Pales­tinian pact

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY LOVE­DAY MOR­RIS love­day.mor­ris@wash­post.com Heba Mah­fouz in Cairo and Su­fian Taha in Jerusalem con­trib­uted to this re­port.

Ri­val fac­tions Ha­mas and Fatah agree to a unity plan af­ter 10 years of di­vided lead­er­ship in the Mid­dle East.

jerusalem — The Pales­tinian mil­i­tant group Ha­mas backed a plan to be­gin rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with its ri­val, Fatah, on Thurs­day, af­ter more than a decade at log­ger­heads that left the Pales­tinian ter­ri­to­ries split between com­pet­ing lead­er­ships.

Pales­tinian of­fi­cials said the deal stip­u­lates that a unity govern­ment formed in 2014 and led by Pales­tinian Author­ity Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ab­bas’s Fatah party will run the Gaza Strip un­til a new ad­min­is­tra­tion is formed be­fore the end of the year. But thorny ob­sta­cles that have blocked past unity bids — in­clud­ing the fate of Ha­mas’s pow­er­ful armed wing — have not yet been dis­cussed.

Mean­while, Is­raeli ob­jec­tions also have the po­ten­tial to de­rail unity ef­forts. Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu said Is­rael op­poses any rec­on­cil­i­a­tion deal in which Ha­mas does not dis­arm and “end its war to de­stroy Is­rael.” He said rec­on­cil­i­a­tion makes “peace much harder to achieve.”

Pales­tini­ans have long ac­cused Is­rael of ob­struct­ing rec­on­cil­i­a­tion ef­forts to weaken and di­vide them.

The split be­gan when Ha­mas won Pales­tinian elec­tions in 2006, lead­ing to bloody gun bat­tles on the streets of Gaza when Fatah did not cede power. Since then, Ha­mas has run the Gaza Strip, while Fatah has ad­min­is­tered parts of the Is­raeli-oc­cu­pied West Bank through the Pales­tinian Author­ity.

There have been sev­eral abortive at­tempts at unity over the past 10 years. But af­ter the two sides agreed to form a unity govern­ment three years ago, Ha­mas con­tin­ued to run Gaza through a shadow ad­min­is­tra­tion. This time, though, some Pales­tinian of­fi­cials say that the con­di­tions are more con­ducive to rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.

Gaza is in the midst of a wors­en­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis that has par­a­lyzed daily life for its 2 mil­lion in­hab­i­tants. Since Ha­mas took con­trol, Is­rael has im­posed re­stric­tive con­trols on trade and move­ment, cit­ing se­cu­rity con­cerns.

But the stran­gle­hold wors­ened this sum­mer as the Pales­tinian Author­ity asked Is­rael to re­duce the elec­tric­ity sup­ply to Gaza, de­mand­ing Ha­mas pay its share of the cost and leav­ing Gaza in­hab­i­tants with just a few hours of power a day. It also slashed the salaries it pays to govern­ment em­ploy­ees. Los­ing sup­port lo­cally, Ha­mas has said it is ready to hand over ad­min­is­tra­tive con­trol. Mean­while, rec­on­cil­i­a­tion is now in­creas­ingly in the in­ter­est of in­flu­en­tial re­gional play­ers.

The deal set a Fe­bru­ary dead­line for merg­ing em­ploy­ees be­long­ing to the Pales­tinian Author­ity in Gaza with those of Ha­mas’s ad­min­is­tra­tion, Pales­tinian of­fi­cials said, adding that the deal paves the way for Ab­bas to visit Gaza for the first time in a decade. A com­mit­tee will be formed to merge thou­sands of Pales­tinian Author­ity se­cu­rity per­son­nel into Ha­mas’s po­lice force.

Con­trol of the Pales­tinian side of the Erez border cross­ing with Is­rael will be handed to the Pales­tinian Author­ity, while the Pales­tinian side of the Rafah cross­ing with Egypt will be ceded to Ab­bas’s pres­i­den­tial guard. The open­ing of the Rafah cross­ing would ease pres­sure on Pales­tini­ans in Gaza, only a tiny per­cent­age of whom re­ceive per­mis­sion from Is­rael to leave the en­clave. Egypt, mean­while, has only spo­rad­i­cally opened its border in re­cent years.

