Hamas put on the spot after Palestinian Authority withdraws staff from Rafah crossing

A January 7 decision by the Palestinian Authority to immediately withdraw its staff from the Rafah border crossing has put Hamas in turmoil.

Hamas sent internal affairs officers to take control of the crossing, which had been administered by PA officers since November last year as part of a PA-Hamas reconciliation deal brokered by Egypt.

According to a Hamas source speaking to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, its officers have ensured that the crossing’s systems are working, and prevented theft and sabotage during and since the PA’s withdrawal.

The decision to withdraw PA employees from Rafah came as one of a series of recent PA moves against Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since winning the legislative elections in 2006. These measures suggest that the Egypt-brokered reconciliation efforts are failing.

The PA dissolved the Hamas-majority Palestinian Legislative Council in late December and subsequently made political arrests in both Ramallah and the Gaza Strip, while Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to stop the PA’s monthly payments to Gaza.

The Hamas source says senior Hamas officers contacted the PA and Egypt after requesting that PA employees return to their positions at the crossing. They argued that keeping the Rafah crossing working is a joint Palestinian issue, not only that of Hamas.

According to the source, the PA responded by saying: “Once you surrender Gaza, we will return our employees — until then, solve your problems alone.”

The Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt is the main route for Gazans to exit the Strip. It has largely been closed since the PA’s withdrawal.

More Palestinian Authority punitive measures toward Hamas

“Hamas feels that this won’t be the last PA decision taken against us this month, and we have been preparing for further moves against us,” the Hamas source says.

A source close to the PA tells Mada Masr that Abbas will hold meetings once back from a current tour abroad to decide on further measures to take in relation Hamas.

The source says that the PA’s withdrawal of its employees in the Rafah crossing was one such measure, adding that commercial border crossings will suffer from similar decisions. Abbas also intends to take down Hamas in Gaza by stopping the monthly transfers of millions of dollars from the PA budget to the Gaza Strip.

Hussein al-Sheikh, who is on the central committee of Fatah, the party which controls the PA, has said in a TV appearance that Hamas has not been cooperating. Fatah will not tolerate this behavior anymore, he said, so series of political, financial and administrative measures will be made to strengthen the siege on Hamas in Gaza Strip.

Sheikh said that the national reconciliation government, formed by a wide consensus among Palestinian factions and intended to end divisions, is no longer valid because Hamas circumvented its success in Gaza.

Meanwhile, Atef Abu Seif, Fatah spokesperson in Gaza, tells Mada Masr: “We have not closed the door in any potential talks, but Hamas intends to reach a dead end in the reconciliation efforts, just as it did in 2017.”

Abu Seif says Hamas has sought to strengthen its rift with Fatah by arresting Fatah  followers in Gaza and preventing them celebrating Fatah’s 54th anniversary. Anniversary celebrations had been planned for the first days of 2019, but were canceled.

Azzam Al Ahmad, a member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization executive committee and Fatah central committee, has said in televised statements that Fatah isn’t engaging in vengeful actions against Gaza, but that legitimacy should be restored.

“Who prevents people from celebrating the Palestinian revolution, which Palestinians everywhere have long celebrated regardless of their political background?” Ahmad added. “Who prevents martyrs’ families from celebrating martyrs’ day? I doubt their nationalism.”

But another Hamas source in Gaza plays down the importance of the PA’s threats, saying: “Abbas keeps punishing Gaza for electing Hamas — this isn’t new. And Fatah representatives in Gaza are not on board with Abbas’ decisions.”

This source says that Fatah simply aims to control Gaza’s security in order to overcome Abbas’ own weakness within Fatah, especially as Mohammed Dahlan, a rival Fatah leader who was expelled and is living abroad, has been tipped as a potential successor to Abbas.

What Egypt is doing

Many Palestinian factions have contacted Egypt requesting mediation in the matter, as  Samir Abu Mdallalah, leader of Palestine’s Democratic Front, told Mada Masr. He says calls are being made to Egyptian intelligence officers in the hopes of ending this new wave of Palestinian division, and reduce the gap between Hamas and Fatah.

Palestinian factions have requested an Egyptian solution to the Rafah crossing issue and asked Abbas to retreat, especially on decisions affecting ordinary Palestinians, Abu Mdallalah says, adding that the Egyptian response has been positive — it is working to reduce the rift, resolve the crisis, and arrange a speedy solution for the crossing so that people can pass through again.

The crossing worked last Tuesday and Wednesday for passengers entering Gaza from Egypt, but passengers and goods going the other way were unable to cross.

The first source Mada Masr contacted from Hamas says: “Hamas tried contacting Egypt as soon as they possibly could, to make sure the crossing would not stop operating for a single day.”

