The Palestinian Authority government, headed by premier Rami Hamdallah, convened in the Gaza Strip Tuesday morning for the first time in three years.
After the celebratory pictures and many handshakes, the government reached its first decision: the sanctions Hamdallah’s government has imposed on the enclave will not be removed until representatives of the Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas meet in Cairo next week, at the earliest.
In other words: Let’s first see what Hamas has to offer and then we’ll talk. There is no such as thing as a free lunch, and PA President Mahmoud Abbas wants to make sure Hamas knows it.
While Egypt’s intelligence services were trying to organize a show of unity in Gaza, Abbas poured cold water on the Hamas, Egypt and even senior Fatah officials who had traveled to the Strip.
In an interview late Monday with the Egyptian news station CBC, Abbas delivered a message to all those concerned: The path to reconciliation is long and hinges on one key point — Hamas’s guns.
With the terror group having vowed it will never part with its arsenal, Abbas comes along and explicitly says he will not tolerate a Palestinian version of the well-armed Hezbollah in Lebanon or the stockpiling of arms by any group bar the PA.
“One state, one government, one gun,” said Abbas, the same slogan he has always pushed.
“Just as I imprison Fatah members for holding weapons, so it will be with all groups,” said Abbas.
There was no room for ambiguity in Abbas’s comments. He let Hamas, Egypt and the Palestinian public know there will be no true reconciliation or unity if Hamas insists on maintaining possession of its weaponry.
It was not just the content of the interview Abbas gave to pro-Egyptian government reporter Lamis el-Hadidy that got that message across. His body language, his tone and his choice of words conveyed that in his view reconciliation between his Fatah party and Hamas is not realistic.
When asked what torpedoed the previous reconciliation agreement reached in 2014, Abbas replied without hesitation: “[Hamas] kidnapped the three soldiers,” before quickly correcting himself to say “children,” in reference to the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teens in the West Bank by members of the terror group that helped spark the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas.
In the interview, Abbas also addressed the transfer of authority in Gaza to the PA, emphasizing that he wants control over the border crossings.
“The PA will control the crossings,” he said. Asked if Hamas would agree to this, Abbas replied that the true test will be on the ground.
Regarding the economic sanctions the PA imposed on Gaza, Abbas blamed Hamas for setting up its own administrative body in Gaza, which he indicated was a step too far.
Abbas stressed that only when his government assumes administrative control of Gaza “exactly as it does in the West Bank” will the sanctions be removed. “Is my Arabic clear on this?” he asked.
When he was asked by the interviewer what he would say to Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh when he himself visits Gaza, Abbas appeared to be restraining himself to not give a harsh response.
After years of failed attempts at reconciliation, Abbas, 82, appeared profoundly skeptical about the possibility of true national unity.
He clarified that it is not certain there will soon be elections, and that even the establishment of a Palestinian state won’t be soon — a surprising remark for the leader who tells the Palestinians at every opportunity that the establishment of a state of their own is imminent.
Despite his skepticism, Abbas spoke respectfully of Egypt and its role in brokering the reconciliation.
Egypt throws weight behind efforts
Regarding Egypt, any viewer of Egyptian television could be forgiven for believing what has been going on in Gaza over the past two days was an internal Egyptian matter.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi is portrayed as not only the architect of the reconciliation, but also as the supreme regional leader who was able to bring together two children and put an end to their squabbling.
Egyptian intelligence has thrown its full weight behind the matter. General Sameh Kamel, Egyptian intelligence’s point man for Israeli-Palestinian affairs, arrived in Gaza on Monday, while Egypt’s Intelligence Minister Khaled Fawzi was due to visit Ramallah on Tuesday before making his way to the Strip.
Next week, Egypt will host top officials from both Fatah and Hamas in Cairo for a more in-depth in discussion on the details of the reconciliation deal.
General Kamel was Egypt’s intelligence representative in Tel Aviv for several years. He is well aware of each side’s limitations in any reconciliation deal, as well as Israel’s stance concerning Palestinian unity.
The Palestinians should hope he has still has some cards to play, as the positions presented by Abbas on the one hand and Hamas on the other suggest the current effort at reconciliation will end like those that have preceded it, in failure.