On November 1, 2017 Hamas handed over control of its five border crossings to the Palestinian Authority, the first of many changes to take shape within Gaza following the reconciliation deal signed last month on October 12. The next benchmark will be President Mahmoud Abbas’ first visit to Gaza in ten years sometime this month. Abbas is due to participate in discussions on how once dueling factions, Hamas and Fatah, will unite under a single banner—and to steer a process for elections.
Despite the planned trip, skepticism is fomenting in the streets. No date has been announced for the historic visit that would signify an end to a bitter and bloody struggle for power between Fatah and Hamas that began in 2007, and the first chance for new representatives in more than a decade.
Even so there are a few clues that this reporter found that shows the trip, and reconciliation more broadly, are still inching forward: The governor of North Gaza Salah Abu Warda told Mondoweiss: “Renovating Abbas’ house in Gaza has already started, as a prelude to his visit to Gaza.”
There is a lot at stake for Palestinians in Gaza. Chief among their concerns are how the detente will put an end to a humanitarian crisis across the strip, spurred over the summer at a time of widening disputes between Palestinian factions and austere economic measures from Ramallah. Add to that the loss of Qatar as a major benefactor, and Gaza is left running on just four hours of electricity a day. Sewage now dumps into the sea, beaches are putrid, and swimming poses a serious risk to health (even death).
The prospects of resolving these issues heightened support for reconciliation in Gaza even before the terms of the agreement were known. When Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah stopped in Gaza in October before the marathon meetings with Hamas officials, he was unexpectedly greeted by warm crowds. People were eager for a change, any change.
Optimism in Gaza also ran up to the top brass of Hamas’ political leadership. Political bureau member Salah al-Bardawil told Mondoweiss days before the reconciliation deal was signed, “Hamas’ decision for national reconciliation is a strategic decision. All Hamas members will be following the leaders to actualize reconciliation and end political divisions.”
As early as September, high-ranking Hamas officials began prepping the local population for some form of coming unity government with the West Bank. Yahya Sinwar, head of Hamas, who was voted into the position earlier this year by a party leadership council, was the most vocal senior leader in the lead up to reconciliation.
Two days before Rami Hamdallah arrived in Gaza in September, Sinwar met with Palestinian youth, intellectuals and media at the al-Commodore Hotel in Gaza to expatiate on the benefits of making concessions to the Palestinian Authority. He talked for four hours.
Sinwar opened the floor for an unusually candid discussion. In the first round of queries he was asked around 25 questions ranging from the deterioration of the Palestinian cause, to Hamas’ mistakes in the government over the previous years, to how Hamas perceives the humanitarian and social realities that Palestinians in the strip endure.
I asked Sinwar about what Hamas would do if reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority fails. He indicated that signing a deal with Ramallah was essential to keeping Hamas in power in the long-term. “If reconciliation talks fail, Hamas will withdraw from the scene,” he replied.
Other statements Sinwar said pointed to the fear that if reconciliation collapses, Gaza would plunge into another war with Israel similar to events that led up to the 2014 war. Sinwar showed awareness that there are local opposition factions who are waiting to capitalize off of the power vacuum Hamas’ demise would create. Sinwar assured that Hamas does not seek war, but at the same time he said that al-Qassam Brigades is ready for any coming conflict; he warned: “Al-Qassam Brigades can fire [the same number of rockets] on Tel Aviv in 51 minutes as it fired in 51 days [in 2014],”
At one point, Sinwar threatened anyone who opposed reconciliation: “I, with a crowd of youth, will break the neck of anyone who does not want reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah.”
Reconciliation efforts, he said, are supported heavily by Mohammed al-Deif the leader of Hamas’ armed wing, al-Qassam Brigades. To this, the attendees clapped. The room was full of acclamation.
Compromise with leaders in Ramallah is not new ideology for Sinwar, who served 22 years in an Israeli prison before being released during the 2011 Shalit prisoner exchange. Sinwar is regarded as being instrumental to that deal. Once back in Gaza, he supported the 2014 National Consensus Government.
It is not surprising then that Sinwar told the audience he was prepared to make major concessions to the Palestinian Authority for the sake of achieving a breakthrough.
“There will be sudden concessions [from] everyone at the national level,” he said.
Observers in Gaza have talked about these concessions as a way to trade war for peace.
Political analyst Abdel Sattar Qassem, a professor of political science at Nablus’ An-Najah National University, said that reconciliation will succeed in the long-run: “There are valuable regional parties seeking to actualize reconciliation as a means to achieve their self-interests, which will lead to the ‘deal of the century’ that the Egyptian president [Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi talked about,” he said, referring to Donald Trump’s attempt to broker a broad Middle East peace plan that would include Egypt, Israel and the Palestinians among others.
Others pointed to changing alliances in the region as a driving factor.
Naji Shurrab, a lecturer at al-Azhar University, added, “Hamas found itself alone after it became obvious that Arab countries tried to normalize the existence of Israel in the region. This is why they asked for Egypt’s help.”
“Besides, Hamas is not intending to lose its way with Egypt, especially since Egypt is a gatekeeper to the regional and international world,” he said.
“If the reconciliation failed this time, the living conditions in Gaza will become worse and worse,” he concluded.
Analyst Zulfikar Sawirjo, a member of the central committee in the Palestinian Public Front in Gaza, agreed that Egypt’s involvement in the agreement lends legitimacy. “Palestinian reconciliation became a Palestinian, Arab, and regional priority. Large Arab and international parties have now an interest in ending the conflict. The interest of ending the conflict is now common, this is why I believe it will work this time.”