“Hamas sent Egypt two proposals. The first, suggesting that Hamas interior security forces take control of the crossing and coordinate with Egypt, was rejected,” says the source. The second proposed establishing a committee including Hamas, Fatah, the Popular Front and the Democratic Front to control the crossing under supervision of an Egyptian committee formed by Egyptian intelligence officers for the purpose, according to the source.

Hamas is yet to receive an Egyptian response to the second proposal, but expects it to also be rejected because Egypt informed Hamas on the day the PA withdrew that the crossing must operate fully under PA administration, adds the Hamas source.

“Hamas is currently confused but also somewhat optimistic, due to a belief that Egypt will work with them on a solution during this week or the next,” the source confirms. “The only obstacle we may face is if the Egyptian president decides personally to stick to the previous rule stipulating that the Rafah crossing may only operate under PA administration, due to a possible agreement between Abbas and [Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-] Sisi, who met this week in Cairo.”

Abbas visited Cairo for three days last week, and his meeting with Sisi was comparatively warm in light of recent tensions between Cairo and Ramallah due to disagreement over US ideas on resolving the Palestinian struggle. Abbas saw these ideas as unacceptable because they violate Palestinian rights, whereas Sisi saw it as a small window of opportunity.

Washington has since withdrawn its ideas due to internal differences, and Israel requested postponing discussion of them until later in the year, because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t want the Palestinian question to influence expected early elections.

From Egypt’s side, a government source says talks with Abbas now mainly concern reconciliation, as has become an urgent matter due to the current tensions.

Relations have now been tense for five weeks, although both Hamas and PA members have reportedly stated that progress has been made toward reconciliation, which absorbed a large part of Egyptian diplomacy last year — both from the Foreign Ministry and the General Intelligence Service. Cairo hoped to ensure a minimum of sustainable understandings between Fatah and Hamas to enable the signing of a ceasefire agreement between Israel and Gaza.

But according to a Fatah source, Fatah has told Cairo that Hamas is not serious about reaching understandings that will enable reconciliation and is maneuvering to buy time so that Egypt accepts its demands. These include transferring Qatari funds to Gaza to pay government employees’ late salaries and improve inadequate living conditions, ensuring smoother operation of the Rafah crossing, and warding off Israeli attacks.

The source says that during his long visit to Cairo, Abbas reiterated that Hamas is not serious and only intends to embroil the PA in a security crisis, so Cairo will have to pressure it to prove its seriousness towards a real reconciliation.

The second Hamas source, however, says that the group will send Egypt its own detailed report on what the PA is doing in Gaza, complete with documents proving that Abbas is seeking to complicate the situation to weaken Hamas’ position at the expense of ordinary Palestinians.

The source also says Hamas will inform Cairo in an upcoming meeting in the Egyptian capital that it will not agree to hold legislative elections unless they are part of a political package, with Egypt as guarantor, that includes presidential elections or stipulates that presidential elections follow soon after, because Abbas insists on holding legislative elections after dissolving the current Legislative Council.

“Abbas wants to use the elections as a game to get rid of Hamas,” the source adds. “There’s no problem in holding elections if they’re conducted under international supervision — the problem is Abbas’ intention to not hold presidential elections, only legislative ones.”

According to the Egyptian government official, both sides are maneuvering to buy time. “But Fatah seems more reluctant,” the official says, “as they’ll have to accept progressive arrangements that don’t get them where they want to be.”

The Egyptian proposal for reconciliation was built on taking gradual steps, starting with the PA taking on administrative decisions that meet Gaza’s requirements, and assuming security responsibilities in Gaza later. The PA didn’t accept this, as it would mean answering for any security issues where it had no security control on the ground.

Fatah and Hamas have also said separately that they are open to a Russian initiative to repair the rift, stating that this would not marginalize Egypt’s “irreplaceable” role. They simply want to accept any international support that could make lives better in Palestine.

According to the Hamas source, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh plans to visit Moscow with a senior delegation, including Hamas leaders who don’t reside in Gaza, in late January to listen to what the Russians have to offer and give its own view of current events in Palestine.

The Fatah source says the PA, who have announced that they will not deal with the US, are open to any international efforts intending to improve the Palestinian situation, adding that Abbas’ international tour this year will probably include Russia.

Cairo, however, is wary of Russia interfering as a mediator in reconciliation efforts. It considers this issue to be an Egyptian responsibility and, according to the Egyptian source, that the more initiatives in the mix, the less likely reconciliation will be achieved.

According to the source, Egypt aims to intensify consultations with both sides in order to redraft a Palestinian reconciliation plan, inspired by its own 2015 proposal.

Ahmad Shehada 
Asmahan Soliman 

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