“Egypt is putting all its weight be­hind th­ese ef­forts,” said Qais Ab­dul Karim, a mem­ber of the Pales­tinian Leg­isla­tive Coun­cil who be­longs to nei­ther fac­tion.

Egypt is at­tempt­ing to stamp out an in­sur­gency in its Si­nai Penin­sula by mil­i­tants who have pledged al­le­giance to the Is­lamic State. It has ac­cused Ha­mas of aid­ing the mil­i­tants, al­low­ing them to cross the border for med­i­cal treat­ment. Through the deal, Egypt can pres­sure Ha­mas to safe­guard Egyp­tian se­cu­rity in Si­nai, Ab­dul Karim said.

He added that Cairo also has in­ter­ests in draw­ing Ha­mas away from the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood, which has faced bru­tal crack­downs in Egypt since the ouster of Egypt’s pres­i­dent, Broth­er­hood leader Mo­hamed Morsi, in 2013. The United Arab Emi­rates, Saudi Ara­bia and Bahrain are work­ing in part­ner­ship with Egypt to squeeze the Broth­er­hood and curb the in­flu­ence of their re­gional ri­vals Qatar and Turkey in Gaza, Ab­dul Karim said.

Is­rael also has in­ter­ests in eas­ing the Gaza hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis, which it sees as a se­cu­rity threat. Is­rael has fought three wars with Ha­mas. Still, Ab­dul Karim said, Is­raeli ob­jec­tions may cause the deal to stall be­fore any mean­ing­ful pact can be forged.

The “so-called rec­on­cil­i­a­tion” between Ha­mas and Fatah is “a con­ve­nient cover for Ha­mas’s con­tin­ued ex­is­tence and ac­tiv­ity as a ter­ror or­ga­ni­za­tion while re­lin­quish­ing civil­ian re­spon­si­bil­ity for the Gaza Strip,” Is­raeli In­tel­li­gence Min­is­ter Is­rael Katz said. He said Ab­bas’s will­ing­ness to part­ner with Ha­mas lead­ers was a “cause for con­cern.”

The ques­tion of what to do about Ha­mas’s armed wing of more than 20,000 mil­i­tants re­mains a ma­jor stick­ing point.

While Ha­mas may be will­ing to cede ad­min­is­tra­tive con­trol of Gaza it has given no in­di­ca­tion that it would be will­ing to give up con­trol of se­cu­rity.

An­a­lysts say the United States is also more in­ter­ested in unity, which it sees as a nec­es­sary step to bring about peace talks between Is­raelis and Pales­tini­ans. Pres­i­dent Trump has pledged to bring the two sides to­gether in the “ul­ti­mate deal.”

Pales­tinian Prime Min­is­ter Rami Ham­dal­lah made a rare visit, sur­rounded by much fan­fare, to Gaza ear­lier this month af­ter Ha­mas asked the unity govern­ment to take con­trol and dis­solved its gov­ern­ing ad­min­is­tra­tion.

The U.S. Mid­dle East en­voy, Ja­son Green­blatt, said the United States was watch­ing de­vel­op­ments closely, but he said that any Pales­tinian govern­ment must “un­am­bigu­ously and ex­plic­itly com­mit to non­vi­o­lence, recog­ni­tion of the state of Is­rael, ac­cep­tance of pre­vi­ous agree­ment and obli­ga­tions between the par­ties, and peace­ful ne­go­ti­a­tions.”

In Gaza, hope is damp­ened by the mem­ory of pre­vi­ous failed ne­go­ti­a­tion ef­forts. Res­tau­rant owner Basil Eleina said last month that the hu­man­i­tar­ian sit­u­a­tion is the worst he has ever known.

He has been forced to pay $8,000 a month for gen­er­a­tor fuel to keep his busi­ness open. It is an achieve­ment ev­ery month to keep his 36 staff mem­bers em­ployed, Eleina said.

“Ev­ery­body is hop­ing, but we have been dis­ap­pointed so many times that you don’t want to let your­self have too much hope,” he said.

KHALED DESOUKI/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IM­AGES

Del­e­ga­tion heads Saleh al-Arouri, left, of Ha­mas and Az­zam al-Ah­mad of Fatah sign a rec­on­cil­i­a­tion deal Thurs­day in Cairo. De­tails of the deal were yet to be re­leased, and ma­jor ob­sta­cles re­mained in the ef­fort to unite the Pales­tinian groups af­ter a 10-year lead­er­ship split.

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