Hamas and Fatah sign 'last chance' reconciliation deal in Cairo
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Hamas delegation head Saleh Arouri hugs Fatah leader Azzam Ahmad as they sign a reconciliation deal in Cairo on October 12, 2017. Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters

The secular nationalist Fatah movement and the Islamist group Hamas signed a Palestinian reconciliation deal on Thursday that aims to return a semblance of security and economic opportunity to the Gaza Strip.

The agreement includes arrangements to bring western-trained Palestinian Authority (PA) police to the beleaguered territory, administrative concessions on civil service salaries, and the removal of Hamas forces from the Rafah border crossing into Egypt, according to Egyptian security sources.

For Egypt, the deal signed by Saleh Al Aruri of Hamas and Fatah's Azam Al Ahmad at the Cairo headquarters of the General Intelligence Service is a point of pride. The presence of Egyptian intelligence chief Khaled Fawzi signalled Cairo's expectation that Hamas and Fatah would settle their differences in the interest of improving security and gaining independence for Palestine.

For Palestinians, the success of the attempt to end a 10-year rift in their leadership is a matter of survival.

"The past 10 years have been catastrophic,” said Mukhaimer Abu Saada, a political scientist at Al Azhar University in Gaza. “If we don't succeed this time forget about it — this is going to be the end.”

That sense of urgency was on display last week as the Palestinian cabinet convened its first meeting in Gaza since 2014.

The Cairo accord says the consensus government will officially take full administrative control of Gaza from December 1, with the two sides returning to the Egyptian capital in November for further talks.

Hamas has made serious concessions by ceding administrative powers and allowing armed officers from Fatah back on the streets of Gaza.

But the movement’s leadership thinks the deal cements its place inside Palestinian governing structures, facilitates the return of basic services to its Gaza constituents and safeguards the survival of its military capabilities.

“Unlike previous agreements, the current one will allow Hamas to actively participate in the new unity government,” said Salah Bardawil, a high-ranking official. “Hamas will not lay down its arms, and resistance to Israel is not negotiable.”

But for the nearly two million residents of Gaza, the hope now is that abandonment of factionalism and Egyptian-led diplomacy will give them breathing space to rebuild their lives.

“The rift has caused endless damage,” said Samyah Maher, an unemployed 22-year-old with a computer engineering degree from a local technical college. “Homes and schools go for hours without electricity; the border crossings need to be opened and rebuilding from the last war is still not finished”

The 2014 war between Hamas and Israel damaged 171,000 residential structures in Gaza and 33,000 people have yet to return to their homes.

“Reconciliation is the only tool we have to create a decent life,” Mr Maher said.

Analysts believe the deal to fund a working civil service in Gaza will stop the cycle of “de-development” in the strip resulting from Hamas’ domination of the territory and three major wars with Israel over the course of 10 years.

“Real international assistance to the Palestinians will only come if the donors are convinced there will not be another war and the same is true for global investors looking to partner with the PA to develop the natural gas fields off the Gaza coast,” said Mr Abu Saada.

The reconciliation pact demonstrates Egypt’s determination to assert its role as the indispensable power broker in the region as ISIL faces defeat in Iraq and Syria and the Sunni Arab countries set their sights on the Iranian threat.

The effort also represents Cairo’s regionwide drive to marginalise the Muslim Brotherhood.

“Hamas is in crisis and was forced to break its organisational relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Amin El Mahdy, an Egyptian political analyst who maintains contacts with Israeli officials and Palestinian politicians. “Reality is stronger than politics and ideology.”

Still, there is satisfaction within Egypt’s governing circle that the Islamists' regional allies were excluded from the reconciliation process and from the diplomatic overtures towards Israel.

“There was a competition between Egypt, Turkey and Qatar, with each trying to prove that they could deal with Hamas alone,” said Saeed Okasha, an Israeli affairs analyst with the quasi-governmental Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

“But Egypt showed it was the only one to produce a productive dialogue between Hamas and Fatah."

As early as last year, Cairo brought the Arabian Gulf states into the process by agreeing that the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir lay within Saudi territorial waters.

The result was to make the kingdom a de facto party to the Camp David accords.

The 1979 peace deal with Israel obligated Cairo to allow freedom of shipping in Aqaba and Eilat, a commitment that Saudi Arabia has promised to uphold.

“Putting the islands back in the kingdom’s hands means Saudi Arabia is inside the Camp David accords and now Egypt is advancing the Saudi initiative launched 15 years ago,” said Mr Okasha.

The 2002 Arab peace initiative offers Israel recognition by the regional states in return for a self-governing Palestinian state inside the boundaries of pre-1967 Arab lands. The initiative also offered flexibility on territorial swaps that would allow many Jewish settlements to remain in place.

The UAE has also been instrumental in the Palestinian reconciliation, reportedly pledging millions of dollars to build a power plant for energy-starved Gaza and for a fund to compensate the families of hundreds of fighters killed and injured in the 2007 Gaza factional war.

The reconciliation effort has also boosted the standing of dismissed senior Fatah member Mohammed Dahlan, who with his Gaza roots and authority as a former PLO security chief poses a challenge to both Hamas and the Ramallah government.

"Dahlan has an important role in facilitating the Hamas-Egypt negotiation," said Talal Awkal, an independent political analyst in Gaza. “The fear of Dahlan is what makes Fatah serious about achieving the reconciliation.”

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas dismissed Mr Dahlan from Fatah’s central committee in 2011 after the former head the Preventive Security Force in Gaza made statements linking corruption in the Palestinian Authority to Mr Abbas’s sons.

Despite last week’s denunciation of Hamas-Fatah reconciliation by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israelis have effectively been party to the talks.

An Israeli delegation flew to Cairo on Tuesday to go over negotiation points with the same Egyptian intelligence officers working to finalise Thursday’s deal.

In his first comments on the signing of the deal, Mr Netanyahu said it must conform with international agreements and terms set by the Middle East Quartet, including the recognition of Israel and disarming of Hamas.

For Gazans, the intensified diplomacy for Palestine is a welcome relief after years of feeling neglected.

“It’s time for international power to manage,” said Mohammad Ayoub, 26, a literature graduate working as a labourer at a Gaza City construction site.

“Until now, neither Fatah or Hamas did anything to achieve what people here need, and I don’t really care who’s supervising this reconciliation, all I want is peace.”

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