By Saud Abu Ramadan and Fadwa Hodali
October 12, 2017
Rival Palestinian groups agreed on Thursday to end their decade-old rift, signing an Egyptian-brokered deal that will allow a unity government to resume control of the Gaza Strip and deploy forces to the border with Egypt within weeks.
Hamas, an embattled Islamist movement which had controlled Gaza since 2007, last week handed over most government functions to the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority, in a first step toward ending divisions that have complicated the Palestinian bid for statehood.
Under the accord struck in Cairo, the consensus government will formally take full administrative control of Gaza by Dec. 1, according to a statement issued after the talks. The two sides have been invited to return to the Egyptian capital for more negotiations on Nov. 21. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas ordered all state agencies to “restore the unity of the Palestinian people and institutions.”
In a joint news conference, chief Fatah negotiator Azzam al-Ahmad said the deal crucially would see the Palestinian Authority’s presidential guards deploy along the border between Gaza and Egypt by Nov. 1. If that leads to greater security, Egypt might be willing to permanently reopen the Rafah border crossing, one of the isolated coastal enclave’s few outlets to the world.
After initially shunning Hamas, the Egyptian government of President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi sought its help in controlling the movement of militants and weapons through cross-border tunnels between Gaza and Egypt’s northern Sinai, where an Islamic State affiliate is fighting the Egyptian government — a conflict that has battered the Red Sea tourist industry.
“The consensus government has to take full control in the Gaza Strip and carry out all its duties and functions in all aspects of life, running the crossing points either with Israel or with Egypt,” Fatah’s Al-Ahmad said.
There was no indication from either side, however, that any understanding had been reached on the fate of Hamas’ armed wing, a sticking point which could yet scupper reconciliation efforts. Hamas leaders have said they would not disarm as long as Israel occupies Palestinian land. Abbas has said he wants weapons to be under unified control.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week warned against any “bogus” unity bid that would threaten his country if Hamas is allowed to keep its guns. On Thursday, he said any Palestinian government must meet the conditions of the international Quartet behind peace efforts, including recognizing Israel and respecting past agreements. Israel will watch as the situation develops and will react accordingly, he said.
The willingness of Hamas to work with Fatah, which governs the Authority’s West Bank territories, comes amid desperation in Gaza, whose economy has been strangled for years by an Israeli and Egyptian blockade, the destruction of its underground smuggling tunnels and wars with Israel. The destitution deepened earlier this year when Abbas engineered a power shortage to put further pressure on Hamas, which is shunned as a terrorist group by Israel, the U.S. and European Union.
Gaza, which sits on the Mediterranean coast and is fenced in by heavily-patrolled barriers on three sides bordering Israel and Egypt, has been a frequent battleground over the past decade, during which Hamas has fought three wars with Israel. Abbas has tried numerous times without success to repair the rift, in part to counter Israeli assertions that peace negotiations are pointless because he can’t ensure that any treaty will also hold in Gaza.
Previous efforts to reconcile have failed due to disagreements over the fate of the weapons held by Hamas, as well as control of borders and other key institutions. This time, Hamas has gone further in offering concessions to heal the rift. As well as offering help to secure the border with Egypt, it has distanced itself from the Muslim Brotherhood, which former military chief El-Sisi removed from power in mid-2013.
Internationally isolated and with the economy in shreds, Hamas said last month it was ready to dismantle the administrative committee it set up earlier this year to run Gaza. Abbas viewed the panel as a shadow government and evidence of bad faith in the talks.
“We, in Hamas, are determined, serious and faithful this time,” Hamas negotiator Saleh Al-Arouri said at the news conference in Cairo. “This time is different to the previous times.”
— With assistance by Ahmed Feteha, Tarek El-Tablawy, Lin Noueihed, and Michael Arnold