Palestinian reconciliation: reasons for hope and doubt

Jerusalem (AFP) –


Palestinian prime minister Rami Hamdallah visited Gaza for the first time since 2015 on Monday as part of efforts towards reconciliation between the two largest Palestinian factions.

After many previous failures, is there really justification for believing this time will be different?

What is the history?

The Palestinian Authority, the internationally recognised Palestinian government, has been at odds with Hamas for more than a decade, after the Islamists seized Gaza in a near civil war.

The split is considered one of the main obstacles to the settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and one of the causes of the suffering of Gazans -- who are blockaded by Israel and receive only a few hours of power a day.

Why now?

The reconciliation talks come after months when relations between the two have been at their worst.

Palestinian Authority president Mahmud Abbas has sought to punish Hamas for establishing what was seen as a rival government, reducing fuel payments for Gaza but harming the lives of ordinary citizens.

A few weeks ago Hamas agreed to dissolve the shadow government and hand over power to a unity government. The punitive measures will be lifted as soon as this government takes power, according to Azzam al-Ahmad, a senior official in the Fatah movement that dominates the PA.

New Egyptian interests?

Egypt is the only country apart from Israel that borders Gaza and Cairo sees itself as a regional heavyweight.

It is also one of only two Arab countries to have made peace with Israel and has long played a key role in Palestinian reconciliation efforts.

The previous attempt broke down in 2015, with Hamas and Fatah exchanging blame.

Egypt had been hostile to Hamas, accusing it of supporting jihadist rebels inside its borders, but relations between the two have improved in recent years.

Mukhaimer Abu Saada, a political scientist in Gaza, said Egypt seems particularly interested in reconciliation this time, including "supervising its execution".

Hamas' new pragmatism?

Hamas has perhaps been forced towards pragmatism by isolation.

In recent years a number of its allies have been weakened, including Qatar, while the growing suffering in Gaza had seen it face increasing dissatisfaction on the streets.

In May the movement adopted a new charter toning down some of the most radical elements of its original.

But it remains to be seen how far the Islamist movement, and particularly its armed wing, is willing to compromise.

"There has never been any question" of dismantling the armed wing, said Moussa Abu Marzook, a prominent figure in the Islamist movement.

However, the Palestinian Authority wants control of all government roles in Gaza, including security.

Key sticking points

Another key sticking point is tens of thousands of civil servants and officials recruited by Hamas after it assumed power in 2007.

The PA is reluctant to take on these people, and their salaries, especially with ongoing financial shortages and already oversized bureaucracy.

Similarly elections could be a problem.

Hamas agreed last month to a longstanding PA demand for elections, which would be the first in the Palestinian Territories since 2006.

Those elections helped precipitate the split that led to the current crisis.

So are the two sides -- and the international community -- really ready to accept the potentially risky outcome of a poll?

What role for the United States?

The United States, Israel and others consider Hamas a terrorist group as it refuses to accept Israel's right to exist. This complicates any potential involvement in a Palestinian government, particularly as they provide financial support for the PA.

But so far, said Abu Saada, they have not vetoed attempts towards better Hamas-Fatah relations, as they know the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "will not move without reconciliation and without Gaza".