Quarterly Updates for (16 Aug 2017 — 15 Nov 2017)



After a year of increasingly acrimonious relations (see JPS 46 [3]–47 [1]), Hamas and Fatah signed a major reconciliation agreement in 10/2017. The deal elided several key issues (e.g., the role of Hamas’s military wing), but both parties made significant concessions and by the end of the quarter, the process appeared to have the potential to end the decade-old rift between the govts. in Gaza and the West Bank.

In the opening weeks of the quarter, tension between Hamas and Fatah was escalating. At a meeting with Knesset leaders of the left-wing Meretz party in Ramallah, PA pres. Abbas reportedly threatened (8/20) to cut off all financial support to Gaza, including the funds used to buy electricity from Israel, unless Hamas dismantled the new administrative comm. it established at the beginning of the year. “We transfer $1.5 b. a year [to Gaza], but after Hamas declared its own govt., we discontinued 25% of our support,” Abbas reportedly said (8/20). “We fear that if there is no change soon that will gradually reach 100%.” A complete suspension of PA support would have increased the pressure on Hamas, and exacerbated the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, resulting from the 10-year-long siege of Gaza by Israel and Egypt, and other punitive restrictions Abbas imposed earlier in 2017 (see JPS 46 [4] and 47 [1]).

Abbas’s threat only led to more tension. Four days later, several news outlets reported Hamas released (8/24) a statement accusing the PA of carrying out politically motivated arrests of 9 of its mbrs. in the West Bank. In a separate statement, the PIJ echoed (8/24) Hamas’s claim, arguing that the arrests “signaled” the “PA’s insistence on shutting doors” to any reconciliation efforts.

The first sign that those doors were still open came on 8/26, when PA PM Hamdallah spoke at an opening ceremony of new wards at a Palestinian hospital in Hebron. He announced that the PA would be rehiring the 6,145 Gaza-based civil servants it had forced into early retirement on 7/4 (see JPS 47 [1]). Although Hamdallah did not offer any justification or reasoning for the PA’s position, the 7/4 decision was framed by PA officials as an effort to intensify the pressure on Hamas. The rollback was therefore seen in that context as well.

Two weeks after Hamdallah’s announcement, Hamas took the next step forward. The movement’s leader, Ismail Haniyeh, led a delegation of high-ranking officials to Cairo on 9/9 for talks with Egyptian intelligence officials on bilateral relations and the prospects for Palestinian national reconciliation. In pursuit of a more stable relationship with the Palestinians and border security, the Egyptians reportedly urged Hamas to make concessions for the sake of unity, and the Hamas officials, hoping to see the blockade on Gaza eased, relented. On 9/11, Haniyeh said Hamas was willing to dismantle its new administrative comm. and embark on a new round of reconciliation talks, without preconditions (Hamas had previously demanded that Abbas roll back the measures he had imposed earlier in the year before sitting down for talks). A week after Hamas’s announcement, senior Hamas officials met with their counterparts in Fatah for 2 days of talks in Cairo. Afterward, Hamas leaders released (9/17) another statement reaffirming their willingness to dismantle the administrative comm. and to carry on further reconciliation talks, as well as their openness to hold a new round of elections. The next day, Abbas called Haniyeh and told him he was “satisfied with the atmosphere” Hamas had created. Abbas then pledged to follow up on the process after he returned from the UNGA in New York.

Momentum built through the end of 9/2017. Haniyeh invited (9/19) Abbas to send PA officials to take control of Gaza “without obstacles,” and Hamdallah said (9/26) that the PA was planning to establish new committees to administer the transfer of power. Even the Middle East Quartet, which includes the U.S., as well as the UN, European Union (EU), and Russia, lauded (9/28) the process: “[We] urge the parties to take concrete steps to reunite Gaza and the West Bank under the legitimate PA. This will facilitate lifting the closures of the crossings, while addressing Israel’s legitimate security concerns, and unlock international support for Gaza’s growth, stability and prosperity, which is critical for efforts to reach lasting peace.”

As Hamdallah prepared to hold a PA cabinet meeting in Gaza, there were signs the process was not going as smoothly as it appeared. On 9/28, senior Hamas official Musa Abu Marzuq said that Hamas was not ready to discuss the proposed disbanding of its military wing, the Izzeddin al-Qassam Brigades, in the context of the reconciliation talks. According to a report in al-Hayat on 9/30, the measure was 1 of the 3 conditions Abbas required, along with a ban on foreign involvement in the administration of Gaza and the demand that all reconstructiondesignated funds flow through the PA. According to analysts, these conditions were designed to block exiled Fatah leader and longtime Abbas rival Mohammad Dahlan from reentering Palestinian politics. Dahlan has lived in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) since 2011, amassing great personal wealth since fleeing Ramallah under charges of corruption and allegations he participated in targeted assassination attempts against Hamas officials. On 9/13, the New York Times reported that Dahlan had secured a $50 m. pledge to fund a program that would distribute $50,000 payments to the victims of Fatah-Hamas violence that followed Hamas’s electoral victory in Gaza in 2006. Because Dahlan has been in exile and is seen to have “burned bridges,” this new program was perceived, in part, as an effort to rehabilitate his reputation and a way to return to Palestinian leadership.

