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Better chance for reconciliation

Rival Palestinian factions—nationalist Fatah and the Islamist Hamas—gear up to end decade-long rift between them.

Better chance for reconciliation

The reconciliation deal signed between the rival Palestinian factions—nationalist Fatah and the Islamist Hamas-- ending a decade-long rift between them, has a better chance of succeeding than previous ones as it provided a gradual solution for issues in dispute between the two main groups.

Not many details of the deal arrived on October 12 in Cairo under the watchful eye of the Egyptian intelligence, have emerged. But it covered security, administrative, border crossing arrangements in Gaza Strip whose control was taken over by Hamas in 2007 from the Fatah- dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) which is governing parts of the West Bank not under the Israeli rule.
The Strip is teetering on the edge of a humanitarian crisis due to various restrictions imposed by the PA and the deal appears to focus on concrete issues relevant to the local population.
In 2006, Hamas won a shocking victory in the elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council. Its fundamentalist ideology, rejection of the Oslo accord and refusal to abandon the armed struggle resulted in a rift among Palestinians.
In early 2007 Fatah and Hamas agreed to form a coalition to end factional violence. But in June that year, Hamas seized Gaza by force and established its own government, leaving Fatah and the Palestinian Authority (PA) governing parts of the West Bank.
The split between the two factions also complicated any potential peace negotiations with Israel. Hamas has fought three wars with Israel since 2008 and does not recognise its existence, while Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Fatah dominated Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) have in principle accepted the existence of the Jewish state.
Under the agreement, described by observers as mini-breakthrough, the Fatah backed Palestinian Authority (PA) will regain full control of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip by December 1.
The security changes include the handing over of control of the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt to the Presidential Guards of PA on November 1. However, it is unlikely to make much difference in real terms for goods entering Gaza from Egypt as truck traffic to the northern Sinai remains restricted by the Egyptian military because of the security situation in the region.
The initial agreement also envisages the reintegration of Hamas officials into the PA ministries in Gaza for which a joint committee will be set up to implement it.
The situation in Gaza is steadily deteriorating due to Israeli blockade and closure of Rafah crossing by Egypt. Conditions have worsened in the last few months as a result of Palestinian Authority's decision to stop paying for Gaza's electricity and reduce salaries of public service employees who have been on PA's payroll for many years.
In exchange President Mahmoud Abbas, 82, will end the sanctions he imposed on Gaza in August and resume funding of essential governmental functions such as electricity and employee salaries. The sanctions were intended to press Hamas into dismantling the administrative committee tasked with ruling the Gaza Strip. Hamas annulled the committee last month, a move that paved the way for reconciliation.
However, the deal did not cover major outstanding issues including the integration of Hamas into the PLO, a date for presidential and parliamentary elections and the future of Hamas armed wing.
Abbas had been insisting that Hamas must disarm its armed wing, a demand dismissed by Hamas leaders. Various attempts to eliminate Hamas from the equation, or at least disarm it, by Israel, Egypt and PA have failed.
The Palestine President's decision to participate in this reconciliation seems to have outflanked his Fatah rival Mohammed Dahlan, who had also recently tried for a truce. The reconciliation also seems to have been driven by regional power struggle with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates trying to contain Qatar's influence in Gaza.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who after assuming power through a military coup in 2013, had termed Hamas as a terrorist organisation affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and also had sided with Dahlan against Abbas, seems to have realised that it was better to deal with those actually in power—Hamas and Fatah—to maintain Cairo's hold in the regional politics.
Also, Egypt's shift on Hamas seems to be driven by the fact that it needed the group to control the flow of arms to those involved in the insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula.
In his first comments on the deal, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it must conform with international agreements and conditions set by the Middle East Quartet, including the recognition of Israel and disarming of Hamas.
A low-key reaction came from the United States when State Department spokesman Heather Nauert just welcomed the creation of "conditions for the Palestinian Authority to fully assume responsibilities in Gaza.
The next few months will be the test for implementing the agreement. The commitment of Fatah, Hamas and other Palestinian factions will now be put to test given the past experience of over dozen efforts for reconciliation has failed.
Both sides seem to be optimistic. Fatah representative Azzam al-Ahmad and Hamas' Salah al-Arouri said at a joint press conference that this was not a new deal, but rather a new commitment to implement previous agreements.
Egypt has set November 21 for a meeting of all Palestinian factions that it hopes would lead towards a Palestinian unity government. Abbas is likely to visit Gaza in the coming months, his first in a decade.
Restarting a political process of having a single authority for both Gaza and the West Bank is of vital importance for the two, as this would strengthen their hands in making united efforts to negotiate with Israel. Besides, it would also help in returning a semblance of normal life to battered Gaza and also improving the living condition of Palestinians as a whole.
Also, the international community, mainly the United States and the Arab countries, have an important role to play to ensure the success of the reconciliation process. They should also provide financial assistance to alleviate the sufferings of the Palestinian people.
(M Shakeel Ahmed isformer Editor, PTI. He has also served as West Asia Correspondent for PTI, based in Bahrain from 1988 to 1995. The views expressed are strictly personal.)

M Shakeel Ahmed

M Shakeel Ahmed

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