US ambassador warns of ‘tremendous prize’ for Hamas if PA is sidestepped on Gaza

In private call with American Jewish leaders, David Friedman insists Palestinian Authority must be involved in the reconstruction of the beleaguered Strip

US Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman speaks at the official opening ceremony of the US embassy in Jerusalem on May 14, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
US Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman speaks at the official opening ceremony of the US embassy in Jerusalem on May 14, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Against the background of indirect talks between Israel and Hamas on a Gaza ceasefire deal, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman has reportedly expressed concern that any agreement to rehabilitate Gaza that sidestepped the Palestinian Authority would be a “tremendous prize” for the terror group.

“There is no capacity to have peace with the Palestinians unless there’s peace with all the Palestinians, including the million and a half in Gaza,” Friedman said in a telephone briefing Tuesday with members of the American Jewish Congress, the Haaretz daily reported Thursday.

The envoy clarified that this meant that “there should be ideally one (Palestinian) government … If you go around the PA and somehow try to restructure Gaza without them, you’re giving a tremendous prize to Hamas… with all the failings of the PA, if the choice is Hamas, we pick the PA,” Haaretz quoted him as saying in the private call.

Friedman reportedly added that until there is a reconciliation deal that returns the Palestinian Authority to the Gaza Strip, the most that could be hoped for was a more limited ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.

Meanwhile, the PA received a rebuke from US Mideast Envoy Jason Greenblatt for failing work with Egypt on its efforts to arrange conditions for a PA return to Gaza.

“The Trump Administration strongly supports the efforts of President Al Sisi and the Egyptian government ‎to help facilitate an agreement to restore calm in Gaza and bring about the conditions for the Palestinian Authority to fully assume its responsibilities in Gaza,” Greenblatt said in a statement late Wednesday.

A picture taken on August 9, 2018, shows people inspecting the rubble of a building targeted by the Israeli Air Force in response to a rocket attack that hit southern Israel earlier in the day on August 9, 2018. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)

“The Palestinian Authority cannot criticize from the sidelines. The Palestinian Authority should be part of the solution for the Palestinians of Gaza and Palestinians as a whole,” he said. “If not, others will fill that void.”

“Leadership is about making hard choices,” Greenblatt said without directly naming Abbas.

“The people of Gaza, and Israelis in the area around Gaza, have suffered for far too long,” Greenblatt said. “It is time for the Palestinian Authority to lead the Palestinian people – all Palestinians – to a better future.”

Indirect negotiations between Hamas and Israel have reportedly included discussion on easing the decade-old blockade on Gaza, but by no means a complete lifting of it. Israel says the blockade is in place in order to prevent weapons and other military equipment from entering the Strip.

Recent months have seen repeated rounds of intense violence between Israel and Hamas, along with weekly border protests at the Gaza border that have regularly included rioting, attacks on Israeli troops and attempts to infiltrate and sabotage the border fence. In sporadic surges Hamas has fired dozens of rockets at Israel and Israel has hit Hamas targets in the Strip.

Palestinian protesters throw stones at Israeli forces as a man waves the national flag during a demonstration at the Israel-Gaza border, east of Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on August 24, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / SAID KHATIB)

Around 170 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire since the weekly protests began, a Hamas ministry says. Hamas has acknowledged that dozens of those killed were its members.

One Israeli soldier was shot dead by a Palestinian sniper.

Greenblatt’s swipe at Abbas came after the PA leader reportedly lambasted the potential Israel-Hamas ceasefire agreement, saying such a deal would only be reached “over my dead body.”

“If the agreement is signed without the PA’s permission, it is illegal and constitutes treason,” Abbas said in private conversations, according to Hussein al-Sheikh, a senior member of Abbas’s Fatah party.

In his conversation, Friedman dealt at length with the ongoing political crisis with the Gaza Strip, saying the chance for obtaining any sort of stable agreement between Israel and the Hamas-run coastal enclave was “very low,” according to other reports about the call.

Gaza is a disease without a cure that, at the moment, Israel can only manage, rather than offer any long-term solution, he was quoted by the Walla news site as saying.

He was also quoted as making scathing remarks about the PA’s handling of the Gaza crisis, saying that the Palestinian Authority was speaking with two voices on the issue: leveling sanctions on the Strip on one hand while talking about uniting with it on the other. Friedman reportedly said that much of the violence emanating from the Strip was due to Abbas’s policies.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas delivering a speech on August 15, 2018. (WAFA)

Friedman also reportedly contradicted US President Donald Trump and insisted the administration would not demand any special concessions from Israel in peace talks as a quid pro quo for moving the US embassy to Jerusalem in May.

Concerns were raised in Israel after Trump said earlier this month that Israel would pay “a higher price” in any future talks with the Palestinians because of the move. But in the call with US Jewish leaders, Friedman said the comment only meant that Trump might ask the Israelis to “lean in a little bit” at the negotiating table.

“The president feels that if the parties are lucky enough to be sitting in a room and making progress, he might say to the Israelis, ‘Look, can you do a little bit more? Look what we did for you. Is there something more that you could do?’” said Friedman. “It’s not that he has something specific in mind, but just that under the circumstances that the United States has engaged in really significant good faith efforts to strengthen Israel and strengthen its historical multi-thousand-year connection to Jerusalem, maybe the Israelis could make it clear by leaning in a little bit as well. That’s all it meant,” the envoy said, according to quotes carried by the political news site Jewish Insider.

“I was there when the [embassy relocation] decision was made,” Friedman reportedly added. “I was there watching it and advocating for it in real time. There is not and there never was any demand made of Israel that they do anything in exchange for the embassy move.”

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