Rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah reach unity plan after 10-year split

JERUSALEM — The Palestinian militant group Hamas backed a plan to begin reconciliation with its rival, Fatah, on Thursday, after more than a decade at loggerheads that left the Palestinian territories split between competing leaderships.

Palestinian officials said the deal stipulates that a unity government formed in 2014 and led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party will run the Gaza Strip until a new administration is formed before the end of the year. But thorny obstacles that have blocked past unity bids — including the fate of Hamas’s powerful armed wing — have not yet been discussed.

Meanwhile, Israeli objections also have the potential to derail unity efforts. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel opposes any reconciliation deal in which Hamas does not disarm and “end its war to destroy Israel.” He said reconciliation makes “peace much harder to achieve.” 

Palestinians have long accused Israel of obstructing reconciliation efforts in order to weaken and divide them.

The split began when Hamas won Palestinian elections in 2006, leading to bloody gun battles on the streets of Gaza when Fatah did not cede power. Since then, Hamas has run the Gaza Strip, while Fatah has administered parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank through the Palestinian Authority. 

There have been several abortive attempts at unity over the past 10 years. But after the two sides agreed to form a unity government three years ago, Hamas continued to run Gaza through a shadow administration. This time, though, some Palestinian officials say that the conditions are more conducive to reconciliation.

Gaza is in the midst of a worsening humanitarian crisis that has paralyzed daily life for its 2 million inhabitants. Since Hamas took control, Israel has imposed restrictive controls on trade and movement, citing security concerns.

But the stranglehold worsened this summer as the Palestinian Authority asked Israel to reduce the electricity supply to Gaza, demanding Hamas pay its share of the cost and leaving Gaza inhabitants with just a few hours of power a day. It also slashed the salaries it pays to government employees. Losing support locally, Hamas has said it is ready to hand over administrative control. Meanwhile, reconciliation is now increasingly in the interest of influential regional players. 

The deal set a February deadline for merging employees belonging to the Palestinian Authority in Gaza with those of Hamas’s administration, Palestinian officials said, adding that the deal paves the way for Abbas to visit Gaza for the first time in a decade. A committee will be formed to merge thousands of Palestinian Authority security personnel into Hamas’s police force. 

Control of the Palestinian side of the Erez border crossing with Israel will be handed to the Palestinian Authority, while the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing with Egypt will be ceded to Abbas’s presidential guard. The opening of the Rafah crossing would ease pressure on Palestinians in Gaza, only a tiny percentage of whom receive permission from Israel to leave the enclave. Egypt, meanwhile, has only sporadically opened its border in recent years. 

[In rare outreach, Palestinian prime minister visits Gaza]

“Egypt is putting all its weight behind these efforts,” said Qais Abdul Karim, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council who belongs to neither faction. 

Egypt is attempting to stamp out an insurgency in its Sinai Peninsula by militants who have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. It has accused Hamas of aiding the militants, allowing them to cross the border for medical treatment. Through the deal, Egypt can pressure Hamas to safeguard Egyptian security in Sinai, Abdul Karim said.

He added that Cairo also has interests in drawing Hamas away from the Muslim Brotherhood, which has faced brutal crackdowns in Egypt since the ouster of Egypt’s president, Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, in 2013. The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are working in partnership with Egypt to squeeze the Brotherhood and curb the influence of their regional rivals Qatar and Turkey in Gaza, Abdul Karim said. 

Israel also has interests in easing the Gaza humanitarian crisis, which it sees as a security threat. Israel has fought three wars with Hamas. Still, Abdul Karim said, Israeli objections may cause the deal to stall before any meaningful pact can be forged. 

The “so-called reconciliation” between Hamas and Fatah is “a convenient cover for Hamas’s continued existence and activity as a terror organization while relinquishing civilian responsibility for the Gaza Strip,” Israeli Intelligence Minister Israel Katz said. He said Abbas’s willingness to partner with Hamas leaders was a “cause for concern.”

The question of what to do about Hamas’s armed wing of more than 20,000 militants remains a major sticking point. 

[How Gaza fits into wider efforts at Mideast peace]

While Hamas may be willing to cede administrative control of Gaza it has given no indication that it would be willing to give up control of security. 

Analysts say the United States is also more interested in unity, which it sees as a necessary step to bring about peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. President Trump has pledged to bring the two sides together in the “ultimate deal.”

Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah made a rare visit, surrounded by much fanfare, to Gaza earlier this month after Hamas asked the unity government to take control and dissolved its governing administration. 

The U.S. Middle East envoy, Jason Greenblatt, said the United States was watching developments closely, but he said that any Palestinian government must “unambiguously and explicitly commit to nonviolence, recognition of the state of Israel, acceptance of previous agreement and obligations between the parties, and peaceful negotiations.” 

In Gaza, hope is dampened by the memory of previous failed negotiation efforts. Restaurant owner Basil Eleina said last month that the humanitarian situation is the worst he has ever known. 

He has been forced to pay $8,000 a month for generator fuel to keep his business open. It is an achievement every month to keep his 36 staff members employed, Eleina said.

“Everybody is hoping, but we have been disappointed so many times that you don’t want to let yourself have too much hope,” he said. 

Heba Mahfouz in Cairo and Sufian Taha in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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