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Two main Palestinian factions sign unity deal

  • NEW YORK TIMES

    A family inspects the remains of a destroyed building in which they lived following an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City in 2014. The main Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, have signed a reconciliation agreement that aims to mend their decade-old rift and places Gaza and the West Bank under one government for the first time since 2007.

CAIRO >> The main Palestinian factions signed a reconciliation agreement today that aims to mend their decade-old rift and places Gaza and the West Bank under one government for the first time since 2007.

Under the agreement, the Palestinian Authority, which now controls the West Bank, would in the coming weeks take administrative control of Gaza and police its borders, merging its security forces and ministries with those of Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls the coastal strip.

While both sides hailed the agreement as a significant step toward uniting the Palestinian territories — and potential relief for Gazans suffering dire shortages of electricity and medical supplies — it left many thornier issues unresolved, including the fate of the main Hamas militia and the network of tunnels under Gaza used by fighters and smugglers.

Officials from both sides stressed that the agreement, brokered by Egypt, was a first step, and that much depends on how events unfurl on the ground in the coming weeks.

The two sides agreed to begin talks next month to form a unity government that would oversee both territories. Those talks would have to wrestle with the issues that derailed previous peace initiatives.

Palestinian officials said the deal reached in Cairo today enjoyed a greater chance of success because it is backed by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and, they believe, the United States and Israel.

But the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, threw cold water on it, saying that Israel “objects to any reconciliation that does not include” accepting international agreements, recognizing Israel and disarming Hamas.

In the short term, the agreement promises to ease conditions in Gaza that aid organizations have warned constitute an emerging humanitarian crisis.

The Palestinian Authority has promised to lift sanctions that it imposed on Gaza earlier this year as part of its effort to pressure Hamas into talks. The government, led by the Fatah faction, cut electricity supplies to a few hours a day and stopped paying government salaries in Gaza.

Egypt, which brokered the agreement, has promised to open the Rafah border crossing once it comes under Palestinian Authority control. Egypt and Israel had closed Gaza’s border crossings out of security concerns, tightly regulating the flow of goods and people in what critics called an economic blockade of the territory.

Palestinian officials said that if all went well, the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, could visit Gaza in the coming month, his first visit to the embattled coastal strip in a decade. Although he was not in Cairo, Abbas gave his blessing to the deal, which he hailed as a “final agreement,” according to Agence France-Presse.

Yet the agreement left others underwhelmed, including skeptical Israeli officials who questioned its viability. Among the many unresolved differences between the two sides is the gulf between the Palestinian Authority’s goal of achieving statehood through diplomacy and Hamas’ mission of armed resistance and liberation.

Hamas has fought three wars with Israel, and has insisted on its right to maintain control of its “weapons of resistance,” including thousands of rockets, missiles and drones, as well as a network of fortified tunnels.

Israel has warned that it could not accept a unity government that included Hamas.

A statement from Netanyahu’s office said that Israel would “follow developments on the ground and will act accordingly.”

But later on Facebook, Netanyahu warned that a Fatah-Hamas rapprochement would make “peace much harder to achieve,” and issued a lengthy denunciation of Hamas.

“Reconciling with mass-murderers is part of the problem, not part of the solution,” he said.

Palestinians cautiously celebrated the deal, their enthusiasm tempered by memories of many failed previous initiatives.

In Gaza City, vendors passed out sweets to children in Soldier’s Square, a park at the center of town. Mona Khfaja, 37, a pharmacist who said she had been unable to leave Gaza for a year to seek treatment for kidney disease, said popular dissatisfaction under the border restrictions — what she said had verged on a “hungry revolution” — had forced political leaders to the table.

“The consequences of division are worse than the repercussion of wars,” she said. “We do not want the flags of Fatah and Hamas, only the Palestinian flag.”

In the West Bank town of Ramallah, Abu Ahmad, 56, said he welcomed the news but was wary about getting his hopes up.

“Many agreements have been signed in the past, but something has always caused these political parties to back away,” he said, “and I’m afraid there’s still a chance for that to happen again.”

The agreement followed two days of talks at the headquarters of Egypt’s General Intelligence Service, which brokered the negotiations. At a brief signing ceremony there today, the deputy leader of Hamas, Saleh al-Arouri, embraced Azzam al-Ahmad, head of the Fatah delegation.

Egypt’s State Information Service said that the rivals had agreed to hand full control of Gaza to the Palestinian Authority by Dec. 1. But the statement also acknowledged continuing “divisions,” and said that all Palestinian factions were invited to the next meeting, to start talks for a possible unity government, on Nov. 21.

Ahmed Yousef, an adviser to the Hamas leader, Ismail Haniya, said the two sides would first work to integrate their rival ministries. One major challenge, he said, would be to reduce the bloated Palestinian civil service, which has 200,000 employees in the West Bank and Gaza. He estimated that it needed to be cut by as much as 20 percent.

But, he added, the two sides had not discussed a number of critical questions, including a joint strategy for dealing with Israel, the conduct of any future elections and, crucially, the state of the Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing.

Ayman Rigib, a Fatah negotiator in Cairo, said the two main obstacles to a broader deal were the Qassam Brigades and Hamas’ extensive tunnels beneath Gaza.

“We’re worried about the tunnels,” Rigib said. “We’ve seen Hamas use them in 2014. Will they give us the maps? Will they shut them down? It has not yet been discussed.”

Grant Rumley, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the issues still to be resolved would be the most difficult.

“Hamas may be willing to cede more administrative control of Gaza,” he said, “but the parties have so far avoided the issues likeliest to derail the talks: namely the relationship with Israel and what to do with Hamas’ military wing.”

When leaders from Hamas and Fatah signed a similar deal in 2011, Abbas said, “We have turned the black page of division forever.” But the deal quickly foundered amid opposition from Israel, which denounced it as a “victory for terrorism.”

This time, a broad Arab coalition is backing the deal, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

“This merger is going to cost a lot of money, and they will help us financially,” Yousef said, referring to Emirati and Saudi support for the deal. “The Egyptians also clearly got a green light from America. They are obviously trying to cook up something to help end this conflict.”

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