The West Bank-based Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah crossed into the Gaza Strip on Monday in a major move toward reconciliation between Hamas and the mainstream Fatah party, a decade after the Islamist group seized the territory in a civil war.
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Hamas announced last week that it was handing over administrative control of the Gaza Strip to a unity government headed by Rami Hamdallah, but the movement's armed wing remains the dominant power in the enclave of two million people.
"We return to Gaza in order to conclude reconciliation and national unity and end the painful impacts of divisions and to rebuild Gaza brick by brick," said Hamdallah, who is an independent.
Hamas's reversal was the most significant step towards elusive Palestinian unity since the government was formed in 2014. It failed to function in Gaza because of disputes between Hamas and Fatah over its responsibilities.
Analysts said narrowing internal divisions could help Western-backed Abbas counter Israel's argument that it has no negotiating partner for peace.
A Hamas police honor guard and hundreds of Palestinians, many of them waving Palestinian flags, welcomed Hamdallah outside the Hamas-controlled checkpoint, down the road from Israel's Erez border crossing through which the prime minister and his delegation passed.
Among them were also members of the Egyptian government's security delegation, in Gaza to supervise the transfer of power within the government offices. Hamdallah is set to meet with Hamas political bureau chief Ismail Haniyeh and other senior members of the organization today.
Around the strip, Egyptian flags are being flown for the first time in 6 years and the image of Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi has been plastered in Gaza streets in recognition of Egyptian efforts to achieve Palestinian reconciliation.
"It is a day of Eid, a national holiday," said Abdel-Majid Ali, 46. "We hope this time reconciliation is for real."
Nickolay Mladenov, the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, wrote on Twitter: "The road ahead will be long and hard, but momentum of reconciliation and peace should not be missed."
Hamas, considered a terrorist group by Israel and the West, made its dramatic reversal towards unity last month, disbanding its Gaza shadow government, after Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates imposed an economic boycott on its main donor, Qatar, over alleged support of terrorism.