Palestinian Authority Takes Over Gaza's Borders From HamasBy and
Move was agreed in Egyptian-mediated accord signed last month
Palestinian groups are taking steps to end decade-old rift
The Palestinian Authority retook control of Gaza’s border crossings from Hamas militants Wednesday, a key step in an Egyptian-brokered effort to end a decade-old rift that has hampered the Palestinians’ bid for statehood.
Hamas, an Islamist militant group which had controlled Gaza since 2007, last month handed over most government functions to the Fatah-dominated authority. Under the agreement struck in Cairo the following week, the groups agreed that a consensus government would take full administrative control of the Gaza Strip by Dec. 1 and deploy its forces along its borders, a longstanding demand of Egypt and Israel, by today.
The Palestinian Authority now controls the Rafah transit point with Egypt as well as the Erez and Kerem Shalom crossings into Israel, the isolated coastal enclave’s only land outlets to the world. The United Nations hailed the transfer as a “landmark development” that could end Egyptian and Israeli frontier closures that have choked the Gazan economy.
A lingering question mark over the fate of Hamas’ weapons could yet undermine the deal, however. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned against any “bogus” unity bid that would threaten Israel if Hamas, which Israel considers a terrorist organization, is allowed to keep its guns. Israeli forces on Tuesday destroyed a tunnel that Palestinians had dug beneath a section of the Gaza border, killing at least seven militants.
The mood in Gaza on Wednesday was celebratory, as officials marked a move they said cements the political deal with security measures on the ground. The Palestinian and Egyptian national anthems blared, while posters of Hamas and Fatah leaders adorned walls.
“Today is the first actual and practical step toward ending an internal Palestinian division that lasted for more than 10 years,” Mufid al-Hassayna, minister of housing and construction in the consensus government, told a news conference in Rafah.
Gaza, which sits on the Mediterranean coast and is fenced by heavily-patrolled barriers on three sides bordering Israel and Egypt, has been a frequent battleground over the past decade, during which Hamas fought three wars with Israel.
The willingness of Hamas to work with Fatah, which governs the Palestinian Authority’s West Bank territories, comes amid deepening destitution in the overcrowded territory after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas engineered a power shortage and financial squeeze in recent months.
Hassayna said that Rami Hamdallah, the prime minister of the unity government, would visit Gaza soon to announce an end to the punitive measures.
After initially shunning Hamas, Egypt last year began rebuilding ties and then embarked on talks to end to the Palestinian rift. It’s part of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi’s wider effort to restore stability to northern Sinai and re-establish Egypt’s role as a regional power-broker.
El-Sisi’s government has sought the help of Hamas in controlling the movement of militants and weapons through cross-border tunnels between Gaza and Sinai, where an Islamic State affiliate is fighting Egyptian forces in a conflict that has battered the Red Sea tourist industry.
In return, Egypt opened the Rafah crossing more regularly and allowed in a wider range of goods. Palestinians hope that a secure border area under the control of Palestinian Authority forces could lead to its permanent reopening.
UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov raised that prospect in a statement welcoming the transfer, but said it was important to end militant activities.
“The return of the crossings should facilitate the lifting of the closures, while addressing Israel’s legitimate security concerns, and unlock increased international support for Gaza’s reconstruction, growth, stability and prosperity,” he said.
Major-General Yoav Mordechai, Israel’s military governor for the West Bank and Gaza Strip, said in a statement that he would meet Palestinian Authority officials to discuss changes at the crossings. The meeting would focus on security arrangements, with the understanding that nobody affiliated with Hamas would be present at the transit points.
Palestinians have repeatedly sought to reconcile but their efforts failed due to disagreements over the fate of the weapons held by Hamas, as well as control of borders and other key institutions. This time, Hamas has gone further in making concessions. As well as handing over control to the Palestinian Authority, it has offered help to secure the border with Egypt and has distanced itself from the Muslim Brotherhood, which El-Sisi removed from power in Cairo in mid-2013.
Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar said last week, however, that while the group was willing to hand over control of Gaza’s borders it would not give up its weapons altogether.
— With assistance by Jonathan Ferziger, and Alisa Odenheimer