Sawirjo clarified that there is also a common internal Palestinian interest in achieving reconciliation. Without Hamas and Gaza, Mahmoud Abbas can never fully advocate on behalf of Palestine at the United Nations or negotiate with Israel. And for Hamas, its only avenue to alleviating the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza strip is through Ramallah.
Hussam al-Dajany, a political analyst and lecturer in al-Umma University, had a less optimistic view. Touching on one of the most controversial aspects of reconciliation, weapons—and who will have access to them in Gaza—al-Dajany said, “If Hamas’ resistance weapons are unbridled, Israel will not stay silent for long. They’ll destroy everything and we’ll return to the starting point again.”
“We still have talks, not actual practices. When practices start, we’ll see what will happen,” he concluded.
The terms of the agreement
The reconciliation agreement outlined a framework for moving administrative authority in Gaza under the fold of the Palestinian Authority, by re-establishing the National Consensus Government, a short lived-power sharing body first established in 2014.
In advance of the detente between Hamas and Fatah, Gazans hope that at the top of the agenda would be finding a solution for the lack of electricity and devastating consequences to health to the 1.8 million Palestinians in the besieged strip. Yet Gazans found themselves disappointed when this did not make it to the agenda. Abbas alluded to solving Gaza’s financial crisis even before the reconciliation deal was signed at the beginning of October in an interview with the CBC’s Mays al-Hadidi. When speaking of public funds earmarked for Gaza that the Palestinian Authority froze, he said the money would be transferred if there was a change of local power.
“The returning of this part [of the budget] will come when the government is able to restore all of its functions in Gaza, but I am not rushing things because this effort needs time and work,” Abbas said.
Some officials in Gaza warn without practical improvements to the daily lives of Palestinians, people will grow frustrated. Many had hoped ending the electricity crisis would be a first step in bridging the political divide, yet it was left off of the agenda.
“The delay of announcing the end of those punitive measures during the consensus government statement weakened the optimism of the people,” Hamas legislator Yahya Moussa told Mondoweiss after the reconciliation agreement was signed. “Lifting those measures represents the minimum requirements of the [national] consensus government.”
Speaking in Ramallah mid-October Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, who heads the National Consensus Government, addressed this point when he said, “Do not expect that the problems of 11 years of division will end in days.”
On the table for discussion are how Gaza’s Hamas 45,000 public employees will come under the fold of the National Consensus Government, a sort of unity leadership council comprised of government ministers from both Hamas and Fatah. How these employees will be paid is one of the more complicated issues of the deal, but officials from both Fatah and Hamas have agreed getting the employees paid is a priority.
A spokesperson for Fatah, Fayez Abu Aita, told Sama News that the Palestinian Authority will pay Hamas’ appointed public employees for the month of November in December, and then find a comprehensive solution for who will pay the employees by February 2018. While Hamas’ Salah al-Bardawil told me a slightly different account of the arrangement: Hamas and Fatah will each pay two months of the salaries over the next four months.
Back in October, senior member of Fatah Mohammed Shatayyeh underscored, “People should be reassured that everyone who works will receive a salary and those who do not want to work will not receive the salary. Basically, we will not pay any old person on the street,” he added.
Just before reconciliation kicked off, Gaza suffered a series of economic blows that was tangled up in punitive measures from Ramallah. The Palestinian Authority slashed salaries of Gaza’s public employees.
Additionally, the agreement stipulates the Gaza Strip will build up its police force with 3,000 more officers from the West Bank.
With most of the fine print incomplete, at the moment reconciliation is in a transitional stage where most of the fallout is occurring inside of Gaza. Merging government ministries between the two geographically separated and occupied Palestinian territories has started, but is far from over.
During Abbas’ upcoming visit, another major agreement could be signed, a formal “end of division” document between Gaza-based Hamas and West Bank-based Fatah. This would make an official close of hostilities that erupted in 2007 where the West Bank and Gaza were separated through a two-month bloody struggle for power in Gaza that ended in competing governments.
The Abbas visit is also expected to coincide with meetings on establishing elections. Palestinians have not held presidential or legislative elections in over a decade.
Reportedly, Hamas is simultaneously seeking to join the PLO (the Palestinian Liberation Organization, which is the Palestinian representative to the international community). The PLO controls all Palestinian diplomatic affairs and has the sole authority to sign binding peace agreements with Israel, participate in United Nations agencies and make declarations of war.
“All factions needs to be part of PLO and adopt one program,” Hamas legislator Khalil al-Hayya told Mondoweiss, “In regard to peace and war, we need a united decision and this can’t be achieved as long as we’re not functioning as one government that represents all of us.”
After the reconciliation deal with signed, Yahya Sinwar called for another meeting with influential Palestinian youth, intellectuals, politicians, party heads, and journalists. At least 300 showed up this time to the October 19 event at the Chalets Hall in Gaza.
Sinwar stressed all of the points he raised in that first meeting where he received a round of applause in anticipation of the deal. With the agreement now inked, he described the Cairo talks as “difficult.”
His most important statement was commenting on Benjamin Netanyahu’s description of the reconciliation as “faux reconciliations” because neither Fatah or Hamas bothered to recognize Israel in this document (a statement Netanyahu made while speaking in a West Bank settlement). Addressing the Israeli Prime Minister, Sinwar took a harsher tone that walked back some of the pragmatism in the new Hamas Charter he supported a few months before: “No one can force any conditions on us. Reconciliation is a Palestinian issue and no one can interfere with it.”
“We have passed the stage of discussing the idea of recognizing Israel. Now we are not discussing recognizing Israel, but destroying it and when that will happen,” he said.