Signed, sealed but can it be delivered?

October 14, 2017
Sarah Benton

Two articles, 1) NY Times and 2) Ma’an

Senior Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmad,  right of desk, and Hamas’ representative, Saleh al-Arouri, left, sign a reconciliation deal during a short ceremony at the Egyptian intelligence complex in Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017. Photo by AP.

Unity Deal Offers Hope for Palestinians and a Respite for Gaza

By Declan Walsh and David M. Halbfinger, NY Times
October 12, 2017

CAIRO — After a decade of hostility and recrimination, the two main Palestinian factions came together in Cairo on Thursday to sign a reconciliation deal that holds out the tantalizing prospect of a united Palestinian front.

Hopes for the agreement, signed under the watchful eye of Egyptian intelligence, were tempered by the knowledge that many previous Palestinian initiatives have failed. Yet there is optimism that this time may be different, partly because the stakes are so much higher.

For the two million Palestinians of Gaza, trapped in a tiny coastal strip that is frequently compared to an open-air prison, the Cairo deal offered a potential respite from their lives of dire shortages of electricity and lifesaving medicine, as well as a chance to travel to the outside world.

For the Palestinian leadership, it held out the prospect of negotiating with Israel with a single voice, even as it forced the divided territory’s most radical militants to make painful concessions that acknowledged their own failure to advance their cause.

Hamas, which controls Gaza and has fought Israel three times, said it was ready to cede control of Gaza’s borders and allow the rival Palestinian Authority to effectively take over the day-to-day running of the territory.

It was a sobering reality check for a group that, despite years of fiery defiance and arms supplies from Iran, cannot rule Gaza without help from Fatah, the rival faction that controls the Palestinian Authority and was driven out of Gaza in violent clashes 10 years ago.

And for Mahmoud Abbas, the 82-year-old president of the Palestinian Authority, it could amount to a legacy-saving moment in the twilight years of his rule, after years of abject failure to negotiate a peace settlement with Israel. Although he was not in Cairo, Mr. Abbas gave his blessing to the deal, which he hailed as a “final agreement,” according to Agence France-Presse.

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said that Israel “objects to any reconciliation that does not include” accepting international agreements, recognizing Israel and disarming Hamas. A Fatah-Hamas rapprochement would make “peace much harder to achieve,” Mr. Netanyahu said in a post on Facebook. “Reconciling with mass-murderers is part of the problem, not part of the solution.”

At a brief ceremony on Thursday at the headquarters of Egypt’s General Intelligence Service, which shepherded the negotiations, representatives from Hamas and Fatah kissed and embraced amid a smattering of applause from Egyptian and Palestinian officials gathered around them.

The Palestinians did not release the text of the agreement, and there was no mention of the thorny issues that remain unresolved, such as the fate of the main Hamas militia, or the network of tunnels under Gaza used by fighters and weapons smugglers.

But officials from both sides described a series of agreed measures that are due to unfold in the coming weeks, and which they say will both sideline Hamas from the day-to-day running of Gaza and create a political groundswell for a broader deal to reunite the Palestinian territories.

Egypt’s State Information Service said that the rivals had agreed to hand full control of Gaza to the Palestinian Authority by Dec. 1. Palestinian officials said that if the process goes well, Mr. Abbas could visit Gaza in the coming month, his first visit to the embattled coastal strip in a decade.

Egypt has set Nov. 21 for the next step of the process: a meeting in Cairo of all Palestinian factions that, it hopes, will be the start of talks toward a Palestinian unity government. Some Palestinian officials said they hoped such a government could be formed by January.

But much depends on how things transpire in Gaza over the coming weeks.

Under terms of the deal, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority will form a joint police force of at least 5,000 officers, and merge their ministries. One Hamas official said they would negotiate to slim down the bloated civil service, cutting up to 40,000 of the 200,000 jobs.

Two elements of the deal promise to quickly ease conditions in Gaza, which aid organizations have called an emerging humanitarian crisis.

The Palestinian Authority has agreed to lift sanctions that it imposed on Gaza this year as part of its effort to pressure Hamas into talks. The government cut electricity supplies to a few hours a day in Gaza and stopped paying government salaries, an important source of income in a besieged territory with a broken economy.

