BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip » A potent symbol of the schism between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, the Islamist group that dominates Gaza, has been visible at the border crossing here for years: The two maintain separate checkpoints a half-mile apart, and travelers crossing to or from Israel have to pass through both.
Over the last week, though, the crossing illustrated something else: the unraveling of the reconciliation agreement reached last year, and the dysfunction of the Palestinians’ supposed government of national consensus.
After Hamas set up a makeshift outpost at the Palestinian Authority’s checkpoint last week, the authority abandoned it, prompting Israel to allow only foreigners and Gazans with humanitarian emergencies to pass.
"We’re paying a price for the long division," said Abdul Kader Abdul Hadi, who was among the few who crossed the border on Tuesday so his 15-day-old son, born with a heart ailment, could be treated in Israel. "I hope they solve the problem and save lives of innocent people, far from the political issues."
Regular operations resumed at the crossing on Wednesday after Hamas left its outpost and the Palestinian Authority returned. But the situation remained precarious, and across Gaza, other symptoms of renewed factional tensions abounded. Analysts said both the survival of the Palestinian government and the Palestinians’ new international diplomatic campaign against Israel were at risk.
Internal divisions have plagued the Palestinians since at least 2007, when Hamas won legislative elections and then routed its main rival, the Fatah faction, from Gaza in a bloody battle. Fatah continued to dominate the Palestinian Authority, which governed the West Bank, and the Palestine Liberation Organization, which negotiated with Israel and conducted diplomacy worldwide.
Hamas and the PLO signed a reconciliation pact in April that led to a new Cabinet for the authority. But the pact’s promise of new elections within six months has not come to fruition, and neither has the authority taken control of the Gaza border crossings or internal security in the territory.
On Wednesday, Hamas convened a session of the moribund Palestinian Legislative Council, a step that directly contravened the reconciliation pact. The day before, Hamas-affiliated workers who have not received salaries for months staged an angry protest that placed the four Gaza-based ministers of the consensus government under siege.
Hamas officials denounce Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of Fatah, the Palestinian Authority and the PLO, almost daily, and Abbas has yet to make good on his pledge to visit Gaza.
"It’s dead, and it will be dead for a long time," Mkhaimer Abusaada, a political scientist at Al-Azhar University in Gaza City, said of reconciliation. "We are back to mutual accusations."
Abbas has recently gained some traction in his quest for Palestinian statehood, and has bolstered his standing on the Palestinian street by moving to have Palestine join the International Criminal Court and by pushing for a U.N. Security Council resolution that would set a deadline for Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank. But many experts say it will be difficult for him to make real progress without control of Gaza.
The fighting between Hamas and Israel during the summer caused widespread destruction in Gaza, and thousands of residents were left homeless, but the reconstruction effort led by the U.N. has been stalled by the Palestinian Authority’s inability to assert control over security and the border crossings. Five babies, several of them belonging to families living in damaged homes or flimsy tents, died from exposure during a fierce winter storm this month.
Since Israel retaliated for Abbas’ move to join the international court by withholding Palestinian tax revenue, government workers in Gaza and the West Bank have gone without their December paychecks.
Al Quds, the leading Palestinian newspaper, said in an editorial on Wednesday that the vaunted reconciliation pact was "seemingly turning into ink on paper," and that it was "unbelievable and unacceptable" that Gaza residents had become "hostages in this dispute" between Palestinian political parties.
"First and foremost, we must get our house in order," the editors wrote. "The past years have proven that the division, bickering and accusations between the factions have pushed our cause back dozens of years."
Perhaps the most complicated challenge is how to handle public employees in Gaza: the 70,000 who worked for the Palestinian Authority there before 2007, and an additional 40,000 who were hired during Hamas’ administration of the territory. The new government formed a committee to whittle down the roster, but the committee has not resolved anything. The government’s leaders maintain that the Palestinian Authority cannot pay anyone affiliated with Hamas, which is deemed a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States, for fear of losing international donations, a mainstay.
Hundreds of Hamas employees staged a sit-in on Tuesday at Abbas’ long-empty house in Gaza, surrounding the four Gaza-based government ministers who use it as an office. The protesting workers held empty pots and plates to highlight their plight after going unpaid for seven months other than a stipend sent by Qatar.
"These steps are only the beginning of a big escalation if the government remains silent toward our rights," said Mohammed Siam, the head of the employees’ union.
As Hamas lawmakers gathered Wednesday at the Parliament building in Gaza City without their counterparts from other factions, Ahmed Bahar, the first deputy of the legislative council, warned that the delays in rebuilding Gaza and paying the workers would bring an "explosion in the Gaza Strip."
He condemned Abbas for participating in a solidarity march in Paris on Sunday, asking, "Is it that tens of thousands of homes destroyed and Palestinian martyrs over the past years are not equal to victims who were killed in France?"
Salah Bardawil, another Hamas leader, said that Abbas, whose formal term, like those of the lawmakers, expired years ago, "does not have constitutional legitimacy." Mahmoud al-Zahar, a Hamas hard-liner, declared that "the consensus government has failed."
Ziad Abu Amr, deputy prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, acknowledged that a recent visit by West Bank Cabinet ministers to Gaza produced no progress, but he insisted that "there is no alternative to the national consensus government."
"This requires that we make another serious attempt and try to demonstrate to the Palestinian public that the government is trying its best," Abu Amr said. "And if Hamas chooses to jeopardize this effort, then Hamas will bear the responsibility. Our mandate as a government is clear, and we like to exercise it. There are problems. Some of these problems are not of our own making."
As for Abbas’ broader diplomatic initiative, he said, "The international community should not use this as a pretext for not doing what it should do in supporting our effort to reach a peaceful agreement and end the occupation."
Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian political columnist, said that with Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf states cracking down on Islamist movements and Iran and Syria having largely withdrawn financial support for Hamas, the faction is fighting for survival in "a kind of castle mentality."
"The moment they give up control of the borders, they feel they will lose the only power they have left," Kuttab said. "What do they say in English — possession is two-thirds of the law? They are in possession, they control the area. Until you settle with them and give them what they want, they are going to create problems every step of the way."