Neither Dahlan’s apparent ambition nor Hamas’s military wing proved to be insurmountable hurdles. On 10/2, Hamas held a formal welcome ceremony for Hamdallah in Bayt Hanun. “We return to Gaza again to end the division and achieve unity,” Hamdallah told a crowd of at least 2,000. The next day, he convened the PA cabinet in Gaza for the first time since 11/2014 and said he was ready to take responsibility for the administration of Gaza “in full cooperation and partnership with all the Palestinian factions and forces.” He also said that reconciliation would put pressure on international donors to make good on their pledges of reconstruction support, and that all administrative issues would be resolved “within the [framework of] available resources.” The head of Egypt’s General Intelligence Directorate, Khaled Fawzy, who was in Gaza on 10/3 to help mediate the process, said (10/3) that the Egyptian govt. planned to invite Hamas and Fatah officials back to Cairo soon for further talks and was planning to use as a framework the reconciliation deal the 2 sides had signed in Cairo on 5/4/2011 (see update and Doc. B4 in JPS 40 [4]).

While the PA cabinet was in Gaza for further talks, Israel and the international community weighed in with their views. In Israel, PM Netanyahu condemned (10/3) the entire affair, saying that Israel would not accept “imaginary appeasement where the Palestinian side is reconciling at the expense of our existence.” Education Minister Bennett went further, calling (10/3) for Netanyahu to suspend the monthly transfers of tax revenues to the PA. In response, PLO secy.-gen. Saeb Erakat called (10/4) on Israel to fulfill its obligations under past agreements now that the Palestinians had made a “historic compromise.” UN special coordinator Nickolay Mladenov, on the other hand, expressed cautious optimism (10/3) about the process. And U.S. special rep. for international negotiations Greenblatt released a statement timidly welcoming the process: “We will be watching these developments closely, while pressing forward with the PA, Israel, and international donors to try to improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza.”

What the U.S. and the rest of the world saw was more progress. On 10/5, after 4 days of talks between Hamas and PA officials, Hamas announced that the PA had officially taken over as the administrative authority in Gaza. In an interview on Egyptian television, Abbas reiterated (10/3) his demand for Hamas to dismantle its military arm before the PA lifted any of its new sanctions on Gaza, insisting that he didn’t want to reproduce Lebanon’s “Hezbollah model.” Fawzy then reportedly informed (10/5) Abbas that Hamas would refuse to consider dismantling the 27,000- strong force until a peace deal with Israel was reached and new elections were held (Raialyoum, 10/5).

As the disagreement over Hamas’s military wing persisted, Abbas downplayed the reconciliation process. According to a readout of a meeting of the Fatah Revolutionary Council on 10/8, he said that national unity would take more time, and that the PA would not be able to assume all its responsibilities in Gaza absent consensus on the agenda of the PLO agenda and the PA’s sole authority over security.

Despite Abbas’s reservations, Hamas and Fatah officials returned to Cairo the following week and in a joint press conference on 10/12 they announced a new reconciliation agreement. They didn’t immediately reveal any details, but information leaked to the media outlined the following specific provisions: the PA would lift all sanctions imposed earlier in 2017, Hamas would give up control of Gaza to the PA by 12/1, Hamas and the PA would form a joint police force to patrol Gaza, and Egypt would host the 11/21 round of reconciliation talks aimed at forming a unity govt. While Netanyahu and other Israeli officials decried the deal and uncertainty about its specifics lingered, the international community and the Palestinian public greeted the announcement with fanfare. On the evening of 10/12, thousands of Palestinians gathered in the streets of Gaza City to celebrate.

After 4 days of unbroken positivity on both sides, a Hamas spokesperson criticized (10/16) the PA for not prioritizing the rollback of sanctions on Gaza. “It is not justified to continue the sanctions on Gaza, while the [PA] govt. is content with talking about gaining control of border crossings and exploration for [natural] gas in Gaza,” he said. His comments came 1 day after the Fatah Central Comm. met to discuss the reconciliation deal, neglecting to debate the specific issue of sanctions, as had been expected. Another senior Hamas official commented (10/16) that “the failure of Abbas to respond to popular and national demands to cancel his arbitrary measures against our people in Gaza is unjustifiable.”

In addition to Egypt, the 10/12 deal won the Palestinians support from other allies in the region. The Jordanian press reported (10/19) that King Abdullah planned to allow Hamas to reopen its office in Amman (although other news reports refuted this), and the chair of Qatar’s Comm. to Rebuild Gaza, Mohammed al-Emadi, announced (10/24) that Doha would fund the construction of a new presidential residence and “the headquarters of the Palestinian govt. in Gaza after the consensus govt. assumes its duties fully.”

Even Netanyahu reportedly saw potential in the deal. According to 3 Israeli sources, despite not recognizing the agreement, the Israeli PM told (10/16) his security cabinet that Israel should cooperate with PA officials, should they take control of Gaza, because averting a humanitarian crisis would serve Israel’s interest. The same sources said that Netanyahu had already informed both the Egyptian and U.S. govts. that the deal would not facilitate a resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians. The next day, however, Netanyahu was apparently overruled. The security cabinet imposed (10/17) conditions on any Israeli participation in talks related to Palestinian national reconciliation (see “The PalestinianIsraeli Conflict” above).

The Palestinians were undeterred. A little more than 2 weeks after Hamas and Fatah officials stood together at the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate’s office in Cairo, they came together again to take the first big step toward implementing the deal. At a ceremony at the Rafah border crossing on 11/1, Hamas formally handed over control of Gaza’s border crossings to the PA. Hamas forces departed (11/1) from their posts on the Palestinian side of the crossing and dismantled (11/1) their checkpoints at the Erez and Kerem Shalom crossings, allowing PASF to take control. Mladenov called (11/1) it a “landmark development,” and both the EU (11/1) and the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem (11/3) welcomed the move.