The Palestinian cabinet, headed by Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, will hold its weekly meeting in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday for the first time in three years. Hamdallah arrived in the Gaza Strip a day earlier with government ministers and dozens of senior Palestinian Authority officials, along with intelligence and security officials. The meeting is part of an effort to implement a reconciliation agreement between the PA and Hamas.
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After Hamdallah’s entourage entered Gaza through the Erez crossing, they were given a festive welcome by hundreds of residents and representatives of all the Palestinian factions, including Hamas. Pictures of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the late Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat were displayed on a platform, a rare sight in the Strip in recent years.
“We came to Gaza at the instruction of President Mahmoud Abbas to declare within Gaza City that the Palestinian state will not be established without there being unity between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and to end the chapter of divisiveness, with all its ramifications,” Hamdallah said.
He added that his government is prepared to accept responsibility for the Strip and announced that government committees have been set up to deal “with the crossings and the borders and all issues relating to the functions and work of the government.” Addressing the residents of Gaza directly, he said that his government would work to ease their suffering.
As the ministers left the crossing to make their way to Gaza City, hundreds of Gazans gathered to applaud them, including several members of Fatah, who waved the movement’s flags and held up pictures of Abbas and Arafat.
“There’s no doubt that there’s a festive atmosphere and we have the highest expectations,” said a Gaza resident in the crowd. He said Gaza is counting on a reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas to improve their situation. “We have been under a blockade for 10 years and in recent months the PA’s decrees only increased the distress and frustration. That’s why there are very high expectations that something will change this time. But everyone has to understand that as high as the expectations are, that’s how great the disappointment will be if the reconciliation doesn’t take off.”
Many Gazans were following the events on the PA and Hamas television networks, which broadcast the ministers’ arrival live. “I’m more shocked than surprised or optimistic about the images I see,” a social activist told Haaretz. “Suddenly they are conveying reconciliation and love as if everything that happened over the past 10 years has collapsed in a moment. I hope this isn’t a misrepresentation,” she said.
The ministers and their entourage arrived in Gaza City's Shujaiyeh neighborhood, which was almost destroyed during Operation Protective Edge three years ago, where they held a meeting in the home of Ahmed Halas, a member of Fatah’s central committee. It was led by the head of Hamas’ political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, and Hamas' leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, and attended by senior Hamas officials. One of the most striking images was the long conversation Sinwar had with the head of Palestinian intelligence, Majed Faraj – both are considered strongmen because of their access to security and intelligence information. The two camps consider the chemistry between them to be vital in order for reconciliation to progress. Eyewitnesses said that the security arrangements by both sides were managed with complete coordination and that members of the PA security team rode with Hamas policemen in some of the patrol cars.
Egypt's intelligence agency is sending a senior delegation of its own to oversee the discussions and the transfer of government ministries from Hamas to the Palestinian Authority's ministers. A senior Palestinian official told Haaretz that Egyptian intelligence chief Khaled Fawzy will arrive in Ramallah on Tuesday to meet with Abbas and will travel to Gaza for meetings with senior Hamas officials from there. Both the PA and Hamas see Egyptian involvement at this high level as a type of guarantee that the reconciliation process will continue, although both sides concede that after Monday’s festive welcome there are a lot of disputes to work thorough, including who will ultimately be responsible for security in Gaza and how the crossings will be managed.
Delegations from both Hamas and Fatah will head to Cairo next week for talks on implementing the agreement. Senior officials on both sides described the meetings next week as very significant because they will provide a clearer picture as to whether a reconciliation agreement can be realized.