In a ceremony at the Rafah crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, both national anthems were played and for the first time since the inner-Palestinian schism began, pictures of presidents Mahmoud Abbas and Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi were hung side by side.
As we previously reported in a Friday’s Fact, the Egyptian-brokered agreement foresees the gradual transition of power in the coastal Strip from Hamas to the Palestinian unity government that began with the handover of ministries in the weeks preceding the handover of the crossings. UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Nickolay Mladenov called the transfer of control a “landmark development”, asking for the “positive momentum to be maintained”. However, two incidents regarding Gaza’s borders and security recently raised questions whether or not the relationship between both sides had already developed to a point of strong resilience.
On Friday last week, General Tawfiq Abu Naim, head of Hamas security forces, survived an assassination attempt in the Nusseirat refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip and sustained moderate wounds when his car was blown up. While spokespersons of both Hamas and Fatah blamed the incident on “Palestine’s enemies” without further specification, senior Hamas official Khalil Al-Hayya was quoted saying “the occupation is the first beneficiary of such an incident”, eluding to the fact that Israel could have been behind the attempt on Abu Naim’s life. Other sources believe Salafist groups to bear responsibility. The Hamas security chief had recently intensified his efforts to combat Salafists that openly rebelled against Hamas rule and endanger the relative calm between Hamas and Israel. Moreover, Abu Naim had played an active role in the talks that led to the reconciliation agreement with Fatah, opposed by many Salafist groups that perceive it as a threat to their safe haven in the Sinai Peninsula and deem Hamas to have become too moderate.
Only a few days later, on Monday, 30 October, the Israeli army destroyed a tunnel dug into Israeli territory and the incident subsequently raised tensions along the border with Gaza. With Gazans suffering the most serious loss of live by Israeli forces since the 2014 hostilities between Hamas and Israel with a death toll of eight and 13 injured, the incident bore the potential for violent retaliation by armed groups. While there is no solid information on who was responsible for building the tunnel that the Israeli army called “a gross violation of Israeli sovereignty”, it was reported by news outlets such as Israeli newspaper Haaretz that at least one member of the armed wing of the Islamic Jihad, the Al-Quds brigades, was among those killed. Both Hamas and Fatah officials publicly blamed Israel for trying to disrupt progress in the reconciliation between the two sides and thus dispelled any fears that the handover of the border crossings might be delayed. It is however noteworthy that the incident has not resulted in a violent response from Gaza.
With the PA in full control of the crossings, the Palestinian government is working closely with the Egyptian authorities to prepare Rafah for operation by 15 November, according to PA civil affairs minister Hussein al-Sheikh. This will entail not only the presence of PA officials and the Presidential Guard, but also will the PA Finance Ministry resume responsibility for collecting payments made at the border. On 21 November, the next round of reconciliation talks is to be held in Cairo with the participation of all Palestinian factions, before the PA is scheduled to resume full control over the Gaza Strip by 1 December.
So far, Hamas and Fatah appear to be unfazed by the recent incidents. While the reconciliation process has in fact developed momentum, both parties maintain a certain level of distrust towards each other. Fatah spokesperson Osama Qawasmeh revealed his movement’s skepticism, saying that “the real case is the decision of Hamas – which up until now has been positive – to completely transfer all powers to the national unity government as was stipulated in the latest reconciliation agreement”. His counterpart, Hamas spokesperson Hazem Qassem, commented that the movement hoped “that handing over control would lead to a better quality of life for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip”, hinting at the fact that, despite all assurances, PA President Mahmoud Abbas has yet to follow up on his promise to backtrack on the harsh restriction imposed on the Gaza Strip earlier this year.
While the implementation of the process of reconciliation seems to be on track, the situation in the Palestinian territories remains fragile. The handover of the border crossings can thus be seen as the first test to the reconciliation agreement, but will certainly not be the last.