Gaza: unity, for now

Palestinian reconciliation would weaken Israel’s claim that it has no partner for peace

Palestinian boys stand by a fence as they wait for the arrival of Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and his government at Erez crossing in the northern Gaza Strip on Tuesday. Photograph: Mohammed Salem/Reuters

Palestinian boys stand by a fence as they wait for the arrival of Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and his government at Erez crossing in the northern Gaza Strip on Tuesday. Photograph: Mohammed Salem/Reuters

 

By agreeing to cede control of the Gaza Strip to a unity government led by the Palestinian Authority, Hamas has taken a welcome step towards Palestinian reconciliation. If it succeeds where previous attempts at unity have failed, the move could help kick-start the moribund peace process.

Forces allied to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and his secular Fatah faction lost control of Gaza in fighting with the Islamists of Hamas in 2007, and subsequent attempts at reconciliation collapsed under the weight of the two sides’ mutual mistrust. The context has changed significantly in recent times, however. Hamas needs good relations with Egypt, whose president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi closed its border with Gaza on coming to power in 2013 and has more recently pressed for a Hamas-Fatah deal. Hamas has also seen one of its foreign benefactors, Qatar, grow increasingly isolated since Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates imposed an economic boycott on the Gulf state this summer over alleged support of terrorism. Abbas himself has also been tightening the screw. When Hamas announced in January that it would make its Gaza administration permanent, Abbas responded by refusing to pay Gaza’s electricity bills and stopping salary payments to government workers in the enclave.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the latest deal reflects Abbas’s terms. Hamas has agreed to disband its shadow government and accepted a Fatah call for elections in Gaza and the West Bank. The unity government, which met for the first time yesterday, will take control of Gaza’s administrative affairs as well as “security responsibilities” and management of Gaza’s crossings and borders. But while Fatah will oversee security, Hamas will remain the dominant power in the strip. Moreover, Abbas may be disinclined to call elections any time soon for fear of a Hamas victory.

A unity government is just a step, but an important one. If it succeeds, it will strengthen Abbas’s position in countering Israel’s claim that it has no single negotiating partner for peace.

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