Analysis

Despite Netanyahu's Objections, Palestinian Reconciliation Is in Israel's Interest

Israel has many reasons to oppose talks between Hamas and Palestinian Authority, but the humanitarian and environmental disaster in Gaza gives it a reason to support it

A shop owner displays national flags and a poster bearing the portraits Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and President Mahmoud Abbas, Gaza City, October 1, 2017.
MAHMUD HAMS/AFP

Israel didn’t try to prevent senior Palestinian Authority officials from entering the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, traveling in cars bearing Palestinian license plates. If we were being cynical, we’d say that Israel decided not to disrupt this move – which undermines its long-term strategy, dating back to 1991, of isolating Gaza’s population from that of the West Bank – because we’ve all seen this movie before.

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In other words, the deep disagreements between the rival ruling parties, Fatah and Hamas – especially over armaments and the security services – will do the job for it and ultimately prevent the internal Palestinian rift from being healed. So why should Israel play the bad guy?

In fact, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voiced public opposition to the reconciliation only after the Erez checkpoint had been opened to the large party from the West Bank. Similarly, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman refrained from ordering the army’s liaison administration to do what it does so well – drag its feet on issuing exit permits from the West Bank.

But one can always hope that someone in Israel nevertheless understands that the top priority now is to prevent Gaza from deteriorating into an even worse environmental and humanitarian disaster than it’s already in. And that is possible only on the following conditions: Israel must end its restrictions on importing construction materials and raw materials; the mechanism for rebuilding infrastructure, which requires complex coordination with the Israeli security forces and donor states, must be simplified and streamlined; and the internal Palestinian fights over collecting taxes and electricity bills must end.

Hamas' Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar and Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah listen to Hamas' political bureau head Ismail Haniyeh, Gaza City, October 3, 2017.
Khalil Hamra/AP

All this is possible only if the Palestinians have a single government, and only if that government is accepted – and not just partially or in the usual grudging manner – by Israel, the donor states and international aid organizations, first and foremost the United Nations. And that government can only be the Palestinian Authority.

Despite its denials, Israel bears primary responsibility for Gaza’s disastrous situation. But right now, that doesn’t matter. Right now, it’s necessary to rise above the usual clichés about “funding terror” and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas “linking up with a murderous terrorist organization,” as Education Minister Naftali Bennett said Tuesday. Right now, it’s necessary to act.

There’s no more time. Gaza’s power supply must be increased immediately, and to beyond what it was before Israel cut the supply at Abbas’ request. Israel must also give Gaza additional tens of millions of cubic feet of water.

This isn’t just a Palestinian interest. Israel, too, has an interest in Gaza’s sewage being treated rather than flowing into the sea, in Gaza’s aquifer not collapsing and in its residents getting suitable medical care. Israel, too, has an interest in preventing epidemics in Gaza.

For Hamas, as a political movement that sees itself as the authentic representative of all Palestinians (in Gaza, the West Bank and the diaspora), ceding control of Gaza is in its own interests, even if it loses the power centers and the control it has grown used to over the past decade. Hamas leaders Yahya Sinwar and Ismail Haniyeh were both born in Gaza and still live there, so they’ve experienced its human and environmental disaster personally. They know their organization can’t continue to conduct its management experiments at the expense of their people’s welfare.

The punitive steps that Israel and Western countries took against the elected Hamas government immediately after it was established 11 years ago allow the organization to hand over the keys without publicly admitting failure. In the West Bank and the diaspora – though for obvious reasons, not in Gaza – Palestinians actually admire its choice to arm itself and confront Israel militarily. That would suffice for Israel to justify its opposition to the reconciliation, if the UN’s threatening forecast of Gaza becoming uninhabitable by 2020 weren’t looming over our heads.

Why are the PA and its ruling Fatah party willing to take on the thankless task of managing Gaza’s crisis? So far, it seems they’ve had trouble proving that they’re doing so out of a sense of national responsibility rather than for personal and factional reasons. Some Gaza residents said the delegation from Ramallah entered like victorious conquerors.

Abbas has already managed to spoil the mood with his grudging manner and the preconditions he set for Hamas in a television interview on Monday, including disarmament and an end to Qatar’s involvement in Gaza. Gazans believe he could have done things differently, leaving the conditions for after the start of negotiations. Abbas is making people doubt that Fatah, or at least he himself, actually wants to enable the reconciliation and remove the sanctions he imposed on Gaza.

Keeping Gaza from degenerating into a worse disaster is one reason for the PA’s willingness to reconcile. A renewed diplomatic effort to get the “State of Palestine” accepted as a full UN member is another possible explanation.

In making demands of the international community, including demands for pressure on Israel, Abbas and his successors must show that they represent all the people in the territories occupied in 1967. Giving up Gaza, even if it’s more convenient financially, weakens his diplomatic opening position.

Egypt’s open involvement in the reconciliation process provides a tailwind for the PA and sends a signal to Israel: As in the past, and in defiance of Israel’s wishes, Egypt has no intention of letting Gaza be annexed to it or disconnected from the rest of the Palestinian population.