Why did Palestinian reconciliation talks break down last week?

Despite positive signs emerging from the latest round of Egyptian-mediated reconciliation talks held in Cairo, the rapprochement between Palestinian movements Hamas and Fatah fell apart at the close of last week, sources close to the Palestinian Authority tell Mada Masr.

The Fatah delegation left Cairo on November 26, sources told Mada Masr last week, having given preliminary approval of the new Egyptian proposal to end the 12-year-long rift between the Palestinian factions. Pending PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s official go-ahead on the agreement, there were to be consultations in high-level meetings between the two sides in Cairo to decide how to proceed with general elections and the subsequent formation of a new national unity government.

The talks proceeded to the point that two sources close to the Fatah meetings in Cairo, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, said that the PA was considering lifting sanctions on 70 percent of employees in Gaza, contingent on an assessment of Hamas’s “seriousness” in implementing the terms of the Egypt-brokered proposal.

When the delegation returned to Ramallah, however, things veered off in another direction. A source close to the PA told Mada Masr that Abbas decided on Thursday to end all talks on reconciliation and back away from the negotiating table altogether. According to the source, the PA’s move is definitive, as the Ramallah-based government considered the recent round of talks to have been Hamas’s last chance to surrender control to the PA.

While the reconciliation talks have proven volatile in the past, the sudden reversal in the last week does raise questions regarding how and why things broke down so quickly. Sources close to the two sides, which have spoken to Mada Masr in the last week, point to the introduction of a last-minute precondition from Hamas that angered Abbas, and ultimately derailed negotiations.

On the eve of Fatah’s Sunday arrival to Cairo, and after two days of formal talks between Hamas and Egypt had concluded, Hamas officials reached out to Egypt, according to a source close to the Gaza-based group.

“Hamas said that sanctions would need to be lifted before any ministerial handovers take place, telling Egypt to stress this point to Fatah,” the source says. “Hamas also asked Egypt to discuss rebuilding the Palestinian Liberation Organization with Fatah.”

Hamas officials stayed in Cairo while Egypt met with the Fatah delegation, waiting to see how their demands would be received, according to the source.

According to a second source close to the PA, when Egypt’s General Intelligence Service (GIS) officials sat down with the Fatah delegation, they presented a timeline that began with “lifting sanctions was to be followed by several other points, which were reasonable for both Fatah and Hamas.”

“The delegation felt this was doable,” the source says.

However, according to the source, the tone of the meeting changed when the GIS introduced Hamas’s precondition.

“At some point, during a regular discussion in the meeting, we were told by the Egyptians that lifting sanctions is a must for Hamas, that nothing can be done before that. It was strange, but the delegation did not comment and decided to wait for Abbas’ comments,” the source says, adding that this was the first time Egypt had communicated such a serious message.

Upon their return to Ramallah, the delegation remained positive about the talks. However, when Abbas was told that lifting sanctions was an absolute precondition for Hamas, his trust in the process broke down. For Abbas, according to the source close to the PA president, the move was a sign that Hamas did not intend to cede administrative control.

Abbas called Egypt on Thursday to say he refused to abide by Hamas’s mandatory precondition and would back away from the talks.

With the proposal run aground and the reported high-level meeting now out of sight, Hamas officials left Cairo.

The issue of administrative control over Gaza has long been a contentious issue. Abbas imposed sanctions on Gaza in April 2017, the lifting of which was contingent on the full dissolution of the Gaza administrative committee — which Hamas set up in March 2017 — and the handing over of administrative control to the unity government.

The Gaza administrative committee took on the task of managing the governance of Gaza’s security, education, health, social development, financial development and economy in March 2017. It was formed as an alternative to the 2014 national unity government, which was unable to take over due to disputes between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority over the details of the reconciliation. Hamas conceded to the PA’s demands to dissolve the administrative committee in September 2017, following mediation efforts by Egypt.

Hamas has accused the PA of subjecting Gazans to punitive measures through the sanctions, which include decreasing electricity subsidies, reducing employee salaries and restricting the entry of medicine into Gaza.  

The most recent proposal for reconciliation before the deal introduced last week would have had Hamas offer only a partial handover of several important administrative entities in Gaza to the PA.

Previous reconciliation deals that put aside some of the more difficult issues for later discussion and resolution have also fallen apart. A much-heralded accord signed in Cairo in October 2017 eventually hit an impasse, not least over the future of Hamas’s heavily armed military wing, the Al-Qassam Brigades, and its significant arsenal.

Despite the recent tension between Fatah and Hamas, the Palestinian Authority has rejected a US-drafted UN resolution to condemn Hamas for “terrorist acts.” This resolution, for which US President Donald Trump’s administration has tried to garner support from Morocco, Oman, Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Qatar, will come to a vote before the UN General Assembly on Thursday.

Ahmad Shehada 

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