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Palestinian PM visits Gaza in major reconciliation move with Hamas

UN 'hopeful' after Hamas announced it was handing over administrative control of the Gaza Strip to Palestinian unity government
Palestinian prime minister Rami Hamdallah and President Mahmoud Abbas on a sign in Gaza (MEE/Mohammed Asad)

GAZA CITY, Gaza - The West Bank-based Palestinian prime minister crossed into the Gaza Strip on Monday in a major move towards reconciliation between Hamas and the mainstream Fatah party, a decade after the Islamist group seized the territory in a civil war.

Hamas announced last week that it was handing over administrative control of the Gaza Strip to a unity government headed by Rami al-Hamdallah, but the movement’s armed wing remains the dominant power in the enclave of two million people.

Hamas’s reversal was the most significant step towards elusive Palestinian unity. Since the government was formed in 2014, it failed to function in Gaza because of disputes between Hamas and Fatah over its responsibilities.

Analysts said narrowing internal divisions could help Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas counter Israel’s argument that it has no negotiating partner for peace.

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"We came with instructions from Abbas to tell the world from the heart of Gaza that the Palestinian state cannot and will not be established without geographical and political unity between Gaza and the West Bank," Hamdallah said.

“The success of the government work will always depend executive and operational ability on the ground - so far we are looking forward to a postive impact on the lives of the citizens in Gaza”.

Young people in Gaza greet the arrival of Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah (MEE/Mohammed Asad)

A Hamas police honour guard and hundreds of Palestinians, many of them waving Palestinian flags, welcomed Hamdallah outside the Hamas-controlled checkpoint, down the road from Israel’s Erez border crossing through which the prime minister and his delegation passed.

“I am very optimistic, after seeing Ismael Hanniyah and Rami al-Hamdallah together, I am sure that this is a successful reconciliation”, said 56-year-old Elham Mohammed.

“Palestinian flags are filling the streets, people are chanting for unity. We can’t believe the 11-year nightmare is finally going to end”.

Sabri Siadam, Minister of Education and a member of Fatah Central Committee, told Middle East Eye the mood among Palestinians was joyous at the meeting.

“Today a new history is written in Gaza Strip, today was an achievement for all the Palestinians, happiness filled the streets, people are satisfied and optimistic," he said.

“We saw life, hope, and persistence in Gaza streets today, after three wars and 11 years of division”.

'Dream of every Palestinian'

Other Palestinian officials also praised Hamdallah’s visit.

Fatah Spokesperson Osama Al Qawasmi said Palestinians deserve unity, calling the visit historic. He thanked the Egyptian government for overseeing upcoming negotiations between Fatah and Hamas.

“These meetings will discuss all the issues and cases; security, the borders, social reconciliation, and the public employees,” he told MEE. “These are very complicated issues that both parties are determined and willing to resolve.”

I am a victim of the 11 year division... I don’t remember having 24 hours of electricity. I grew in an open air jail.

- Bassel Swairki, a 19-year old Gaza resident

Qawasmi called for cooperation to end the “disastrous” humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

“The public employees issue is a very important case that matters all the Palestinian families, we formed a special committee to solve this issue that will hold meetings in Egypt, whereas this issue has a huge priority and has to be solved as soon as possible,” he said.

Water Authority Chairman Mazin Ghunaim promised changes on the ground in Gaza.

“We have orders from the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to start our work in Gaza Strip and to implement the solutions and the plans the PA agreed on concerning the current issues the strip is facing,” he told MEE.

Hussein al-Araj, minister of local governance talked of projects by the Palestinian government to serve the people of Gaza.

“The local government will try to fill in the gaps that were missing in the municipalities in the past years due to the blockade and the Israeli restrictions on the strip,” he told MEE.

Ahmed Assaf, Palestinian Radio and Television Corporation General, noted the overwhelming support for unity.

