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Palestinian cabinet meets in Gaza to pave way for reconciliation with Hamas

Oct. 3, 2017 1:03 P.M. (Updated: Oct. 9, 2017 3:03 P.M.)
GAZA (Ma’an) -- The Palestinian National Consensus Government convened for the first time in three years in Gaza City on Tuesday, a day after Palestinian Authority (PA) officials arrived to begin Egyptian-mediated reconciliation efforts with Hamas, the besieged coastal enclave’s de facto ruling party.

Fatah, the leading party of the Palestinian Authority (PA), and Hamas have been embroiled in conflict since Hamas' election victory in legislative elections in 2006, sparking a violent conflict between the two movements, with Hamas consolidating its control over the territory a year later.

After 2007, Hamas started to issue its own legislation for the Gaza Strip and ruled through the caretaker government. A National Consensus Government formed in June 2014, tasked with preparing for the legislative and presidential elections that never materialized, as both Fatah and Hamas blamed each other for numerous political failures.

Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah told the cabinet at the start of its meeting, usually held every Tuesday in Ramallah, that his government is going to assume full responsibility of all sectors of life in Gaza “in full cooperation and partnership with all the Palestinian factions and forces,” PA-owned Wafa news agency reported.

He said all outstanding administrative issues, including the the issue of public employees, will be gradually dealt with in the framework of the 2014 Cairo agreement “within the available resources.”

“We are here to close and forever (turn) the page on division and steer our national project back to its right track to end the Israeli occupation based on international law and UN resolutions,” he reportedly said.

The prime minister said that reconciliation will also oblige donors to meet the pledges they made in Cairo in 2014 toward the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip following Israel’s devastating war, according to Wafa.

He also urged an immediate lifting of the 10-year-long Israeli and Egyptian blockade on Gaza and an end to Israel’s collective punishment on Palestinians in the enclave.

Spokesperson of the National Consensus Government Yousef al-Mahmoud said at a press conference following the cabinet meeting that ending division would include forming committees to start working on resolving the issue of border crossings, electricity, water, and others.

Al-Mahmoud said that the government requested issuing initial reports on the needs of the Gaza Strip as soon as possible, and described the situation in the impoverished territory as “tragic.”

He applauded “the historical role” of Egypt in sponsoring reconciliation and Hamas for accepting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ “initiative to end division.”

Abbas calls on Hamas to give up its military wing

Abbas said in an interview late Monday with the Egyptian news station CBC that, "There can be no Palestinian state without completing reconciliation and unity. The government has returned to Gaza to carry out its duties. We have ideological differences with Hamas, but we can't deny the fact they're a part of the Palestinian people."

According to a translation of the interview from Times of Israel, Abbas said that he would not be prepared to accept Hamas keeping its military wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades. “I won’t accept the reproduction of the Hezbollah experience in Lebanon” in Gaza, Abbas reportedly said. Hezbollah is part of the Lebanese government but retains its own army.

The president added that despite his “strong desire to see this reconciliation through,” this would not happen unless the PA “ruled the Gaza Strip just as it does the West Bank.”

“The border crossings, security, and all the ministries must be under our control,” he was quoted as saying several times.

Hamas, however, has said that its armed wing was not even up for discussion in the reconciliation process.

In a statement on Twitter on Tuesday afternoon, Hamas said, "We congratulate the Palestinian people on the arrival of the National Consensus Government to Gaza and taking over its missions and holding its weekly session in a positive atmosphere."

“We look forward to continuing the steps of reconciliation through bilateral talks that will soon be held in Egypt, in reference to applying the 2011 agreements and its follow-ups, to reach full partnership in leading national institutions and the political agenda to achieve the goals of our people,” the statement said.

Sisi: Palestinian division 'forces spreading extremism in the region'

Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi released a taped video message expressing support for the consensus government and assuring Egypt's role in guaranteeing reconciliation efforts, saying that the "(Palestinian) division leaves no winners but forces spreading extremism in the region."

"The history will punish whoever wastes this reconciliation opportunity to achieve peace," he said, and called for "no foreign interference in the Palestinian internal affairs."

Meanwhile, head of the Egyptian Intelligence, Minister Khalid Fawzi attended a meeting with Hamdallah in Gaza, after first being received in Ramallah by his Palestinian counterpart Majed Faraj and meeting with the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Later in Gaza, Faraj met with security officials and Palestinians who were deported to the Gaza Strip following the deadly Israeli siege of the Nativity Church in Bethlehem in 2002, and updated Faraj on their conditions in the Gaza Strip. The deportees expressed their hope of returning to their families in the West Bank.

Wafa reported that Abbas expressed gratitude to Fawzi, who is acting as Sisi’s special envoy to the Palestinian reconciliation, for Egypt's efforts to help the Palestinians overcome their division and reach reconciliation after 10 years of rift.

Fawzi said he was pleased to see the launch of the reconciliation process and affirmed that Egypt is going to invite Fatah and Hamas to Cairo in the near future to discuss the developments and to prepare for a wider meeting for all the factions involved in signing the May 4, 2011 Cairo reconciliation agreement in order to start implementing its terms.

Head of Hamas movement’s politburo Ismail Haniyeh said during his meeting with Fawzi that “we want a government that imposes its control

over both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip," and confirmed that a Hamas delegation was headed to Egypt on Monday to continue talks with Fatah.

Haniyeh lauded Egypt’s role in supporting Palestinians until "we receive freedom by establishing an independent Palestinian state."

He said that reconciliation will be achieved regardless of the price.

PA ministers meet with Gaza employees

Later Tuesday afternoon, various PA ministers met with civil servants that have been employed by Hamas to run the ministries in the PA's absence. The cabinet is expected to return to Ramallah on Wednesday.

Minister of local governance Hussein al-Araj took over his ministry’s headquarters in Gaza and was welcomed by its employees. In a meeting, he stressed the importance of national unity to improve and develop Palestine, and said it would not be the last meeting with the employees.
Minister al-Araj

Hamas' Ministry of Agriculture in Gaza also received National Consensus Government minister Sufian Sultan who expressed optimism for reconciliation after what he described as a positive visit.
Minister Sultan

Minister of Education Sabri Saidam also met with his ministry’s employees in Gaza to follow up on the ministry’s work. Healso stressed on the importance of enhancing national unity and serving the Palestinian national project to end the Israeli occupation.
Minister Saidam

Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Rula Maaya took over her ministry’s headquarters in Gaza after being received by her deputy Ibrahim Jaber and the general managers at the ministry. Maaya met with the employees and deputies afterwards who updated her on the ministry’s work in Gaza.

Minister Maaya

Hamas has said the decision to allow the national reconciliation government to operate in the Gaza 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.

Nickolay Mladenov, the UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday after meeting with Hamdallah in Gaza: "I am encouraged by the firm commitment of the President and Government to return #Gaza under the control of the legitimate Palestinian Authority. This is essential for resolving the #humanitarian situation as soon as possible."

The United Nations Coordinator for Humanitarian Aid and Development Activities (OCHA) announced last month that $2.5 million of the UN’s Humanitarian Fund was being donated to the besieged Gaza Strip in order to meet urgent needs in the territory.

In 2012, the UN warned that Gaza could become uninhabitable by 2020 if current trends were not altered. However, a report released in July by the UN said that “life for the average Palestinian in Gaza is getting more and more wretched,” and that for the majority of Gaza's residents, the territory may already be unlivable.
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