arrival of unity government ministers
GAZA CITY - Ministers of the new Palestinian unity government arrived in Gaza on Thursday to hold the first cabinet meeting following the 51-day war with Israel.
"This is an historic visit which is the embodiment of Palestinian national unity and a real step toward ending the division," Minister of Justice, Salem al-Saqqa told Middle East Eye.
"This is the first time for ministers to meet face-to-face in the house of President Mahmoud Abbas, and that has special significance as he is the president of the Palestinian people, and the head of legitimacy."
While Abbas resides in the West Bank, he has an old villa in Gaza that had - until recently - laid empty, but has now been turned into a makeshift meeting space for the unity ministers.
In June, Saqqa - along with three other Gaza-based ministers - was denied an exit visit by Israel and prohibited from leaving Gaza to meet with other unity government ministers in Ramallah. Despite the travel restrictions, cabinet meetings still took place weekly via video-conference, but Thursday's meeting was the first time that discussions could be held in person, bringing hope that the long process of reconstruction and reconciliation was finally underway.
The ministers first toured some residential areas that had been particularly hard-hit by the Israeli bombardment. Then, they held a cabinet meeting, before finishing off the day with a symbolic lunch at the home of former Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh.
"What we have seen today is dreadful and painful, and it has become clear to us that the rebuilding [of Gaza] is at the top of our list of priorities," Prime Minister, Rami Hamdallah said, following the meeting.
Hamas also welcomed the visit with Hamas spokesperson, Sami Abu Zuhri, calling on the new cabinet to “pledge complete responsibility towards the people of Gaza".
Islamic Jihad, which is not part of the government, similarly took the opportunity to call for the “opening a new page” for Palestinian national relations.
"Despite the delay in the government visit, we express our commitment to national unity,” Islamic Jihad’s senior leader, Khaled al-Batsh said in a statement.
The current government is made of technocrats from both Gaza and the West Bank, and is led by Hamdallah, a well-respected academic.
The move to form a unity government comes after almost seven years of fierce inter-Palestinian rivalry which has seen two rival governments vie for power. While Gaza has been headed by Hamas, the West Bank has been ruled by Fatah leader and Palestinian Authority chairman, Mahmoud Abbas.
The visit comes approximately three days ahead of an international donor’s conference for Gaza, where the PA will lobby for a $4bn reconstruction fund to help the Strip recover from the 51-day war – the third major offensive to rock Gaza in five years.
The war ravaged Gaza’s already fragile infrastructure, destroying or damaging 60,000 homes and 5,000 businesses, according to a joint assessment by Palestinian Authority and the United Nations.
The Cairo-based Gaza reconstruction meeting comes after both Fatah and Hamas failed to shelve their factional squabbling, despite signing a national reconciliation deal last April.
Locally, however, people believe that the aim of the reconstruction conference is primarily to reassure the international community that the PA is capable of handling the reconstruction of Gaza, and that the two sides can paste over their differences.
When arriving at Erez Crossing, Hamdallah strove to give the impression to the public that his government was on a mission to overcome old factional divides.
"We are here to rescue and construct Gaza,” Hamdallah said upon arriving through the Erez Crossing from Israel early on Thursday. “We are ahead of a national mission and will mobilise all our potentials and capacities for Gaza, and will put years of internal Palestinian division behind us.”
"Our nominal goal is ending the occupation and making Israel accountable for its aggression on the West Bank and Gaza,” he added.
Gaza residents are now waiting for these pledges to be translated into actions on the ground that will improve their daily lives
Despite Gaza’s recent troubled history, the Strip’s population seems to have high hopes that the inaugural meeting will help usher in an era of unity.
The sense of anticipation was palpable on Thursday morning. At the entrance to President Abbas' residence, fire crews mingled with civil defence workers, as they busied themselves cleaning the pavement and washing the roads. Other municipal workers hung banners, welcoming the new government.
"We are all excited by this. After all, we are one nation and Palestine should unite us all," said a policeman, who was patrolling the streets around Abbas’ presidential residence.
A taxi driver, who passed to watch the motorcade, also expressed hope that the new government would kick-start reconstruction.
"We must work together as a nation and present one face of unity to internationals, demanding to hold Israel accountable for the destruction of Gaza," he said.
Gaza’s residents, and the unity government both know, however, that there is an extremely tough road ahead.
One of the most difficult problems involves salaries for former de facto government employees, who have not been paid for several months, but have continued working nonetheless.
This includes police officers and security - presently escorting the government ministers, who have pledged to discuss and move to resolve the matter in a cabinet meeting.
But the list of demands is long. The Gaza municipality has urgently asked for fuel to run generators and garbage trucks, in attempts to deliver services before the cold winter kicks in.
The shortage of potable water is also wreaking havoc, as the fuel shortage has caused the strip’s filtration systems to stop functioning properly. The municipality needs 8,000 litres of fuel per day just to run the generators, garbage collection and water sanitation. At present, it is receiving a fraction of this amount.
Despite these demands, which are unlikely to get immediate relief, people are still hopeful that this time the government will be able to do something useful, partially, after Hussein Al-Sheikh, Palestinian minister of civil affairs announced that there are talks with Israel to allow a number of Gaza workers through into Israel.
Since 2000, tens of thousands of workers, mostly construction, have been denied entry to Israel.
The current discussion involves Israel allowing workers within 40 kilometres of Gaza-Israel border, and next week he will announce the number of workers allowed and when they can start.
Even relatively small improvements like this have helped revive spirits in Gaza.
Abu-Ahmed Al-Ghifari, 45, father of five children, said he couldn’t wait for this to happen.
"I am usually not so optimistic, given the failure in the past, but now I do see hope," he said.
"If we get the chance to work, our life and economy will improve. I’ve had enough of the siege and the bloodletting, after all, no one wins, and all humans are the only victims."