“Palestinians in Gaza strip want to end the Palestinian division that was a main reason of the deteriorating situation they have been living the past 11 years,” Assaf told MEE. “A State of Palestine and the end of the occupation is the dream of every Palestinian.”

Bassel Swairki, a 19-year old Gaza resident, said he was "scared of disappointment" but still hopeful.

"I believe that I am a victim of the 11 year division, I was eight years old when it started," he told MEE.

"I don’t remember having 24 hours of electricity. I grew in an open air jail"

'It happens every two years'

Hamas, considered a "terrorist group" by Israel and the West, made its dramatic reversal towards unity last month, disbanding its Gaza shadow government, after Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates imposed an economic boycott on its main donor, Qatar, over alleged support of terrorism.

Michael Oren, deputy minister for diplomacy in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet, played down the unity drive, saying "it happens every two or three years" and that Hamas remains dedicated to Israel's destruction.

"One of the issues is whether Hamas will be able to retain its arms. If it does, then it's a non-starter for Israel," he said.

Abbas' pressure over the past several months on Hamas to loosen its grip included halting electricity payments to Israeli suppliers, a sanction that caused extensive daily blackouts in Gaza.

Abbas also cut wages to civil servants still on the unity government's payroll, a move that deepened economic hardship in an area long under partial blockade by Israel and Egypt, which cite security concerns for border restrictions.

Hamdallah, accompanied by security men from the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority and Hamas forces, was scheduled to hold talks with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and tour Shejaia, a neighbourhood heavily damaged by Israeli bombardment in a 2014 war with Gaza militants.

On Tuesday, the Palestinian unity cabinet will meet in Gaza.

"The agenda is crowded with ideas and projects," Culture Minister Ehad Bseisso said. "We need to ... push the wheel of reconciliation forward, to create a positive atmosphere."

In addition to setting a date for holding presidential and parliamentary elections, rival factions will have to resolve the issue of the fate of the 40,000 to 50,000 civil and military staff Hamas had hired since 2007.

Egyptian officials in Gaza

Egyptian delegates arrived in Gaza on Sunday on the eve of the fresh attempt at reconciliation, an official said.

The Palestinian schism is seen as a major obstacle to a peace agreement between Israel and a future Palestinian state combining the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

The initiative is backed by Egypt, which will be closely following the talks, intended to prepare for a transfer of power in the Gaza Strip from Hamas to Abbas's PA.

"An Egyptian delegation, including Egypt's ambassador to Israel Hazem Khairat, and two other high-ranking Egyptian intelligence officers, arrived in Gaza" from Israel, Mohammed al-Maqdama, from the PA office that coordinates with the Israeli authorities, told AFP.

On the eve of the handover, Hamas also released five Fatah security men it jailed two years ago for what an Interior Ministry spokesman described as “actions harmful to internal security”. Their sentences ranged from seven to 15 years.

Yehya Al-Sinwar prepares to meet with the Palestinian prime minister (MEE/Mohammed Asad)
Speaking to reporters, one of the freed inmates, Taher Abu Armana, thanked Hamas Gaza chief Yehya Al-Sinwar and Mohammed Dahlan, a former Fatah security chief in the enclave, for his release.

UN 'hopeful'

UN envoy for the Middle East peace process, Nickolay Mladenov, told MEE that there were real reasons to believe the parties could buck the trend.

“The difference today that we are seeing that there is a political will on both sides and in the region to make sure that the reconciliation works, and this is only the beginning of the process," he said.

“The return of the government to Gaza to take their responsibilities is the first step. The Palestinians need to overcome very big obstacles, 10 years of division is a long time, there will be issues related to the public employees in Gaza, in addition to the security issue that needs to be figured out.”

“We are hopeful that the government will start with a good environment will by all Palestinian parties with small steps and then it’s necessary that the political factions need to find compromises to address bigger issues”.

Al-Azhar, one of the world's leading Islamic seats of learning, also welcomed the steps taken towards national reconciliation.

Additional reporting by AFP

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