Palestinian president threatens to break off unity deal if Hamas does not allow new government to operate in Gaza Strip.
Palestinians are nowhere near reconciling their internal political differences, a year after rival factions Hamas and Fatah agreed to form a joint government of national consensus.
Last June, the leaderships of Fatah, which makes up the bulk of the Palestinian Authority that rules the West Bank, and Hamas, which controls Gaza, agreed to forge an interim government of independent experts headed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
The reconciliation pact, which was inked between the two parties two months prior, stated that the new government would pave the way for presidential and parliamentary elections within six months. The last time those elections had taken place was in 2005 and 2006 respectively.
Back then, the unity move was hailed as a beacon of hope for a people divided politically and geographically for nearly seven years. Gaza’s prime minister at the time, Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, announced that the “era of division is over”.
A year on, however, the inter-Palestinian division seems to have only widened. Elections have stalled, and Hamas and Fatah continue to trade barbs over who is responsible for the delay. Israel’s war on Gaza in the summer of 2014, which left more than 2,000 Palestinians dead, also widened the rift between the two – a gap that began to re-emerge after Abbas blamed Hamas for needlessly prolonging the war.
The schism continued to grow even after the war ended. Today, 100,000 people in Gaza are still homeless, and many are living in makeshift camps or schools. By April, not a single one of the 19,000 destroyed homes had been rebuilt, according to a report by more than 40 aid agencies.
Reconstruction materials have been trickling in at a painstakingly slow pace as Israel continues to besiege the coastal enclave, and Hamas’ relationship with Egypt continues to deteriorate.
It's unfortunate that the unity government cannot function as long as the mudslinging between Fatah and Hamas continues. Each group sees their partisan interests as superior to the national ones.
Since the beginning of 2015, Egypt has opened the Rafah land crossing for only five days and began demolishing Gaza’s network of smuggling tunnels, which, along with the war, led to an economic loss of $460m in 2014.
The plight of Palestinians in Gaza has only worsened over time as very little rebuilding of infrastructure, destroyed during the war, took place.
Under UN supervision, the government of national consensus was supposed to take charge of reconstruction and oversee the $5.4bn that donors pledged to rebuild Gaza.
Since then, Hamas has blamed the Abbas-headed government for not stepping up to its responsibilities. Fatah, however, according to the Islamist group, has forbidden the unity government from carrying out its duties.
In April 2015, both Fatah and Hamas blamed each other for another round of failed talks after an official delegation visiting from Ramallah was prevented from leaving their Gaza hotel to attend meetings on outstanding issues.
“By preventing the government of national consensus from working in Gaza, Hamas has effectively sabotaged [the government’s] ability to start rebuilding,” said Fayez Abu Aita, a Gaza-based Fatah spokesperson. “Hamas’ incitement against the president and Fatah will also only take us back to square one: division.”
Today, deep distrust between the two sides also remains because of the unresolved issue of approximately 40,000 workers employed by Hamas, who have not been paid full salaries since April. The PA is already covering tens of thousands of Gaza-based employees who worked for it before Hamas took power in 2007.
Under last year’s reconciliation deal, however, the government of national consensus is now also responsible for the Hamas-hired employees. And even though there were promises to resolve that issue as well back in April, so far, there has been no real progress.
Dr Ashraf al-Qedra, Gaza’s health ministry spokesperson, said 60 percent of unpaid public health sector employees were having trouble reaching their workplace. “One year has passed since the reconciliation government was forged, and all it’s got to show for it is the dilapidated state of Gaza’s public services,” he said. “This proves that division is rooted in this government’s core.”
A recent poll by the independent Palestine Center for Policy and Survey Research showed that discontent with the consensus government was widespread across the territories. The data revealed that only 28 percent of respondents in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were satisfied with the government of national consensus, and only 24 percent blamed Hamas for the government’s poor performance.
Many attempts have been made – of late by foreign dignitaries such as former US President Jimmy Carter and Lebanon’s parliament speaker Nabih Berri – to push both groups to resolve the issues of reconstruction and salaries so that unity could prevail.
But what is lacking, say some independent analysts, is an internal Palestinian political will to reach a solution. “It’s unfortunate that the unity government cannot function as long as the mudslinging between Fatah and Hamas continues,” said Mukhaimar Abu Sada, a political science professor at Gaza’s al-Azhar University. “Each group sees their partisan interests as superior to the national ones.”
In the meantime, the dire situation has led to official warnings that people in Gaza may “implode”.
On May 20, the UN’s Middle East envoy, Nickolay Mladenov, said Gaza’s 1.8 million residents are “desperate and angry”, noting it was up to the Israeli government and Palestinian authorities to help them rebuild their lives.
But the frustration in Gaza extends beyond hampered recovery prospects. Many are angry at the lack of a political solution between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel’s suffocating blockade, and Egypt’s closure of Rafah, in addition to the ongoing embattlement between the Palestinian factions.
“The longer it takes for people to get their lives back together again, the more dangerous it is,” said Frode Mauring, the former UN Development Programme special representative for Gaza and the West Bank.
“The situation again will move towards a negative scenario, because the people feel as if they have nothing to lose, and they will act accordingly.”