Palestinian reconciliation falters as Gaza crossing with Egypt stays shut

PA minister says Israel agreed to ease restrictions on imports into Strip, but Defense Ministry denies this

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

Portraits of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas decorate the Rafah border crossing with Egypt on November 1, 2017.  (SAID KHATIB / AFP)
Portraits of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas decorate the Rafah border crossing with Egypt on November 1, 2017. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

Thousands of Palestinians hoping to exit the Gaza Strip on Wednesday through the border with Egypt will have to continue to wait.

“We don’t have any information about when Rafah border will reopen again,” Nazmi Muhanna, in charge of border crossings for the Palestinian Authority, told AFP.

The Palestinian Authority retook control of Gaza’s border crossings on November 1, following an Egyptian-mediated reconciliation deal between PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party and the Hamas terror group.

The day the PA retook control of Gaza’s crossings, it announced the Rafah crossing with Egypt would be permanently reopened on November 15, after years of Cairo allowing only intermittent exit through the vital passageway.

A Palestinian man holds a banner calling for opening of the Rafah border crossing, which is under the control of the Palestinian Authority, in the southern Gaza Strip on November 15, 2017. (AFP/SAID KHATIB)

The PA is supposed to retake full civil control of the Gaza Strip by December 1, ending 10 years of Hamas rule over the enclave.

The hold-up at the border is apparently due to ongoing disagreements between the PA and Hamas over security arrangements in the Strip.

Hamas is refusing to disarm its military wing as Abbas wants.

PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah has said a number of times that his ministries could not govern the Strip without full control over security.

The PA wants to implement a 2005 agreement that would see European observers stationed at the Rafah Crossing, as well as security coordination with Israel.

Hamas, however, sees later deals struck with the PA as superseding that agreement.

Security in the Sinai Peninsula, where Egyptian security forces have been fighting a branch of the Islamic State group, is also thought to be one of Cairo’s concerns.

Egyptian security forces stand guard at the Rafah border crossing with the Gaza Strip on August 14, 2017. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)

Egypt is expected to host another meeting of Palestinian factions in Cairo on November 21 to discuss next steps in the reconciliation process

Without the Rafah Crossing opening, thousands of Gazans will remain stranded in the Strip.

Getting permission to leave through Israel is a difficult and time-consuming process.

The number of Palestinians exiting Gaza via Israel’s Erez Crossing has been dropping annually. In October 2017, 4,812 Palestinians exited through Erez, compared to 7,101 exits in October 2016 and 10,745 exits in October 2015, according to the Israeli freedom of movement rights group Gisha.

Khaled Fawzi (3rd-L) head of the Egyptian Intelligence services, shares a laugh with Hamas leader Izzat al-Rishq (2nd-L) and Fatah’s Azzam al-Ahmad (C) following the signing of a reconciliation deal in Cairo on October 12, 2017. (AFP / KHALED DESOUKI)

There are currently over 16,000 applications for Gazans to exit through Israel, Gisha said.

In May, Israeli authorities more than doubled the period of time it takes for an application to exit through the Erez Crossing, Gisha said, from 23 working days to process non-medical requests to 50-70 days.

Many Gazans who exit the Strip through Israel do so to travel elsewhere via Jordan.

Israel has fought three wars with Hamas since the terror group took control of the Strip in 2007.

Israel says it keeps strict border security to prevent Hamas from smuggling weapons into Gaza. A number of Gazans have been caught trying to import illegal materials for Hamas under false pretenses.

Israel says it won’t ease restrictions on imports into Gaza

Meanwhile, the PA and Israeli authorities were giving contradictory accounts as to whether the return of the PA to Gaza’s border crossings with Israel will lead to an easing of restrictions on imports into the enclave.

Since the 2014 summer war between Hamas and Israel, so-called dual-use items — materials with civilian but also military use — have been brought into Gaza through the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism.

Through the GRM, dual-use materials, mostly pertaining to construction, were spread through Gaza via UN-approved suppliers and under UN observation.

US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley visits at a terror tunnel built by Hamas on the border of Israel with the Gaza Strip, June 8, 2017. (Matty Stern/U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv)

Israel seeks to prevent terror groups in the Gaza Strip from using building materials to construct cross-border attack tunnels.

“We received a positive response from the Israeli government regarding our demand for the suspension of the GRM,” Mufid al-Hasayneh, the minister of public works and housing for the PA told Al Monitor on Tuesday.

The PA minister said, according to the report, that Israel had agreed to suspend the GRM by January 1, 2018.

However, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Unit (COGAT), the Defense Ministry Branch that liaises with the Palestinians on civil and security affairs, denied to The Times of Israel that the GRM would be suspended.

The claim “is baseless and inconsistent [with] the cooperation with the Palestinian Authority on the subject of the rehabilitation [of Gaza],” COGAT said. “The GRM mechanism is important and both sides have an interest in preserving it, when Israel sees it as an important, successful and effective mechanism.”

AFP contributed to this report. 

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