The Palestinian unity government held its first-ever session in the Gaza Strip on Thursday, with technocrat Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah touring some of the areas worst affected by fighting over the summer and vowing “huge efforts” to lift the blockade on the coastal enclave and rebuild it.
The lawmakers visited Beit Hanoun and the Gaza City neighborhood of Shejaiya, a Hamas stronghold and the site of heavy clashes during Operation Protective Edge, where 13 soldiers in the Golani Brigade were killed in one night on July 19. Subsequent IDF operations in the area wrought destruction in the area and caused thousands to be displaced.
As Hamdallah toured the devastated area along with other government members, he said rebuilding Gaza was the Palestinians’ top priority, replacing years of division and dispute.
“We have put the years of disagreement behind us and started to achieve reconciliation in order to get the international community to stick to its responsibilities of reconstruction, ending the siege, opening all Gaza’s crossings and operating a safe passage between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip,” Hamdallah said hours into the one-day visit, in remarks quoted by the Palestinian Ma’an news agency.
His remarks came three days ahead of a donor conference to be held in Cairo on Sunday, which will be attended by Hamdallah as well as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The Palestinians say $4 billion will be required over three years to rebuild the territory. The reconstruction efforts, as well as the security of Israel’s borders with Gaza, will be overseen by the Palestinian Authority.
By meeting in Gaza for the first time, the Cabinet, which reports to the Western-backed Abbas, hopes to reassure donors it can lead reconstruction efforts.
Hamdallah and other senior West Bank lawmakers were heavily escorted by Hamas and Fatah security personnel.
“What we have seen today is dreadful and painful, and it has become clear to us that the rebuilding (of Gaza) is at the top of our list of priorities,” he said after the tour.
“I have wept in Beit Hanoun when I saw how people are living and where they are sleeping,” Reuters quoted Hamdallah as saying. “I hope the donor conference will be a success and that money donated will be enough so we can immediately begin the rebuilding.”
He also addressed the people of Gaza, pledging, “I come to you representing President Mahmoud Abbas and, as head of the government of national consensus, to assume our responsibilities, see your needs and launch a comprehensive workshop to salvage Gaza and bring relief to our people here.”
Earlier, Hamdallah told reporters that rebuilding Gaza would require a functioning unity government.
“We are facing a humanitarian and moral duty to our people in Gaza,” he said after entering Gaza via the Israeli-controlled Erez crossing.
The lawmakers traveled from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip early Thursday with the cooperation and authorization of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), Major-General Yoav Mordechai, for their first cabinet session there — a meeting meant to signal the end of Hamas’s absolute control of the territory.
The meeting came some four months after Fatah and Hamas reached a reconciliation agreement and over a month after Israel and Gaza-based terror groups ended a bloody 50-day war.
Hamdallah described the event as an “historic opportunity.”
“Our message to our people in Gaza is about bringing back hope, uniting institutions and reconstruction. The Palestinian national project is incomplete without Gaza, and the president gave clear instructions last night to the government confirming that we should rebuild Gaza,” he told Palestinian news agency Ma’an earlier Thursday.
“It’s our responsibility to provide work opportunities for Gaza workers, and we will overstep external challenges with good will,” he added.
The gathering took place at Abbas’s Gaza residence.
On Wednesday, Israel Radio quoted deputy Palestinian Deputy Prime Minister Muhammad Mustafa saying Palestinian Authority observers would begin to man the Palestinian side of the Kerem Shalom and Erez crossings into the Gaza Strip in the coming days.
He said the unity government would take responsibility for the crossings and that no members of any Palestinian organization would be allowed near them, as per the truce agreement reached with Hamas in Cairo.
It’s not clear, though, how much authority the new government will have on the ground. Hamas, which seized Gaza from Abbas in 2007 after a violent battle, says it will step aside, but refuses to disband its security forces.
The Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip killed nearly 2,200 people, at least half of them combatants according to Israel, while 72 died on the Israeli side, 66 of them soldiers. Israel blames Hamas for all fatalities, since it emplaced its war machine in residential areas. Hamas fired some 4,500 rockets and projectiles at Israel and staged several attacks through tunnels dug under the border.
The war ended in August with a temporary ceasefire, and indirect negotiations for a permanent truce are due to resume under Egyptian mediation later this month.
AP and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.