How do you solve a problem like Palestinian reconciliation? Slowly, if at all

How do you solve a problem like Palestinian reconciliation? Slowly, if at all

Control of all Gaza border crossings is supposed to pass from Hamas to Fatah on Wednesday. Don’t bet on it

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

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)

A Hamas leader in the West Bank, Sheikh Hassan Yousef, pithily described the status of the reconciliation efforts between Fatah and Hamas in a recent interview with the Palestinian Donia Al-Watan website. “The Palestinian reconciliation is advancing slowly,” he said.

The slow progress is cause for concern, the news site reported, as the sanctions applied by the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority to pressure Hamas in the Gaza Strip have not yet been lifted.

Contacts between the longtime rivals indeed appear to be moving ahead at a snail’s pace, raising doubts about the chances of success for the latest rapprochement bid.

On Wednesday, control of the Gaza Strip border crossings is supposed to be transferred to the Palestinian Authority, according to Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar and Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmad, who is involved in the reconciliation talks. However, for the time being, it seems that applies only to the Kerem Shalom and Erez crossings, which border Israel. The Rafah crossing with Egypt and the Karni crossing with Israel will remain closed.

Egyptian trucks carrying fuel enter the southern Gaza Strip from Egypt through the Rafah border crossing on June 21, 2017. (AFP / SAID KHATIB)

But even as things stand today, there are no Hamas representatives at the Kerem Shalom and Erez crossings. Those who operate them on the Palestinian side are representatives of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza, while Hamas forces provide security outside the physical area of the crossings.

It remains to be seen whether Hamas will withdraw its fighters from those positions outside the crossings on Wednesday. What is certain is that both Hamas and Fatah are eager to make a display of unity and reconciliation — except, perhaps, Hamas’s West Bank leadership, which was less than thrilled with being left out of the loop while reconciliation talks were being held in Cairo.

Yousef himself didn’t hesitate to take a clear swipe at Sinwar. “The decision regarding Gaza isn’t in the hands of the head of Hamas’s political bureau in the Strip,” he said, belittling his colleague there.

Yousef also noted in his comments the most problematic point so far from Hamas’s point of view: The PA has not lifted the sanctions it imposed on the Strip, and Abbas has made clear that he has no intention of lifting them until Hamas proves that it is truly handing over its authority in Gaza to the Abbas government.

The transfer of power, if it is happening, is being carried out lackadaisically. We don’t see hundreds or thousands of clerks from the West Bank going to Gaza to run the daily business of government. Recent days have seen reports of disputes between Hamas and Fatah in the Strip surrounding the transfer of power at the environment authority and the land authority.

In the past, Hamas gave out hundreds of dunams (acres) of land to Hamas clerks in order to compensate them for not paying their wages over an extended period of time. What exactly will the land authority in Ramallah do when it takes control of power in Gaza? Will it take that land back?

In the meantime, there is still no discussion, never mind a solution, to the central matter of the Hamas military wing. Only on November 21 will representatives from the Palestinian factions gather in Cairo to discuss the reconciliation, and it is not at all clear if the subject of the weapons held by the military wing will be on the agenda even then. Here too, there is every suspicion that the reconciliation will remain mostly at the level of public relations, without genuine, dramatic change on the ground.

The bottom line: It seems that all these contacts the Egyptians have been overseeing are aimed less at achieving actual reconciliation and more at returning the PA to the Gaza Strip. This, perhaps, in the hope that, in the more distant future, an improved climate will enable negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians on the future of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

However, the reconciliation vision still looks very distant, and perhaps not even realistic, because of the persistent disputes between the two anything-but-united organizations.

Fatah’s Azzam al-Ahmad, right, and Saleh al-Arouri, left, of Hamas shake hands after signing a reconciliation deal in Cairo on October 12, 2017, as the two rival Palestinian movements ostensibly ended their decade-long split following negotiations overseen by Egypt. (AFP/Khaled Desouki)
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