Abbas planning to widen anti-Hamas push as Palestinian rift grows

Sources say PA leader mulling rescinding passports for Hamas members or stipends to families of prisoners in bid to ramp up pressure on Gaza

In this file photo taken on January 8, 2019, Palestinians sit waiting at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, in the southern Gaza Strip. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)
In this file photo taken on January 8, 2019, Palestinians sit waiting at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, in the southern Gaza Strip. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

The decade-long Palestinian split looks set to deepen in the coming months, with PA President Mahmoud Abbas poised to take multiple measures against Gaza to squeeze its Islamist rulers.

Abbas has for years withheld transfers of tax money to Gaza, while also trying to clamp down on fuel supplies and carrying out arrests, as part of a campaign to pressure the Hamas terror group into giving up control of Gaza.

Last week, the PA announced it would withdraw from the Rafah border crossing with Egypt as another sign of a rift with Hamas after a reconciliation agreement fell apart.

Senior officials close to Abbas say he is looking for other measures to punish Hamas.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, left, attends a Christmas midnight mass at Saint Catherine’s Church in the Church of the Nativity, traditionally recognized by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, on December 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser, Pool)

Among these could be removing staff from the crossings between Israel and Gaza — making it hard for the Jewish state to allow anything into the territory without dealing directly with Hamas.

They could also include cutting salaries to families of Hamas prisoners or rescinding Palestinian passports for Hamas employees.

Abbas has also pledged to dissolve the Hamas-dominated Palestinian parliament, which though it hasn’t met since the 2007 split is still nominally the basis for new laws.

The moves raise concerns of more suffering for Gaza’s 2 million residents, already under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade and facing severe electricity shortages, while a cornered Hamas could renew violence against Israel.

Analysts say the measures will also widen the gap between Hamas-run Gaza and the West Bank, where Abbas’s Fatah faction dominates the Palestinian Authority.

“Very important decisions against Hamas are being discussed,” a senior official said on condition of anonymity.

It follows a series of arrests of those affiliated with Fatah in Gaza, according to Abbas allies.

Palestinian children carry water bottles in the al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza City on January 4, 2018. ( AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED ABED)

The official said the PA spent around $100 million per month in Gaza, including for electricity subsidies, and was looking to cut back significantly.

“Those that want to rule Gaza must bear the responsibility of governing it,” the official said.

Azzam al-Ahmad, a senior Abbas ally and negotiator of the 2017 reconciliation agreement, told AFP “the leadership is considering a number of measures.”

Senior Hamas official Bassem Naim said the Islamists had seen similar threats before.

“Any type of sanctions such as electricity, preventing medicine, closing the border or cutting the salaries are intended to blackmail residents into rising against Hamas and they fail,” he told AFP.

“This is the most that Abbas can do.”

Gaza Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh (3rd-R) waves upon his arrival at a rally marking the 31st anniversary of Hamas’ founding, in Gaza City December 16, 2018. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

Hamas and Abbas’s secular Fatah party have been at loggerheads since the terror group seized control of Gaza from Abbas’s forces in a near civil war in 2007.

Hamas, which is committed to the destruction of Israel, has since fought three bloody wars with the Jewish state and fears of a fourth remain.

Multiple reconciliation attempts between the Palestinian factions have failed but Egypt thought it had made a breakthrough in late 2017 when the two sides agreed to eventually share power.

As part of that agreement Hamas withdrew from border crossings between Gaza and Egypt and Israel, allowing the Palestinian Authority to return and the Egyptian border to be reopened regularly.

The reconciliation agreement has since collapsed in acrimony.

The closing of the Rafah border crossing has created a dilemma for Cairo about whether to leave it open with Hamas in control.

Palestinian security forces loyal to Hamas stand guard at the Rafah border crossing, in the Southern Gaza Strip on January 8, 2019. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Egypt closed the crossing to traffic out of Gaza following the move, but Hamas says Cairo promised to reopen it.

The Egyptian military sent a senior delegation to the Palestinian enclave on Thursday, led by deputy chief of the Egyptian General Intelligence Services Ayman Badia, in an effort to negotiate a settlement on some of the issues and prevent an escalation.

The delegation left Gaza on Friday afternoon and traveled to Ramallah in the West Bank for talks with the PA.

Israel says it maintains a blockade on Gaza to keep Hamas and other terror groups from rearming or building up defense infrastructure.

‘Short-term thinking’

Hugh Lovatt of the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank said the PA withdrawal from the border crossings was part of a “package of measures designed to try and squeeze Hamas.”

He warned that the rift could weaken the Palestinians’ ability to respond to American or Israeli pressure.

“It is not irreversible but it is certainly a very negative step. This is short-term thinking triumphing longer-term strategy.”

Nadia Hijab, president of the Al-Shabaka Palestinian think-tank, said the infighting prevented a united front against Israeli policies.

“Palestinians fear that this latest move will cement the division and lead to a complete break between Gaza and the West Bank, something Israel has been pushing,” she said.

Both sides were “playing politics with people’s lives instead of taking on Israel’s 50-year-plus occupation,” she said.

Palestinians march in the streets of Ramallah, calling for the cessation of divisions between Fatah and Hamas and the unification of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, on January 12, 2019. (ABBAS MOMANI / AFP)

But Israeli military officials are said to oppose moves to cut aid to the Strip, fearing built-up pressure could turn against it.

Senior Egyptian officials were quoted in a report Thursday in the Qatari al-Araby al-Jadid newspaper as saying that the Israeli defense establishment “is concerned that squeezing the Gaza Strip will turn the attention of the Palestinian factions toward” Israel.

A series of protests along the Gaza border calmed in recent months after Hamas and Israel struck an agreement that saw Qatari aid allowed into the territory.

Last week, it was reported that Israel had blocked a third tranche of Qatari funding, after a brief bought of violence that saw an explosive device and a rocket launched into Israel and retaliatory airstrikes.

A Palestinian protester uses a slingshot to hurl stones at Israeli forces across the border fence, during clashes following a demonstration along the border with Israel east of Gaza City on January 11, 2019. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

Violence flared again on Saturday as a rocket was shot into Israel, a day after a Palestinian woman was killed by Israeli fire during border riots. Israel carried out retaliatory airstrikes on Hamas targets late Saturday night.

“If the Israelis do block the money, then I think it is almost a certainty you will see Hamas increasing the tension on the border,” Lovatt said.

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