And Hamas will cede control of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, Gaza’s main lifeline to the outside world. That would allow Egypt to ease stringent cargo restrictions and enable Gazans to travel outside, perhaps the most significant change in the agreement.

But even if the two sides succeed in fully reuniting in the next round of talks, the new arrangement seems unlikely to improve relations with Israel, which has warned that it could not accept a unity government that included Hamas.

Hamas has insisted on its right to maintain control of its arsenal — including thousands of rockets, missiles and drones — as well as its militia and its network of fortified tunnels.

Across divided Palestine there were cautious celebrations.

Children holding Palestinian flags as they celebrate after Hamas and Fatah signed a reconciliation deal, central Gaza Strip, October 12, 2017. Photo by Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

In Gaza City, vendors passed out sweets to children in Soldier’s Square, a park at the center of town. Mona Khfaja, 37, a pharmacist who said she was unable to leave Gaza to seek treatment for kidney disease, said dissatisfaction with the crushing border restrictions had forced warring Palestinian leaders to the negotiation table.

“We do not want the flags of Fatah and Hamas, only the Palestinian flag,” she said.

In the West Bank town of Ramallah, Abu Ahmad, 56, said he was wary about getting his hopes up. “Many agreements have been signed in the past, but something has always caused these political parties to back away,” he said, “and I’m afraid there’s still a chance for that to happen again.”

The signing ceremony on Thursday followed two days of talks mediated by Egypt’s General Intelligence Service. The deal was signed by the deputy leader of Hamas, Saleh al-Arouri, and Azzam al-Ahmad, the head of the Fatah delegation.

Officials from both sides offered frank appraisals of the issues that divide them, and that could easily scupper this latest effort. Ayman Rigib, a Fatah negotiator in Cairo, pointed to the status of Hamas’s Qassam Brigades, with an estimated 20,000 fighters, and Hamas’s extensive tunnels.

“We’re worried about the tunnels,” Mr. Rigib said. “We’ve seen Hamas use them in 2014. Will they give us the maps? Will they shut them down? It has not yet been discussed.”

Another Palestinian concern is that a unity government involving Hamas could cause the Trump administration to cut funding to the Palestinian territories under congressional rules against funding terrorist organizations. American lawmakers threatened to cut funding in reaction to a similar 2011 deal between Hamas, which the United States designates as a terrorist organization, and the Palestinian Authority. That agreement ultimately fell apart.

The United States gives the Palestinian Authority about $400 million in annual assistance. But for now, with Hamas ceding all administrative control of Gaza, there is little danger that aid would be cut off.

Grant Rumley, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the issues yet to be resolved would be the most difficult. “Hamas may be willing to cede more administrative control of Gaza,” he said, “but the parties have so far avoided the issues likeliest to derail the talks: namely the relationship with Israel and what to do with Hamas’s military wing.”

When leaders from Hamas and Fatah signed the 2011 deal, Mr. Abbas said, “We have turned the black page of division forever.” But the agreement quickly foundered amid opposition from Israel, which denounced it as a “victory for terrorism.”

This time, a broad Arab coalition is backing the deal, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

“This merger is going to cost a lot of money, and they will help us financially,” said Ahmed Yousef, an adviser to the Hamas leader Ismail Haniya, referring to Emirati and Saudi support. “The Egyptians also clearly got a green light from America. They are obviously trying to cook up something to help end this conflict.”

Declan Walsh reported from Cairo, and David M. Halbfinger from Jerusalem. Reporting was contributed by Nour Youssef from Cairo, Rami Nazzal from Ramallah and Iyad Abuheweila from Gaza City.

A Palestinian marks the reconciliation deal. Photo by Reuters

Hamas and Fatah sign reconciliation deal, leaving many questions unanswered

By Ma’an news
October 12, 2017

CAIRO — The Hamas and Fatah movements signed a long-awaited reconciliation deal on Thursday in the Egyptian capital of Cairo after weeks of anticipation, though the exact details of the agreement have remained elusive.

The announcement came after the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA), which controls the occupied West Bank, and Hamas, which up until earlier this month served as the de facto authority in the besieged Gaza Strip, convened in Cairo on Tuesday for the talks.

Head of the PA delegation Azzam al-Ahmad and head of the Hamas delegation Saleh al-Arouri signed the agreement, which focused on fully implementing the PA’s authority over Gaza, and joint management of the enclave’s border crossings.

