Friday’s Fact: Unity cabinet meets in Gaza – Turning a new page in Fatah – Hamas relationship?

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A delegation of the Palestinian Authority (PA), headed by Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, arrived in the Gaza Strip on Monday, 2 October, to prepare the handover of the ministries from Hamas to the PA. When on Tuesday the first weekly cabinet meeting in the GazaStrip since 2014 was held it obscured the fact that a long and arduous path may lie ahead. The delegation was welcomed by a crowd of enthusiastic Gazans fuelled by hopes for an end to the decade-long division. While there is reason to remain pessimistic in the face of previously failed attempts of reconciliation, Hamdallah stressed that he had come “to turn the page of the division”, knowing full well that the parties are still facing a stony path.

Hamdallah was accompanied by government ministers, senior PA-advisers alongside intelligence and security officials. According to news outlet Al Monitor, the delegation travelling to the Gaza Strip from the West Bank amounts to a total of 350 people. An Egyptian security delegation monitoring the handover of ministries, had arrived in the Strip a day earlier. According to media coverage by the Jerusalem Post, Egyptian intelligence minister Khaled Fawzi met with high-ranking officials in Ramallah, the Gaza Strip as well as Israel on Tuesday, where he underlined Egypt’s commitment to bring about Palestinianunity. While being closely watched by the Egyptian side, both Hamas and Fatah seem eager to demonstrate their willingness to make this the final attempt at putting aside the rival’s feud.

While Prime Minister Hamdallah and his entourage made their way into Gaza, PA President Mahmoud Abbas remained in Ramallah, once again stressing his conditions for making this attempt a success. First, the control over security including border crossings should be handed over in full to the PA. Second, he would not accept any interference by any state other than Egypt, who has been sponsoring the reconciliation efforts for the past weeks. This indicates not only Abbas’ reluctance towards any involvement of Turkey or Qatar, who have been closely associated with Hamas in the past, but also of his long-term rival Mohammed Dahlan. Finally, any financial means going to the Gaza Strip would have to be funnelled through the PA.  In a television interview with Egypt’s channel CBC on Monday, Abbas made it clear that he would not reverse the punitive measures imposed inthe Gaza Strip, such as cuts to budget allocated to Gaza for electricity, until the PA was infull control.

Remarkably, after the Israeli side had been silent on the matter until this Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly said at a meeting of his Likud party that “whoever wants to reconcile” would have to “recognize the State of Israel, disband the Hamas military arm, sever the connection with Iran, which calls for our destruction”, seemingly having accepted the prospect of impending Palestinian unity. In 2014, however, he had cautioned PA-President Abbas to choose between Israel and Hamas, saying that signing an agreement with Hamas would be tantamount to “signing the termination of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority”, international news agency Reuters reported at the time.

When Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh argued that “there might be some difficulties on the road, but we will conclude reconciliation, regardless of the cost”, it suggested that Hamas is prepared to act in a more pragmatic way than it did before. Whether or not they will manage to act in concert and take difficult decisions towards reconciliation remains to be seen. Furthermore, Egypt’s involvement and diplomatic efforts mark a key difference incomparison to earlier attempts to reconcile between the two rival factions. Stabilizing the region in general and the Sinai Peninsula in particular first and foremost serves Egypt’s own security interest. Moreover, as Al-Monitor pointed out, “Egypt regards such an agreement as vital to a regional peace deal, in which it hopes to play a major role.” However, its strong commitment is not only due to self-serving interest, but may benefit the process to reconcile between Fatah and Hamas in the medium- and long-term.

Despite the optimism that surrounded this week’s cabinet meeting in the Gaza Strip many issues that spoiled previous reconciliation attempts remain on the table. Finding an agreement over who controls the security in Gaza will likely be the most crucial among them. Nickolay Mladenov, U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process made it known that “The road ahead will be long and hard, but momentum of reconciliation should not be missed.” However, the cabinet meeting of Tuesday indicates an important turning point towards Palestinian unity.

Photograph: Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and head of Hamas politburo Ismail Haniyeh shake hands at their meeting in the Gaza Strip in Monday, 2 October” Source: Reuters.