Palestinian Reconciliation - Reasons for Hope?


For three days it was all smiles as the Palestinian prime minister held talks in Gaza with Hamas but as the symbolic visit draws to a close the real work for reconciliation is just beginning.

The two sides will meet again for in-depth negotiations next week.

After a decade of division, are there reasons to believe the rival Palestinian factions might finally come together?

What happened?On Monday, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah arrived in Gaza for the first time since 2015, describing it as a "historic" moment.

He met with the leaders of Hamas Ismail Haniya, as well with the head of Egyptian intelligence, while also convening his cabinet in Gaza for the first time in nearly three years.

Hamas has ruled the territory since 2007, when it seized it from the PA in a near civil war and multiple previous reconciliation attempts have failed.

But after Egyptian mediation, last month the Islamists of Hamas agreed to hand over civil power to the internationally recognised PA, which is based in the West Bank.

What is at stake?The most immediate issue is the suffering of the two million Gazans, who have faced three devastating wars with Israel since 2008, as well as crippling blockades by both Israel and Egypt.

They suffer from desperate shortages of electricity and high unemployment.

The decade-long division has also been a key obstacle to peace talks with Israel.

Gaza and the West Bank are supposed to form a future independent state but internationally recognised president Mahmud Abbas, long the negotiating partner for Israel, has been undermined by Hamas'a control of Gaza.

"The division cripples the Palestinians from being able to move forward in a constructive manner in achieving the goal of returning back to negotiations and implementing a two-state solution," UN Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov told AFP.

Reasons for belief?Past failures have inevitably sparked scepticism about the latest reconciliation effort.

But on Monday, Hamdallah's ministers took the keys to government offices in Gaza.

Nour Odeh, a political analyst based in the West Bank, contrasted this with the previous reconciliation attempt in 2014, when ministers of a unity government were often not allowed to leave their hotels by Hamas.

"This is the first time the ministers of this government have assumed their roles in their own ministries. It is a completely different dynamic on the ground," she told AFP.

"These things are important -- they help to create an atmosphere that is a snowball that can continue rolling."

Palestinian media were broadly supportive of the reconciliation effort, although few concrete measures were publicly announced.

What now?If this week's visit was about symbolism, next week the details begin.

The two sides will meet in Cairo on Tuesday to start in-depth negotiations that could take months.

A key stumbling block is control of security in Gaza.

Hamas has an armed wing with an estimated 25,000 members and is loath to give up control.

Senior Hamas officials have already said it is out of the question, but Abbas has insisted the Palestinian Authority must have full control.

Hamas could not "copy or clone Hezbollah's experience in Lebanon," he warned on Monday, referring to a situation where an independent armed group exerts major influence on national politics.

A second sticking point will be the fate of tens thousands of government employees recruited by Hamas since 2007.

Will any PA-led government incorporate them into its ranks?

A third issue is a a series of punitive measures taken by Abbas against Hamas in recent months, including cutting electricity payments for Gaza.

Abbas wants his government to regain full control before reversing the measures, but Hamas wants them stopped immediately.

"The Egyptians are going to try to make sure the parties get down to the dirty details," Odeh said.

The international reaction? Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already warned his government will not accept any reconciliation deal unless Hamas disarms and recognises Israel's right to exist.

These conditions are tantamount to the movement dissolving, analysts say.

Washington, which is seeking to relaunch the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, welcomed the return of the PA government to Gaza. 

But it warned any Palestinian government must accept Israel's right to exist.

Hamas does not and has not renounced violence.

The United Nations has offered a guarded welcome to the developments, while key broker Egypt encouraged the two sides to seize the "opportunity" for reconciliation.

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