It’s a quiet afternoon in Gaza City, but tension still fills the air. A few days ago, Israel declared the entirety of the border with this part of the Palestinian territory a “military zone.”
The destruction by the Israeli army of an underground tunnel that led from Gaza to near the Kissufim kibbutz killed 14 Palestinians, almost all militants of the Islamic Jihad. The organization’s armed wing, Saraya Al-Quds, are now threatening to avenge their deaths and demanding the return of the bodies of five of the victims, which are still in Israeli hands. The danger of an escalation is very real, but the residents of Gaza, for once, don’t seem to be very preoccupied about it.
The waterfront is full of strolling families, taking advantage of the high temperatures, like a summer that never seems to end in this corner of the Middle East. The reconciliation agreement signed in Cairo last month between the Fatah party of President Mahmoud Abbas and the Islamists of Hamas, who were in power in Gaza until a few weeks ago after taking control of it by force in June 2007, has fueled the hopes of the people of this strip of land squeezed between Israel and Egypt, an enormous prison for two million Palestinians, from which one may exit only with the permission of one of these two countries.
Hope is mixed with skepticism. “I hope that the reconciliation will be a done deal and that we will see improvements soon. For the moment, however, nothing has changed in our lives, and the problems are the same,” Amir, a 23-year-old former university student, tells us. “The most urgent problem,” he explains, “is the lack of electricity: We have it for only four hours at a time, and otherwise most of our work has to stop. I’m not optimistic, because every day there are new obstacles.” Amir is willing to say out loud what many of the inhabitants of Gaza are thinking, and fearing.
“This time, the two parties [Fatah and Hamas] seem to be more serious about it,” his friend Heider adds, “but the agreement is a frail one. Mahmoud Abbas has not lifted the sanctions against Hamas yet, even though he knows that these are affecting the whole population.”
If the lack of electricity, the shortage of drinking water and unemployment are the main problems, in Gaza people are also baffled by the thousands of “early retirements” recently ordered by the Palestinian president in order to cut the cost of Palestinian National Authority (PNA) employees in Gaza. One of them, Taher Hilu, doesn’t know where to turn. “I’m 41 and I’m already retired,” he says. “According to Mahmoud Abbas, I should be able to live with 1,200 shekels (about €300) per month, less than half of my former salary. I don’t know how I will manage now. We are a family of five: my wife and I and three young children. And finding a job to earn some money is difficult, there is no work to be found here.” The unemployment rate in Gaza is among the highest in the world, reaching 65 percent among young people.
With the agreement signed last month in Cairo, Hamas gave the civil administration in Gaza over to the Palestinian government. And on Nov. 1, there was another step forward: The Islamists transferred control of the border crossings to Egypt and Israel to the security forces of the PNA.
However, the re-opening of the Rafah crossing to the Sinai peninsula, which was scheduled for Wednesday, did not happen, to the dismay of thousands of Palestinians who were waiting to leave Gaza for study, for treatment in Egyptian hospitals and for business. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s regime wants only Abbas’s men staffing the crossing point, who have not yet arrived because of the decision of the government of the PNA’s Prime Minister, Rami Hamdallah, who says he is waiting for the management of security forces in Gaza to be clearly established. Egypt is insisting on this so that the Palestinians would contribute, at least with intelligence services, to the security of the Sinai region, where the Egyptian army is engaged in an endless war with the militants of Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, allies of ISIS. In the end, those who had to suffer for this situation were again the Palestinian civilians.
The reopening of Rafah is thus postponed until at least Nov. 21, when negotiations will start in Egypt on the outstanding issues of the agreement for reconciliation, starting with the role of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military arm of Hamas, its disarmament being categorically excluded by the Islamists. Abbas is insisting that in Gaza, just as on the West Bank, there cannot be two separate military forces in operation.
“The issue is not just about Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, but about all the Palestinian resistance organizations, from the Jihad to the Popular Front,” says Khalil Shahin, deputy director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. “All the Palestinian forces, except the leaders of Fatah, are insisting that the resistance not be disarmed, in order to defend Gaza against new attacks by Israel. It will not be easy to reach an agreement,” he concludes.
The Palestinian president has shelved the issue for now, but he is being subjected to massive international pressure. Israel, for its part, is emphasizing that it will only begin dialogue with the future Palestinian national unity government if it complies with the three conditions set by the Quartet on the Middle East (the U.S., Russia, the U.N. and the E.U.): the end of armed struggle, the implementation of the agreements between Israel and the PNA and the official recognition of the Jewish state.
In Gaza, there are whispers that, in case the talks in Cairo do not go his way, Abbas will invoke the pretext of the Islamic movement’s weapons in order to block reconciliation. Hamas, at least for now, is speaking softly. “Having transferred the civilian administration of Gaza to the PA is a huge benefit for Hamas,” the analyst Aziz Kahlout explains, “since being in government, as we know, means losing support, and (Hamas) had lost a lot here in Gaza. But still, the issue of the weapons of the resistance is a red line. Hamas will not give them up under any circumstances, and is ready, if necessary, to call the whole deal into question.”
These days, people in Gaza fear the arrival of ripples from the tensions affecting the Middle East as a whole, and a possible opposition by Saudi Arabia to the Palestinian internal reconciliation. The Saudi monarchy is a sworn enemy of the Muslim Brotherhood movement and of Hamas, which is “guilty” of being sponsored by the Saudis’ rivals, Qatar and Turkey, and of having re-established relations with their hated enemy, Iran.
Abbas, who was in Riyadh in recent days, denied these rumors, and, through his adviser Ahmad Majdalani, said King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed have expressed their support for the reconciliation.
In the background of all this lies the reconstruction of Gaza, three years after the Israeli attack during Operation Protective Edge, and the widespread state of emergency in this strip of land forgotten by the world. “The population continues to grow, but the civilian infrastructure and health services are failing, and the environmental crisis is worsening, partly because of the lack of electricity,” Khalil Shahin explains.
“The renewed Palestinian national unity should prompt the international community to end the boycott which it imposed because Hamas was in power, and to intervene immediately with aid and tangible projects,” he says. “Otherwise there will only be disaster for Gaza.”