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Hamdallah arrives in Gaza as national reconciliation talks begin

Oct. 2, 2017 3:42 P.M. (Updated: Oct. 3, 2017 1:03 P.M.)
Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah (AFP, File)
BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) -- Palestinian Prime Minister and other officials from the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) arrived in the Gaza Strip on Monday, before official meetings regarding national reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, the de facto leaders of besieged coast enclave, are set to begin.

The PA's official news agency Wafa reported that Hamdallah arrived in Gaza via the Israeli-controlled Erez crossing, to a “popular reception.”

Reuters reported that 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 the Erez crossing.

In a press conference upon his arrival, Hamdallah described the visit -- his first to Gaza in two years -- as a "historic moment" towards unity of the Palestinian people, and said that the national unity government would start to assume its administrative responsibility of the Gaza Strip.

"We came at the orders of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to announce to the world, from the heart of Gaza that the Palestinian state cannot be without political and geographic unity between the West Bank and Gaza. We know that the only way to achieve our goals is through unity, and to protect the Palestinian political system," he reportedly said.

Hamdallah also announced that several committees have been established to handle the main issues facing the handover of power, such as the administration of border crossings and PA employees in Gaza.

The future of Hamas' military wing is expected to be a major sticking point in the reconciliation process. According to reports, Abbas has stipulated that Hamas must dismantle its military wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, while deputy head of Hamas’ politburo Moussa Abu Marzouk has insisted that the brigades is not a subject of discussion with the PA.

In addition to setting a date for holding presidential and parliamentary elections for the unity government, the rival factions will have to resolve the issue of the fate of the 40,000 to 50,000 civil and military staff Hamas had hired since 2007.

An Egyptian security delegation led by the Egyptian ambassador to Israel, Hazem Khairat, will be monitoring the reconciliation process.

According to Wafa, Hamdallah’s delegation will visit a home in the al-Shujaiyya neighborhood of central Gaza City that was destroyed during Israel’s 2014 offensive on the coastal enclave, before holding meetings with various political factions.

On Tuesday, Hamdallah is scheduled to head the PA's weekly cabinet meeting in the enclave, and after the visit, delegations will reportedly head to Cairo to continue reconciliation discussions.

Hamas recently agreed to allow the national reconciliation government to operate in the Gaza Strip and dissolved its administrative committee -- formed earlier this year to the outrage of the PA, possibly putting an end to a national split in the Palestinian government since a bloody conflict broke out after Hamas won a landslide victory in legislative elections in 2006.

Hamas said the decision came in response to recent diplomatic efforts by Egypt to reconcile the rival factions, while Abbas has been calling on Hamas to relinquish control of the small territory to the PA.

In recent months, the PA has been accused of deliberately sending the impoverished Gaza Strip further into a humanitarian catastrophe -- by slashing funding for Israeli fuel, medicine, and salaries for civil servants and former prisoners -- in order to pressure Hamas to give up control of Gaza.

After Hamas agreed to comply with Abbas' key demands, Hamas called on Abbas to cancel all punitive measures and put an end to carrying out “political arrests” in the occupied West Bank.

Some have also expressed hope that reconciliation and Hamas' growing ties with Egypt could also influence the opening of the Rafah border crossing, where Egypt has upheld the Israeli military blockade since President Abd al Fattah al-Sisi's rise to power. While the border has remained the main lifeline for Gazans to the outside world, Egyptian authorities have slowly sealed off movement in the past four years.

Israeli NGO Gisha, which focuses on Palestinian freedom of movement, said in a statement on Facebook on Monday that, "The right to freedom of movement is non-negotiable and must not be conditioned on political progress. More than 10 years of closure imposed by Israel are 10 years too many, in which families have been divided, economic activity impaired and infrastructure brought to the brink of collapse."

The group deplored the main actors in the region for bargaining away basic rights of Gazans for political reasons. "It is by now abundantly clear that all parties have used their leverage over access as a means of exerting political pressure, and that legitimate security concerns are not the primary or even the most important factor preventing movement for Gaza residents. It is absolutely outrageous and incomprehensible that the lives of so many civilians would be thwarted and put at risk for so long because of political disputes," the statement said.

Gisha highlighted Israel's leading role as an occupying power in creating the devastating humanitarian situation in the besieged territory. "Despite some changes to the closure policy over the years, particularly as regards movement of goods, the permit regime governing travel of people to and from the Strip is more stringent than ever.

"Fewer people are managing to obtain permits and cross through Erez, Gaza’s only gateway to the West Bank and Israel, as well as an important gateway to the outside world when Rafah is closed, and more people are being blocked for travel," the group highlighted.

"Movement restrictions must be reversed, not today or tomorrow as a matter of political expediency, but now, as a matter of great urgency, and to correct 10-plus-years of moral failure," Gisha said.

Nickolay Mladenov, the UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, wrote on Twitter on Monday: "The road ahead will be long and hard, but momentum of reconciliation and peace should not be missed."
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