Ignoring elephant in the room, Hamas-Fatah talks advance with Egyptian help

Ignoring elephant in the room, Hamas-Fatah talks advance with Egyptian help

Head of Fatah faction says time not ripe to discuss dissolving Hamas’s armed wing, as Cairo reportedly plans US-backed international conference in Sharm el-Sheikh

Dov Lieber is The Times of Israel's Arab affairs correspondent.

Hamas's leader Ismail Haniyeh (C-R) meets with Egyptian Intelligence Minister Khalid Fawzi at the latter's office in Gaza City on October 3, 2017. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)
Hamas's leader Ismail Haniyeh (C-R) meets with Egyptian Intelligence Minister Khalid Fawzi at the latter's office in Gaza City on October 3, 2017. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)

Reconciliation talks between rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah are for now ignoring the thorny issue of the future of the terror group’s military wing and weaponry, and with the help of Egypt are concentrating first on asserting the Palestinian Authority’s power in the Gaza Strip, including control over the border with Egypt, according to statements by officials and Arabic media reports.

On Wednesday, Azzam al-Ahmad, the official leading the Fatah faction’s delegation, told the Pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat that “Egypt has made unprecedented efforts towards the reconciliation…due to the changing regional and international political stances.”

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi has thrown his weight behind the talks, saying last week that Palestinian reconciliation is “preparation for a just peace between Palestinian and Israeli sides.”

The talks began in the headquarters of the Egyptian intelligence in Cairo on Tuesday and will last for two-three days, a Fatah spokesperson said.

On Tuesday, Ahmad said “empowering the government in Gaza” would be the main point of the current talks.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Azzam al-Ahmad (C) of the mainstream Fatah movement walks to a meeting with a Hamas delegation at a hotel in Cairo following reconciliation talks on September 24, 2014 in the Egyptian capital. (photo credit AFP/Khaled Desouki)

The Palestinian daily al-Quds reported on Wednesday that Egypt presented each side with 22 items for dealing with this stage of the reconciliation process, including a US-backed international conference in the Egyptian town Sharm el-Sheikh, with a regional presence.

The Egyptians reportedly also proposed a new round of talks in Cairo in a month, which would be followed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas spending a a few days in his presidential headquarters in Gaza.

Lastly, the al-Quds report said Egypt plans to reopen its embassy in Gaza, which will include a security attache who will facilitate solving security issues between the two sides. The Egyptian delegation in Gaza would also help facilitate movement through the Rafah border crossing, as well as help to solve the electricity and water crises currently plaguing the Strip.

Gaza currently receives just several hours of electricity a day after Abbas decided in March to reduce funding to the Strip by around 22 percent, in an attempt to coerce the Hamas terror group into ceding power.

According to the Asharq al-Awsat report, in this first round of negotiations, Hamas is aiming to reverse some of the measures enacted by the PA through the reduced funding, including those affecting thousands of Gaza government employees who had their salaries slashed or were fired.

A Fatah official in Cairo, Samih Barzaq, told Asharq Al-Awsat that the measures taken by the PA against Gaza employees would be lifted “very soon.”

A Hamas fighter stands next to a billboard bearing a portrait of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi near the Palestinian government headquarters in Gaza City on October 3, 2017. (AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed)

The two sides remain sharply at odds, however, over the future of Hamas’s 25,000-strong armed wing, which the terror group says is nonnegotiable.

Abbas has said he won’t allow any unity government to be formed without all Palestinian weapons coming under the control of the PA.

Meanwhile, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said the weapons of the “resistance” — referring to the terror group’s army — would not be given up until the conflict with Israel is ended.

Haniyeh did say, however, that the decision of whether to go to war with Israel would be a collective Palestinian decision.

On the issue of Hamas’s weapons, Ahmad, who is in charge of the reconciliation issue for Fatah, said it was not necessary to discuss the matter at this stage.

“We have crystal clear agreements before and after the division, and there is no need to talk about unnecessary things such as the weapons of resistance and the employees. These are obstacles that aim to spread frustration and despair,” he told the Palestinian news site Quds Press on Monday.

Both sides have agreed that their 2011 Cairo agreement, which calls for the holding of presidential and parliamentary elections, and the restructuring of security services, would serve as the framework for the current talks.

Mirroring Haniyeh’s statement, Ahmad added: “The decision of the type of resistance is a national decision, not a sectarian one, and no one has the right to take the decision to wage war alone.”

While acknowledging that the issue of the employees was an “obstacle,” Ahmad said it would be “solved within four months.”

The Islamists of the Hamas terror group and the West Bank-based Fatah movement of Abbas have been at odds since they fought a near civil war in 2007.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah (C) chairs a reconciliation government cabinet meeting in Gaza City on October 3, 2017. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

Multiple previous attempts at reconciliation have failed but the latest Egyptian-led push received a major boost last month when Hamas agreed to cede civil power in Gaza.

The talks follow a key breakthrough last week when Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah visited Hamas-run Gaza for the first time since 2015 and his ministers officially took control of government departments there.

Senior figures in the Fatah delegation that went to Egypt include intelligence chief Majed Faraj and Fayez Abu Eita, a party leader in the Gaza Strip, the official Palestinian news agency Wafa said.

Newly appointed Hamas deputy leader Salah al-Aruri, who in recent years served as the terror group’s head of West Bank operations, and the organization’s Gaza chief Yahya Sinwar are leading the Hamas delegation, a spokesman said.

Times of Israel staff and AFP contributed to this report.

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