According to al-Ahmad, Hamas and Fatah agreed that the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza would be operated by PA presidential guards by November 1.

Several key issues, however, such as the status of Hamas’ military wing, and the future of between 40,000 and 50,000 civil servants that have been hired by Hamas since the faction took over Gaza in 2007.

During a press conference, al-Ahmad said the most important thing moving forward “is to implement the particulars of the agreement so that the government will fully function.”

On behalf of Hamas, Al-Arouri said “we promise to implement the reconciliation agreement, and we will do everything to continue the reconciliation,” adding that the agreement will be implemented in stages.

Meanwhile, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas released a statement shortly after the agreement was signed, welcoming the deal as an “achievement” that “speeds up the process of ending division and regaining unity of Palestinian people, land and institutions.”

Abbas instructed the unity government to work across all departments and services to execute the agreement, and called called upon all Palestinian factions and parties “to put in all efforts to achieve the people’s will of regaining unity.”

Abbas also went on to thank the Egyptian President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi for Egypt’s role in achieving reconciliation.

The Egyptian government called for a meeting between the factions in Cairo on November 21 to discuss the next steps in implementing the agreement.

According to Israeli news daily Haaretz, Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said that “the next phase of reconciliation will be a meeting of representatives of all the Palestinian factions in Cairo to discuss the major national issues – such as Hamas’s military wing, the issue of weapons and political positions.”

Numerous attempts have been made in the past to reconcile Hamas and Fatah since they came into violent conflict in 2007, shortly after Hamas’ 2006 victory in general elections held in the Gaza Strip.

In addition to resolving the issue of public employees and Hamas’ military wing, Hamas and Fatah plan to pave the way for legislative elections for the unity government that would rule both the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

Hamas, Fatah sign reconciliation agreement in Cairo

By Al Jazeera
October 12, 2017

Palestinian political parties Hamas and Fatah signed a reconciliation deal in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, on Thursday, as part of an effort to end a decade-long rift.

The announcement comes after representatives from Hamas and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) convened in Cairo on Tuesday to implement a unity agreement that was signed in 2011 but not put into action.

At a press conference, head of the PA delegation Azzam al-Ahmad said the two sides agreed that the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza would be operated by the presidential guards of PA President Mahmoud Abbas by November 1.

“According security measures will be applied and adopted by the Palestinian Authority where the presidential guards will be spread all over the borders,” said al-Ahmad.

He added that under the instructions of Abbas, the two groups would not return to the occupied Palestinian territories unless they had a “final agreement that would put aside the rift forever … to achieve the Palestinian dream, put an end to occupation, and to have a Palestinian, independent, sovereign state with East Jerusalem as the capital”.

Saleh al-Arouri, deputy head of the Hamas political office, thanked Egypt for its “stable role”.

“The Palestinian issue is the Egyptian issue,” he said.

The agreement stipulates that legislative, presidential and national council elections should be conducted within one year of its signing, though details of the reconciliation deal have not yet been made public.

The deal would also see both Hamas and Fatah form an interim government before elections.

Crises in Gaza to improve?

The Gaza-based Hamas movement decided last month it would dissolve its administrative committee which runs the Gaza Strip. It also expressed its willingness to reconcile with the PA, the semi-autonomous body governing the West Bank.

Subsequently, PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah visited Gaza and announced that the national unity government would start to assume its administrative responsibility of the Strip.

Hamas has been the de-facto ruler in the Gaza Strip since 2007 after the party defeated President Abbas’ long-dominant Fatah party in parliamentary elections.

Hamas then pushed Fatah out of Gaza in a bloody conflict, when the latter refused to recognise the result of the vote.

Israel responded to Hamas’ election victory by imposing an airtight siege, in place until today.

Hamas and Fatah have ruled the Gaza Strip and the West Bank respectively ever since, and multiple attempts at reconciliation have since failed for several reasons.

The Egyptian-brokered deal, if successfully implemented, could see the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza improve.

In the last few months, Hamas has been under heavy pressure by the PA’s recent measures against Gaza, aimed at pressuring Hamas to relinquish control of the Strip.

Punitive measures included cutting the salaries of PA employees living in Gaza and reducing the electricity supply to Gaza, which already suffers from a power shortage due to the Israeli blockade.

© Copyright JFJFP 2017