A new Hamas government was sworn in at 10 A.M. on Sunday morning at the Palestinian parliament in Gaza. Ismail Haniyeh will continue serving as prime minister, with some reshuffling of cabinet ministers. The health minister, for example, who has suffered harsh criticism in light of Gaza's deficient health system, will be replaced.
The new government does not on its own constitute a significant change, but is primarily cosmetic. This is Hamas' way of conveying that reconciliation with Fatah is not a priority. It should come as no surprise that no Fatah members will serve in this government.
The Palestinian Authority has meanwhile conveyed its own message: Registration for local elections in the West Bank - slated to take place on October 23 - opened Saturday. This is not the first time the PA has scheduled a date for local elections. Just six months ago, elections were postponed due to ill preparation, as well as concerns over a Fatah loss. Nonetheless, the launch of registration without Hamas' participation is the PA's way of sending a message that reconciliation can wait.
Both entities – the West Bank (Fatahland) and the Gaza Strip (Hamastan) - continue their bizarre dance: endless negotiations on the need for unity with zero actions or results, and a reality that only proves how wide the internal Palestinian divide is.
Despite the fact that reconciliation currently seems like a fantasy, both governments have succeeded in maintaining impressive stability, a rare phenomenon in these parts. Ironically, the West Bank and Gaza have become islands of tranquility amid the tumultuousness of the Arab Spring. While a genuine Palestinian democracy does not currently exist, for now the Palestinian public appears apathetic and more interested in improving the economy.
The Palestinian "The Marker"
A new financial magazine was recently launched in the West Bank, called Palestine Business Focus. Its homepage describes the horrors of the Israeli occupation and the difficulties of the siege. The Palestinian stock market ticker runs at the top of the site and some article topics include the increase in local industrial production, and an interview with the CEO of al-Wataniya, the second largest cellular provider in the Palestinian territories.
Such items stand in stark contrast to the description of the "occupation" that appears on the homepage. The very emergence of a financial magazine in the West Bank should come as no surprise. Ultimately, the Palestinian economy has been experiencing a degree of economic decline in the West Bank, with a rise in the unemployment rate and a decline in the central economic indicators.
Although growth is estimated at 5 percent, in light of the Palestinian Authority's severe fiscal crisis, this data may continue to decline. At the same time, the economy in Gaza is closing in on its gap with the West Bank. However, the West Bank's GDP is twice that of Gaza and the unemployment rate is higher (28.4 percent in Gaza compared with 17.1 percent in the West Bank, in the second quarter of 2012.)
However, while the situation in the Strip is actually showing signs of improvement, the West Bank is undergoing an opposite process. The new Pizza Hut and KFC branches on Ramallah's al-Irsal Street may be misleading, since they fail to present the more complex picture - for example, the rate of unemployment among educated youth. In addition, the financial projects the international community was supposed to promote throughout the West Bank are currently idle and it is difficult to discern whether there are private investors on the horizon.
The economic situation in Gaza is far from being in better shape, but it is certainly showing signs of promise. There is no longer an Israeli siege, operations in the tunnels have resumed with almost no disruptions and there is no shortage of products or merchandise. A significant number of Gaza's residents nonetheless appear worried due to the shortage in construction workers.
In every corner in Gaza one can see a real estate boom, dozens of 12-13-story buildings that have emerged in the last two years.
The problem is that there are not enough people working in construction, among other things, because many construction workers found new jobs (i.e. as government clerks) during the period in which construction in Gaza was prohibited. (This was due to a shortage in construction materials at the time.) The Hamas government tried coping with the shortage by training construction workers, but such courses did not solve the construction worker crisis.
It should be noted that the rhetoric of Hamas' top brass may be about reconciliation, but it appears satisfied with maintaining the status quo; the gap between the West Bank and Gaza is gradually being reduced, Qatar is offering donations of a quarter of a billion dollars and relations with Egypt seem to be playing into Hamas' favor, at the expense of Fatah, even following the Sinai bombings.
At the same time, the reality created by Hamas – the large revenues from taxes on the merchandise transferred through the tunnels, the fact that it doesn't pay for electricity, alongside the PA's continued assumption of responsibility for Gaza's welfare (paying salaries to 60,000 former PA clerks that live in Gaza who essentially sit in their houses and do nothing) - only strengthens the organization's desire to sustain the division with Fatah. In other words, for Hamas, national reconciliation means losing hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Bill Clinton's 1992 election slogan "It's the economy stupid," was apparently right.
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