Analysis

With Jerusalem Move, Trump Boosts Palestinian Reconciliation Efforts

Visiting Gaza, Palestinian PM Hamdallah thanked Hamas for maintaining security in the Strip and said 'Palestinian reconciliation is our choice to save Jerusalem'

Worshippers waving Palestinian flags after Friday prayers on the Al-Aqsa compound in Jerusalem's Old City, December 8, 2017.
Reuters/Ammar Awad

As young Palestinians in the West Bank prepared to confront the Israeli army and police on Thursday, Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah left Ramallah for meetings with Hamas officials in Gaza, accompanied by other senior officials from his Fatah faction.

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Fatah-Hamas meetings have become routine in recent months, as part of the process of handing over management of Gaza to the Ramallah government – despite the pessimistic voices and differences of opinion accompanying it.

The meetings were announced at midday on Wednesday while everyone was awaiting U.S. President Donald Trump’s official pronouncement on the United States’ recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. As a result, this trip had added political nuance.

Hamdallah said at a news conference in Gaza on Thursday: “The appropriate answer to Trump’s moves is the restoration of Palestinian unity, and Palestinian reconciliation is our choice to save Jerusalem.”

Everyone is used to slogans, and they fade as soon as they’re heard. But Palestinian journalists sensed that both sides were serious about advancing the reconciliation process and that Trump’s speech has provided a tailwind.

Every trip to Gaza, let alone one of senior Palestinian Authority and Fatah officials, requires the coordination and approval of Israel’s District Coordination Office and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the West Bank. Similarly, the exit from Gaza can only take place with the Israeli authorities’ approval and coordination, like the entire process of the past two months.

By the time the Fatah delegation returned to Ramallah on Thursday evening, the number of youngsters treated for suffocation and rubber-coated-bullet wounds during the confrontations had probably reached about 100, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent Society.

Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah at a press conference in Ramallah, December 7, 2017.
AP/Adel Hana

On Thursday afternoon, an official statement was released saying that Hamdallah had met with Tawfiq Abu Naim, head of Hamas’ security forces in the Gaza Strip, and with other department heads in the Interior Ministry. This was also the first time Hamdallah, in his capacity as interior minister, had entered his Gaza ministry office.

Israel could have thwarted this routine of PA officials entering Gaza and stopped them from normalizing relations with Hamas, but it isn’t doing so. Perhaps it finally understands that the humanitarian and environmental disaster in the Gaza Strip (for which Israel does not recognize its responsibility) requires a radical change in its administration.

Israel is most likely allowing the two major Palestinian factions to find a way to work together because Egypt is pushing them to do so. As a result, even on a tense day like Thursday, Israel didn’t add to the tension and allowed Hamdallah’s entourage to hold their meetings in Gaza.

At their meeting, Hamdallah and Abu Naim discussed the merging of the civilian police force and the firefighters in Gaza with their West Bank counterparts. This had already been agreed last week by the Fatah official in charge of the reconciliation talks, Azzam al-Ahmad, and Hamas’ leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar.

At the subsequent press conference, Hamdallah thanked Hamas for maintaining stability and security in the Strip. Was he referring to its signals and warnings to Islamic Jihad not to seek revenge for the death of its people when Israel blew up its tunnel in October? Did he mean Hamas’ role in future months in ensuring that the tensions don’t lead to a military confrontation? Probably both.

Separately, the head of Hamas’ political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, called Thursday for a rekindling of the intifada fire, in response to Trump. He said there is no recognition of Israel and that all of Jerusalem is the Muslim (not Christian) capital of Palestine. Is his stance consistent with what was discussed in the four-hour meeting between Hamas and Fatah leaders? In their official statement, they said both movements’ leaders must respond jointly to Trump’s declaration, and that one of the ways to respond is mass protest.

On Saturday, the Palestinians will mark the 30th anniversary of the start of the first intifada, which was popular and unarmed – at least initially. Women played a key role in the uprising, which developed national solidarity and mutual responsibility in levels the Palestinians hadn’t experienced before. It didn’t erupt by orders from above, but was instead a spontaneous, unorganized expression of accumulated fury against the Israeli occupier.

But it was also distinguished by the rapid ability of grass-roots PLO activists in Gaza to channel that initial rage into ongoing, organized demonstrations and protest strikes. Other activists did the same in the West Bank, and together they forged the uprising’s clear political message: recognition of the PLO as representative of the Palestinian people and recognition of the right to Palestinian self-determination, until the establishment of an independent state (alongside Israel). The public’s confidence in the PLO and its organizations was complete.

National unity wasn’t an empty slogan, though the differences between the organizations were known, and Hamas, which was still in its infancy, operated outside that national unity.

There was hope then, too. In fact, there was complete confidence that the uprising would lead to the long-awaited goal. Today, the sober Palestinian public knows not only that insurrection and sacrifice don’t lead directly to independence, but can even make the situation worse. A call from the top for an intifada and days of rage is not testament to the leaders’ control of the street, but more an attempt for them to try and show they are still relevant.