Hamas Deal to Cede Gaza Control Sets Up Showdown Over Guns

Updated on
  • Palestinian Authority takes over functions at Gaza ministries
  • Surrendering weapons isn’t a requirement, Hamas leader says

As the Palestinian Authority attempts to reassert control over the Gaza Strip this week, Hamas’s refusal to give up its guns is feeding doubts that a unity deal can take root.

The authority’s prime minister, Rami Hamdallah, led a parade of senior officials from the West Bank on Monday to take over ministries that have been operated by Hamas since 2007, when the militant Islamic group violently seized control of Gaza. He is scheduled to hold a formal cabinet meeting in Gaza City on Tuesday, with a bevy of Egyptian generals and United Nations diplomats on hand to demonstrate support for the reunification effort.

“We are certain that the only road that can bring us to our national goal is the road of unity and turning the page on division,” Hamdallah said at a news conference after entering Gaza. “We are here to tell the whole world from the heart of Gaza that the Palestinian state won’t be established without the unity of Gaza and the West Bank.”

By leaving security issues for later, the two sides managed to agree last month on reviving a joint government that crumbled 10 years ago. But they also paved the way for a bitter showdown over international demands that Hamas surrender its weapons and recognize Israel’s right to exist as part of any peace agreement.

“Unless it’s real disarmament it’s not viable, it’s not sustainable and it won’t be acceptable to Israelis or Americans,” said Daniel Shapiro, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel.

The Trump administration welcomed the Hamdallah visit while indicating it would scrutinize the developing relations between the authority and Hamas.

“The United States stresses that any Palestinian government must unambiguously and explicitly commit to nonviolence, recognition of the State of Israel, acceptance of previous agreements and obligations between the parties, and peaceful negotiations,” Jason Greenblatt, the White House special representative for international negotiations, said in a statement.

Suicide Bombings

In the past, Israel has fought against a role in the Palestinian government for Hamas, which achieved international notoriety in the 1990s by launching suicide bomb attacks in the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and is considered a terrorist group by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union. Steps taken include temporarily halting the monthly transfer of some $100 million in tax revenue Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority.

Netanyahu’s View

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sees the deal as a Hamas effort to gain international legitimacy without changing its aim to destroy Israel, according to an Israeli official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the issue’s political delicacy.

Netanyahu’s office declined to comment directly on the Palestinian Authority’s return to Gaza, or on how Israel may respond to Hamas’s renewed involvement with it.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party and Egyptian officials mediating the reconciliation talks have soft-pedaled the disarmament issue, saying the goal is limited to unifying security forces in the West Bank and Gaza under a single command. Abbas has packaged his policy under the slogan “One government, one law, one gun,” refusing to spell out whether that means confiscating Hamas weapons.

“No one will dare to demand this,” said Tarek Fahmy, assistant director of the National Center for Middle East Studies in Cairo. “For now, the weapons must remain in the hands of the people.” 

Punishing Sanctions

Mussa Abu Marzuk, one of the most senior Hamas leaders living outside Gaza, said the key to reaching the deal was the recognition that it was pointless to demand that Hamas disarm because it would never agree to such terms.

“This never was nor will it be up for discussion,” he said in a statement distributed to reporters in Gaza.

Hamas accepted the deal and invited Hamdallah to take control of government functions in Gaza after a series of punishing sanctions imposed by Abbas. They included cutting money the Palestinian Authority was paying to Israel for Gaza’s electricity, limiting power for residents of the impoverished strip to about three hours a day in the middle of stifling summer heat. Abbas reduced salaries and pension payments for Gazans employed by the authority, feeding popular discontent with the Hamas leadership for resisting unity efforts.

Also helping to arrange the agreement were Egyptian President Abdel-Fatah El-Sisi, who wants Hamas’s cooperation in deterring attacks on Egyptian soldiers in the northern Sinai peninsula bordering Gaza. Mohammed Dahlan, the former Palestinian security chief in Gaza and an Abbas rival, helped broker the deal with new Hamas chief Yahya Sinwar, who grew up in the same refugee camp as Dahlan.

‘Hot Potato’

The deal has drawn skepticism from veteran Palestinian officials, who argue that Hamas has no intention of adopting Abbas’s commitment to making peace with Israel and only accepted the agreement to escape the burden of governing Gaza.

“The reconciliation initiative was merely tactical,” Ghassan Khatib, a former member of Abbas’s cabinet, said in a Facebook post. “Hamas seems to be trying to throw the hot potato into the lap of the Palestinian Authority. The question is, will the government of Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah fall into the trap?”

Abbas has tried numerous times without success to repair the rift with Hamas and rebut Israeli assertions that peace negotiations are pointless because he controls only the West Bank and can’t ensure that any peace treaty will also hold in Gaza.

“They can’t bridge the fundamental differences between them,” said Shapiro, the former U.S. ambassador who’s now a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “Reports of Fatah-Hamas reconciliation are a bit like the movie ‘Groundhog Day’ -- we’ve seen it before. It always ends the same way.”

— With assistance by Lin Noueihed

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