Hamas claims deal agreed with Fatah over control of Gaza Strip
The rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah appear to have reached a partial deal over who should control the contested Gaza Strip and on what terms.
The Hamas political leader, Ismail Haniyeh, announced early on Thursday that a deal had been agreed in Egyptian-brokered talks in Cairo, and that details would be announced later in the day.
Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) officials confirmed to the Guardian that a deal had been reached but also said they had no further details.
The talks marked the latest in a series of attempts to end a decadelong Palestinian territorial, political and ideological split that has crippled statehood aspirations.
Amid the nascent signs of progress, a top Fatah official announced that the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, would visit Gaza for the first time in a decade “within less than a month”. If it goes ahead, the Abbas visit would be the first since 2007 when the Islamist Hamas movement assumed control of Gaza.
In 2007, a year after winning Palestinian parliament elections, Hamas evicted Abbas’s western-backed Palestinian Authority from Gaza. Abbas was left with autonomous enclaves in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Over the past decade, each side deepened its control over its territory, making it increasingly difficult to forge compromises.
Previous efforts to reach a negotiated reconciliation between the two factions – such as in 2014 – have been announced before but have always faltered.
The current round of talks have focused on issues with broader areas of agreement between the two sides – leaving out the most contentious points, most significantly the future of Hamas’s 25,000-strong armed wing in Gaza.
Instead talks have centred on the future of Hamas’s civil service workers in ministries such as the Hamascontrolled health service and over who controls the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza in the far south of the coastal strip.
The fine print of the agreement will be pored over by both Israel and international donors to the Palestinian Authority run by Abbas for its implications. The deal may have profound legal consequences in terms of aid funding for the US.
Abbas has insisted he will only reassume control of Gaza if Hamas hands over power. Hamas, in turn, has said it will not disarm, even if it is willing to give Abbas control of the Gaza government.
The breakthrough – while provisional – has been driven by the changing dynamics in the wider Middle East that has seen Egypt move to displace Qatar and Turkey as the key broker in Palestinian affairs, with both Hamas and Fatah increasingly reliant on Cairo’s sponsorship.
Struggling with the fallout from an Israeli-Egyptian border blockade since 2007, Hamas has found it increasingly difficult to govern or provide basic services to Gaza’s 2 million residents.
The 82-year-old Abbas, meanwhile, might be thinking about his legacy. The political split has been a major stain on his rule, particularly at a time when attempts to negotiate the terms of Palestinian statehood with Israel seem to be going nowhere.
Egypt too – which has long resisted becoming more deeply involved in Gaza – appears to have shifted its own position, driven in large part by the Isis-linked insurgency in northern Sinai centred around the city of el-Arish, a short drive from the Rafah border crossing.
Palestinian officials speaking to the Guardian suggested that given Egypt’s role, neither Fatah nor Hamas wanted to be seen as obstacles to the negotiations being brokered by Cairo – a fact that had given momentum to the talks.
“Where the Qataris did not succeed, the Turks did not succeed, where Swiss and Norwegian efforts at reconciliation failed, the Egyptians have succeeded so far and in a few weeks,” said one official.
The devil, however, is likely to be in the detail as the Palestinian sides attempt to advance to far more contentious issues including national elections and the fate of Hamas’s armed wing.
With Abbas’s political popularity at rock bottom both in the West Bank and Gaza, he and his closest circle have shown little inclination to move forward with elections in which a Hamas-backed party could – as it did in 2006 – do well with voters.
And while Abbas has tried to insist that Hamas disband its armed wing, that is regarded as a red line by the organisation.
Those issues will be further complicated by Israel and by major foreign aid donors who will want to examine how Hamas officials are integrated into Fatah-run ministries if and when the deal moves forward.
The US Congress and state department – which lists Hamas as a foreign terrorist organisation – is legally bound to examine the implications of any deal, not least how it relates to US foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority.
A man holds Palestinian flags in front of an Egyptian flag during celebrations of a deal in the Gaza Strip.