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Gaza handover delay raises fresh doubts over Palestinian unity deal

Security control of enclave and fate of two separate civil administrations remain key sticking points

Palestinians in Gaza City wave Palestinian and Egyptian flags to celebrate the reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah in Egypt, October 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
Palestinians in Gaza City wave Palestinian and Egyptian flags to celebrate the reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah in Egypt, October 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

GAZA CITY (AFP) — Palestinian rival factions have delayed the handover of power in the Gaza Strip by at least 10 days, stoking assessments Thursday that a landmark deal to end their decade-long feud may be set to fail.

Fatah and Hamas announced the delay late Wednesday after sharp disagreements derailed a plan to return civil power in the Gaza Strip to the Palestinian Authority by Friday.

The handover would end terror group Hamas’s ten-year dominance of the blockaded Palestinian enclave and had raised hopes that deteriorating humanitarian conditions in the territory could be addressed.

Gaza has seen three wars with Israel since 2008.

A range of complex issues remain to be resolved, including security control of the Gaza Strip and the fate of two separate civil administrations.

Previous attempts at reconciliation between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement, based in the West Bank, and his rivals from Hamas have previously failed.

Khaled Fawzi, center, head of the Egyptian Intelligence services, arrives with Fatah’s Azzam al-Ahmad, left, and Hamas’ Saleh al-Arouri, right, before signing a reconciliation deal in Cairo on October 12, 2017, as the two rival Palestinian movements ended their decade-long split following negotiations overseen by Egypt. (AFP/ KHALED DESOUKI)

The two factions have not publicly presented a plan for how they will resolve remaining issues before the new December 10 deadline under the Egyptian-brokered accord.

Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian Authority minister, said he doubted a true handover could occur by the target date, though partial progress may allow the factions to keep the accord alive.

“This decision (to delay) was taken under pressure from the Egyptian delegation,” he said.

“The Egyptian delegation wants success, so they suggested 10 days and promised to continue their presence there and to put pressure on the two sides. I personally doubt that they can solve all those issues quickly.”

Wednesday’s late-night announcement followed a day of turbulence related to the reconciliation deal signed in Cairo on October 12.

Fatah’s top negotiator, Azzam al-Ahmad, told AFP on Wednesday that Hamas was “not committed to the agreement it signed in Cairo.”

Azzam al-Ahmad, head of Fatah’s Central Committee and delegation speaks during a press conference at the end of two days of closed-door talks attended by representatives of 13 leading political parties held in the Egyptian capital Cairo on November 22, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / MOHAMED EL-SHAHED)

“Until this moment, the problems and obstacles from Hamas are still there and are increasing.”

In response, senior Hamas official Bassem Naim accused Fatah of “maneuver” to avoid going through with the deal.

Hamas also accuses Abbas of violating the spirit of the agreement by so far refusing to lift punitive measures, including a cut in electricity payments for Gaza.

Also on Wednesday, PA employees were prevented by union delegates close to Hamas from returning to work at a number of ministries in the Gaza Strip.

Fatah and Hamas traded accusations over the incident.

As tensions built, Abbas ordered an immediate stop to public statements on reconciliation “for the sake of the Palestinian national interest and our relationship with our Egyptian brothers,” official news agency Wafa said.

Hamas has controlled the Gaza Strip since seizing it in a near civil war with Fatah in 2007, leaving the Palestinians with two separate administrations.

Islamist Palestinian movement Hamas’ senior political leader, Khalil al-Hayya (C), speaks during a press conference at the end of two days of closed-door talks attended by representatives of 13 leading political parties held in the Egyptian capital Cairo on November 22, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / MOHAMED EL-SHAHED)

A first deadline under the accord was met, with Hamas handing control of Gaza’s borders to the PA on November 1, but far more difficult issues remain.

After the 2007 power shift, the PA continued to pay around 60,000 staff in Gaza, despite the vast majority not working. Hamas has hired around 50,000 civil servants to replace them over the past decade, and the fate of those staff is a key sticking point, with unions insisting on a settlement.

The reconciliation agreement stipulates they have until February to find a solution for the Gaza employees, which could include merging the two civil services.

The future of the police force in Gaza as well as Hamas’s powerful armed wing is another key dispute between the parties, with the Islamist group refusing to disarm.

Abbas insists the PA have security control of the enclave of two million people.

Nikolay Mladenov, United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, speaks during a press conference at the UNESCO headquarters in Gaza City, September 25, 2017. (AFP/MOHAMMED ABED)

Nickolay Mladenov, UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, encouraged the factions to press ahead.

“The agreement that was reached in Cairo is a very important agreement,” he told journalists.

“It provides a good framework through which to bring the West Bank and Gaza back under a single legitimate Palestinian Authority.”

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