Veneer of positivity fades in Palestinian unity talks as tough issues surface

Even before discussions on future of Hamas’s military, senior official in terror group says PA statements ‘don’t bode well’

Dov Lieber

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

Fatah's Azzam al-Ahmad, right, and Saleh al-Arouri, left, of Hamas talk to journalists after signing a reconciliation deal in Cairo on October 12, 2017, as the two rival Palestinian movements ended their decade-long split following negotiations overseen by Egypt. (AFP/Khaled Desouki)
Fatah's Azzam al-Ahmad, right, and Saleh al-Arouri, left, of Hamas talk to journalists after signing a reconciliation deal in Cairo on October 12, 2017, as the two rival Palestinian movements ended their decade-long split following negotiations overseen by Egypt. (AFP/Khaled Desouki)

When reconciliation talks between rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah were getting started last week, officials from both groups were eager to describe the atmosphere as “positive.”

The two sides signed an accord in Cairo on Thursday in a festive event. In the agreement, Hamas formally agreed to let the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority govern Gaza, including taking over border crossings, and to get working on forming a Palestinian unity government.

Yet, while the two sides have yet to discuss the most thorny issues — such as what will be done with Hamas’s 25,000 strong army — in the past 24 hours, senior Hamas officials have been making statements suggesting relations between the factions are quickly degrading.

Three issues have suddenly come to the forefront: How fast will the PA sanctions levied against Gaza be lifted? What will become of land given away by Hamas to its employees while the PA was away? And will the PA commit to a 2005 agreement with Israel that stipulated Ramallah and Jerusalem, as well as a third party, would coordinate security at the sensitive Rafah border crossing with Egypt?

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)

On Monday, Hamas spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri ended the streak of goodwill rhetoric between the two long-time foes, slamming Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s decision not to lift stiff sanctions he placed on Gaza, which were a catalyst for the talks.

“Up to this point, it is not justified to continue the sanctions on Gaza, while the [PA] government is content with talking about getting control of border crossings and exploration for [natural] gas in Gaza,” the Hamas spokesperson wrote on his official Twitter account.

Zuhri’s criticism followed a Fatah Central Committee meeting in Ramallah Sunday night chaired by Abbas. It was expected that the sanctions would be removed or at least discussed during the much-anticipated meeting, but they were not, according to an official readout of the meeting published on the PA’s official news site Wafa.

Fawzi Barhoum, another senior Hamas spokesperson, echoed Zuhri’s words in a statement published on his official Facebook account on Monday.

“The failure of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to respond to popular and national demands to cancel his arbitrary measures against our people in Gaza is unjustifiable… He must bear responsibility for exacerbating the people’s crises and their suffering,” he wrote.

Starting in March, Abbas began levying a series of harsh measures on Gaza. These included slashing salaries for thousands of civil servants while sending thousands more into early retirement, cutting funding from PA coffers for Gaza’s electricity — in the process leaving Gaza with just a few hours of electricity daily — cutting medical aid and decreasing medical referrals for Gazans to be treated outside the Strip.

Abbas said these measures all amounted to a 22 percent reduction in the PA’s Gaza budget.

Palestinian children do their homework by candlelight during a power outage in Gaza City on September 11, 2017. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)

The sanctions were aimed at forcing Hamas to cede power by removing its separate government. Both Abbas and Israel have argued that Hamas was using its budget to fund its military while asking Ramallah to foot the bill for governing Gaza.

To begin the current round of talks, Hamas announced the dismantling of its government and allowed the PA to begin taking over Gaza. Abbas, however, has said he’s “not in a hurry” to lift the sanctions, and would not do so until the PA governs Gaza just as it does the West Bank.

On Sunday, senior Hamas official Moussa Abu Marzouk also cast doubt on the future success of the talks, saying statements by recent PA officials “do not bode well.”

“The bulk of negative statements by officials in the Palestinian Authority over issues not yet concluded, whether on the subject of employees, the crossings, the land authority or security, does not bode well,” he wrote on his official Twitter account.

Marzouk did not clarify which remarks he found troubling.

One statement he may have been referring to was by the head of the PA’s Land Authority, Saed Nazif, who said on Sunday that his institution will not accept the distribution of government land by Hamas to the group’s employees.

“It is not the task of the Land Authority to protect the rights of the employees… We have no connection to what was distributed to citizens during the period that the PA was absent from the Gaza Strip,” he said.

Hamas began handing out land plots in 2014 in order to pay off debts to thousands of civil servants.

Marzouk also may have been referring to a statement made by Fatah’s spokesperson Osamah Qawasmeh, who said on Saturday that all border crossings in Gaza, including the Rafah crossing with Egypt, would be run in accordance with “international agreements” signed by the PA.

Palestinians watch on TV the signing of a reconciliation deal in Cairo between rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah on October 12, 2017, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. (AFP/SAID KHATIB)

In 2005, the PA and Israel signed the “Movement and Access Agreement,” which called for the PA, Egypt, the US and Israel to cooperate on security matters regarding Gaza’s crossings. The two sides also agreed a third-party observer would be present at the Rafah crossing.

The agreement also stipulates that “the PA will act to prevent the movement of weapons and explosives at the Rafah crossing.”

Qawasmeh said the PA was meant to take over the border crossings by November 1.

Hamas, which is openly committed to the destruction of the State of Israel, has used Gaza’s border crossings as conduits for weapons smuggling.

The terror group seized control of Gaza from Abbas’s Fatah in a violent coup in 2007. It has since fought three major rounds of conflict with Israel.

In the agreement signed on Thursday, the two sides agreed the PA would be fully in control of Gaza by December 1. They also agreed to meet again in Cairo on November 21 to discuss more issues.

Qawasmeh, in a Monday interview with the news site Palestine Today, said the issue of Hamas’s army would not be discussed during this round of negotiations because it was too explosive.

“We will not approach the weapons of the resistance because they belong to the Palestinian people. However, we must talk about it, but not during this present visit, so as not to give anyone the opportunity to threaten peace,” he said.

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