The West Bank-based Palestinian prime minister, Rami al-Hamdallah, crossed into the Gaza Strip in a move towards reconciliation between the Fatah party and Hamas, a decade after the two factions violently split.
The prime minister said at a welcome ceremony that his unity government would begin assuming control of Gaza's administrative affairs, as well as "security responsibilities and responsibility for crossings and borders." Hamdallah is an independent technocrat aligned with Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the de jure State of Palestine based in Ramallah.
"We return to Gaza in order to conclude reconciliation and national unity and end the painful impacts of divisions and to rebuild Gaza brick by brick," said Hamdallah.
Hamas made the dramatic compromise last month when it disbanded its Gaza administrative committee amid pressure from Egypt, which will monitor the reconciliation process. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have warmed to the Israelis while imposing an economic boycott on Hamas’ main donor, Qatar.
Ramallah has also imposed heavy pressure on Gaza by slashing salaries for Palestinian Authority employees and working with the Israelis to reduce electricity supplies to the besieged coastal region.
Abbas lost control of the Gaza Strip in 2007 after the party refused to recognize Hamas’ victory in parliamentary elections. An abortive coup attempt backed by the United States and Israel that was led by Fatah strongman Mohammed Dahlan allowed Hamas to consolidate its power in the enclave.
Since then, the 2 million people of Gaza have faced three devastating wars launched by Israeli occupation authorities and a crippling blockade by Tel Aviv and Cairo.
While the incoming unity government was formed in 2014, it failed to function in Gaza because of disputes between Hamas and Fatah over its responsibilities. The situation has led to a widespread perception that both Ramallah and Gaza are in the grips of weak, self-interested and unrepresentative leadership groups.
Analysts in the West also hope that narrowing internal divisions will help Abbas counter Tel Aviv’s argument that it has no negotiating partner for peace with the Palestinians.
The reconciliation also comes amid a changed dynamic in relations between the right-wing administrations of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Donald Trump.
Trump has said it would be “nice” if the Israelis held back from expanding settlements while saying that he “very, very strongly” backs Tel Aviv’s exclusive claim to the contested city of Jerusalem, where he would “love” to see a U.S. embassy built.
Trump has also announced his intention to broker a peace deal involving the Palestinian Authority, the Israelis and regional Arab countries while saying that a final settlement can result in “two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like.”
“There is another old-new twist in the Trump administration playbook: an attempt to persuade the United States’ Arab clients to put pressure on the Palestinians to accept Israeli-American (dictates),” Palestinian-American historian Rashid Khalidi wrote. “This approach is being resuscitated by the new administration, in collaboration with Israel, whose right-wing government has increasingly close relations with the Arab Gulf states.”
Exiled former security chief Dahlan, based since 2011 in the United Arab Emirates, has been the leading player in recent unity efforts. He has also coordinated an influx of aid money meant to prop up Gaza in exchange for Hamas downgrading ties with Iran while tightening collaboration with Egypt and the Gulf kingdoms.
Palestinians weary of the dire economic situation in Gaza, constant blackouts and closed border crossings have greeted the reconciliation process with cautious optimism.
"It is a day of Eid, a national holiday," Abdel-Majid Ali told Reuters. "We hope this time reconciliation is for real."
Michael Oren, deputy minister for diplomacy in Netanyahu's cabinet, said a key issue for Tel Aviv was whether Hamas, an armed resistance group, would retain its weapons. "If it does, then it's a non-starter for Israel," he said.
The U.S. likewise is signaling that it may continue pressuring Gaza unless the new administration unequivocally recognizes Israeli claims to the historic Palestinian land, drops its demands for the right of Palestinian return and abandons armed struggle.
"The United States stresses that any Palestinian government must unambiguously and explicitly commit to nonviolence, recognition of the State of Israel, acceptance of previous agreements and obligations between the parties, and peaceful negotiations," Jason Greenblatt, U.S. President Donald Trump's Middle East envoy, said on Twitter.
In his first comments after Hamdallah and his entourage entered Gaza, Abbas told Egyptian TV station CBC in an interview that sanctions on the enclave would be lifted after the unity government takes control.
"Everything must be in the hands of the Palestinian Authority, it must be the one to control the crossing points (in and out of Gaza),” he said, adding that there could be only one regime setting laws and enforcing them.
Under previous understandings, some 3,000 Fatah security men would be integrated gradually into a Gaza police force overseen by an Interior Ministry headed by Hamdallah.
That deployment would still leave Hamas's armed wing, the Qassem Brigades, intact. Analysts say it has at least 25,000 well-equipped fighters, meaning it will remain the dominant power in the coastal region of 2 million people.
“Abbas knows that once they are done with all the hugs, the statements and the photo ops for all the news agencies in the Gaza Strip, and they finally get down to brass tacks, the smiles will be wiped off (Hamas’) faces," a Palestinian security source told Al-Monitor. "If Hamas is not prepared to give up the army that it created ... there is absolutely nothing to talk about. We can all smile for the camera and go right back to Ramallah."
In public remarks at a lunch with Hamdallah, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh appeared to be uncompromising about accommodating Israeli demands, calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state "on the full Palestinian soil with Jerusalem as its capital and the return of refugees to their lands and homes.”
On Tuesday, the Palestinian unity cabinet will meet in Gaza. In addition to setting a date for holding presidential and parliamentary elections, rival factions will have to resolve the issue of the fate of the tens of thousands of civil and military staff Hamas had hired since 2007 – a chance that seems remote given the group's identity as an Islamist armed resistance group.