Analysis

As Palestinian Leaders Work to Mend Rift, Gazans Hope Egypt Won’t Give Up

People in Gaza Strip believe that since Egypt is so keen on the reconciliation’s success, it will accelerate opening Rafah crossing

Palestinian children warm up around a fire by a shack along the beach in Gaza City on November 22, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED ABED
MOHAMMED ABED/AFP

On Thursday, after less than a day of further Palestinian reconciliation talks in Cairo, the consensus was that progress has been nil. The parties meeting at Egypt’s intelligence headquarters stuck to mouthing slogans and set no timetable for any goals to be achieved. What they mainly avoided was any progress on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ initial promise to ease the economic blockade he imposed on the Gaza Strip.

Once again it appears Egypt is pushing both sides, even more persistently, to agree to enable PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah’s government to take charge of Gaza. For this purpose Egypt dispatched to Gaza two senior intelligence officers, who are to broker and facilitate handing over all the cabinet ministries to Hamdallah’s government by December 1.

Abbas had conditioned the Cairo convention on his government’s taking over all the ministries in Gaza before any other issue was dealt with. But this task was vaguely defined as “empowering the government.”

“This is a task that cannot be measured,” said Gazan economist Omar Shaban, expressing a widely-held opinion. He says the vagueness could make it difficult to advance tasks that depend on this “empowerment.”

But Egypt has no tolerance now for pessimistic leaks about failure. This was demonstrated by an announcement – and partial retraction – of a member of Hamas’ political bureau, Salah al-Bardawil, who had taken part in Hamas’ delegation to the talks. On Wednesday morning a film clip was released in which he states that the talks have in fact failed, although Hamas wasn’t quitting yet. He said the failure was mainly due to not opening the Rafah pass and failing to lift the penalties against Gaza, such as cutting wages in the Palestinian Authority’s public sector, reducing the number of patients taken out of the Strip for treatment and cutting the power supply.

Hamas' senior political leader, Khalil al-Hayya (C), speaks during a press conference at the end of two days of closed-door talks held in the Egyptian capital Cairo on November 22, 2017.
MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP

Al-Bardawil also said Palestinian intelligence chief Majid Faraj had notified the meeting’s participants that the Americans were applying massive pressure on the PA, while the Israelis were threatening to stop transferring the tax money they collect. Consequently, he said, the substantial steps everyone is expecting will not be taken.

But on Wednesday evening he issued an apology, said the clip leaked without his knowledge and that what he said had been true at an earlier stage of the talks. He said his reaction was emotional, not political, and stressed Egypt’s sponsorship of the talks.

Sources in Ramallah told Haaretz that Abbas had been aiming for the minimum from the start – i.e., a very slow implementation that would attempt to bypass obstacles like Hamas officials’ participation in the cabinet. A PLO official said Israel and the Quartet would not be able to claim that Hamas’ people infiltrated the Palestinian government if Hamdallah’s government, which is in fact Abbas’ government, which the world accepts, rules all the civic ministries in Gaza.

The discussions about the security issues in Gaza were postponed. This too was a deliberate move. A source in Ramallah said that assuming full responsibility for Gaza’s security at this point could make the PA accountable to Israel for every rocket some stray jihadist launches, and sabotage the entire reconciliation process.

The source said that what was mistakenly termed “penal measures” are in fact financial acts that are carried out in the West Bank as well, but are felt more keenly in the poor, blockaded Strip, and are meant to reduce the huge budgetary deficit.

Shaban, the director of Pal-Think for Strategic Studies in Gaza, objects to this presentation of affairs. He told Haaretz that in the first half of the year there was a surplus of about a billion shekels (nearly $300 million) in the Palestinian Authority’s budget, due to increased tax collection and reduced expenses. He says the PA must change the approach that sees Gaza as excess weight and a budgetary burden. The Strip is part of the Palestinian territory and governments are supposed to help the needier parts receive at least basic services like electricity and health. The government must redistribute its resources and give up luxury expenses, said Shaban.

Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip Yahya Sinwar, October 3, 2017.
Khalil Hamra/AP

After two days of talks in Cairo, a list of decisions was released, some of which had been made in previous reconciliation talks. These include elections by the end of 2018. This time Hamas actually seems keen to relinquish its power. Assertions by its leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, that Hamas’ concessions are in the nation’s interest have impressed many Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

However, a source in Gaza unaffiliated with any organization told Haaretz that Sinwar is driven mainly by the troubling realization that Hamas’ years of control in Gaza have seriously damaged its base. The source cited widespread corruption and a weakening of the religious ethos.

Despite their still serious disagreements with Fatah, Hamas’ officials are being careful in what they say, seeking to maintain the public perception that they are acting purely in the national interest, not that of the party.

A source in Ramallah said neither Hamas nor Fatah is eager to hold elections for the Legislative Council and presidency, and Hamas will make do with a symbolic appointment of a few ministers who aren’t movement members. The Palestinian election committee has announced it was technically ready to hold elections at any date that is set.

Sources in Ramallah said Abbas didn’t evaluate Hamas’ positions correctly and was surprised when Sinwar agreed to the conditions brokered by Egypt. When the ball landed in Abbas’ court, he reneged on his initial promises to lift the economic sanctions.

Now people expect the Rafah crossing to be opened permanently. People cannot understand why this hasn’t been done and some suspect the delay is associated with the money passengers had to pay unknown officials on the Egyptian side, who may be reluctant to give up this income.

Palestinian students call for the opening of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, which is under the control of the Palestinian Authority, in the southern Gaza Strip on November 23, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SAID KHATIB
SAID KHATIB/AFP

People in the Gaza Strip believe that since Egypt is so keen on the reconciliation’s success, it will accelerate opening the crossing and that the PA will increase its diplomatic efforts to open it. On Thursday it was reported that the crossing will open for three days beginning on Saturday.

The PA Presidential Guard, which was deployed in Rafah last month, still have no weapons. When the PA asked Hamas’ leadership to return the weapons and equipment it had before 2007, Hamas said it had been lost over the years. But the absence of firearms is no reason for not opening the crossing, people in Gaza say.

In Rafah, Hamas swallowed the degradation of having hundreds of workers it had employed dismissed and replaced by PA people. But Hamas cannot renounce its demand that the PA pay wages to the public sector workers appointed during its tenure in power. This problem is expected to be solved by February 1, 2018, and Gazans hope Egypt won’t give up its role as broker, as Shaban says.

It is presumed that Egypt wouldn’t have been able to act so persistently unless there was some silent agreement, or at least an Israeli and American willingness to wait and see how things develop without interfering.

Even if the Rafah crossing is opened regularly, the chance for an economic revival and for stopping the health and environmental disaster in Gaza depends mainly on Israel’s loosening its restrictions on the movement of people and merchandise.

The convention’s summary statement emphasizes the Palestinians’ right to self-determination, “including the establishment of its independent sovereign state in all the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967 and its capital Jerusalem, and ensuring the Palestinians’ right of return to their lands and houses.”