In Gaza for first time in 2 years, Palestinian PM says disunity serves Israel

Rami Hamdallah arrives at the head of large delegation amid Egypt-led push for Hamas-Fatah reconciliation after decade of estrangement

Dov Lieber is a former Times of Israel Arab affairs correspondent.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah (C) is surrounded by security as he waves following his arrival at the Erez border crossing in Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip on October 2, 2017. ( AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)
Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah (C) is surrounded by security as he waves following his arrival at the Erez border crossing in Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip on October 2, 2017. ( AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah arrived in Gaza Monday for his first visit in two years, as rival factions seek to overcome a decade of crippling divisions.

Hamdallah, along with dozens of ministers and officials from the West Bank-based PA, began crossing the border into the coastal enclave around noon, ahead of meetings with leaders of the rival Islamic faction Hamas.

The event is meant to be the first significant step in a transfer of powers from Hamas to the PA.

Hamas politicians and members of the premier’s Fatah faction greeted Hamdallah on the Gazan side of the crossing, as some 2,000 people gathered ahead of an expected speech.

Afterward, speaking from a stage in Beit Hanoun, Hamdallah said that there could be no Palestinian state without Gaza, and that his government would work to alleviate the suffering of the enclave’s residents.

Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah giving his first speech in Gaza since 2015. (Palestine TV screenshot)

He took the crowded stage surrounded by worried-looking security personnel and officials. As he spoke, there was audible talking in the background, and he quickly read his speech off pages in his hand.

“Alleviating the suffering of our people in the Gaza Strip is a priority of the government,” he said. “We declare to the world from the heart of Gaza that the Palestinian state will only come with the unification of the West Bank and Gaza.”

Gaza today is mired in poverty, with unemployment approaching 50 percent and receiving just a few hours of electricity each day. Essential medicine is growing more scarce in the Strip, and clean water has become harder to access and more expensive.

Hamdallah praised Hamas’s offer to turn over all governing responsibilities to his government but warned that there would be more work ahead before reconciliation would be complete.

Key sticking points, primarily the terror group’s refusal to disarm its powerful military wing, are likely to complicate or even derail the reconciliation efforts in the coming weeks.

“The government began to exercise its roles in Gaza from today,” Hamdallah said. “We return to Gaza again to end the division and achieve unity.”

He also praised the Egyptian efforts in helping to facilitate the reconciliation process.

Images of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi were held aloft by some of those who welcomed Hamdallah to Gaza. A billboard near the ceremony thanked el-Sissi for his efforts in helping to improve the Palestinian people’s situation.

delegation of Egyptian intelligence officials is currently in the Strip to help facilitate talks, while chief of Egyptian Intelligence Khaled Fawzi is expected to arrive Tuesday.

Hamas, which Israel and most Western countries consider a terror group, won legislative elections in 2006 and the following year seized control of Gaza by overrunning Fatah forces loyal of PA President Mahmoud Abbas. Since then, the PA has governed only in autonomous enclaves of the West Bank, while repeated attempts to reconcile with Hamas have failed. Hamas has not held elections since.

In previous deals, including one brokered by Egypt in 2011, both sides professed willingness to reconcile, but ultimately balked at sharing power in their respective territories.

Hamdallah stressed a number of times during his speech that the political division among Palestinians served only Israel’s interests.

“It is time to stand and work, as the only beneficiary of this division is the occupation,” he said.

Hamdallah called on the international community to pressure Israel into lifting its blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Yahya Sinwar (R) the new leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip and senior Hamas official Ismail Haniyeh attend the funeral of Hamas official Mazen Faqha in Gaza city on March 25, 2017. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)

Since seizing control of Gaza in 2007, Hamas, which seeks Israel’s elimination, has fought three wars with Israel. The Strip is under Egyptian and Israeli blockade — aimed by Israel to prevent Hamas from importing weaponry.

Hamdallah is expected to meet Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and the group’s Gaza chief, Yahya Sinwar, later Monday, and chair a cabinet meeting on Tuesday.

The logistics of the visit are themselves an indication of Palestinian divisions and challenges.

Arriving by road from Ramallah, about 70 kilometers (44 miles) away in the West Bank, Hamdallah’s convoy crossed Israel and then transited the fortress-like Erez crossing into Gaza before passing a Hamas checkpoint.

The delegation’s visit is seen to be largely symbolic and preparing the ground for further talks, probably in Cairo. The outcome will determine the Palestinians’ acceptance on the international stage. The PA recognizes Israel, but that appears to remain out of the question for Hamas.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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