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A new government in Ramallah with its eye on Gaza

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (C), Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah (5th L) and Palestinian chief negotiator, Saab Erikat (5th R) meet with the executive board members of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Ramallah, West Bank on February 13 2017 ( Issam Rimawi /Anadolu Agency )
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (C), Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah (5th L) and Palestinian chief negotiator, Saab Erikat (5th R) meet with the executive board members of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Ramallah, West Bank on February 13 2017 ( Issam Rimawi /Anadolu Agency )

Since Rami Hamdallah became prime minister of the Palestinian National Unity Government, it has been clear a senior-level official in the office of President Mahmoud Abbas. His role was to implement the President’s policies. The truth is that Hamdallah – unlike his predecessor, Salam Fayyad, who dealt with the president, head to head – did not have a personality, even relatively speaking, independent of Abbas.

Thus it is a surprise that Abbas instructed Hamdallah to resign in in late January.

After a long process of nominations, consultations, and recommendations, Abbas appointed Fatah Central Committee member, to form the 18th Palestinian government on March 10th. The presidential decree tasking him with the government formation stipulated that the government focus on supporting the efforts “to re-establish national unity, restore Gaza to legitimacy, and prepare for the upcoming elections.”

The factions did not wait long to comment on Ishtayeh’s mandate to form a government. They considered Abbas’s decision an expression of his unilateralism and an effort to escape from the obligations of reconciliation and achieving unity. They believe the formation of a new government without national consensus is a recipe to separate the West Bank from the Gaza Strip.

There was no objective reason for the dismissal of Hamdallah and appointing Ishtayeh to the premiership. On the contrary, Abbas’s step only aggravates the Palestinians and does not achieve anything more than replacing faces and changing individuals, as both men are subservient to him.

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However, how Ishtayeh was appointed and limited the choices to members of the Fatah Central Committee just put more obstacles in the way of beginning any real Palestinian dialogue, forming a national unity government, and achieving a final reconciliation.

We are not being unfair to the president when we say that forming a new government is part of his plan to domination and exclusion, giving priority to factional interests and turning his back on the supreme national interests because it is a government that does not represent the Palestinian people across the political spectrum.

This is demonstrated by the fact that Abbas and his team have engaged in several dialogues with most of the factions for over a month and they all unanimously refused to participate in the government, first because reconciliation is a priority in Palestine’s critical situation and secondly because the prime minister is a member of the Fatah Central Committee, meaning that the government is a Fatah government, and none of the factions are happy to be exclusively under Fatah’s cloak.

Fatah included Ishtayeh’s appointment as prime minister as part of a national document regarding the priorities for action at the current stage, as the first article in the document focuses on “regaining national unity and restoring Gaza to legitimacy. The truth is that this wording opens the door wide open to implying that Ishtayeh may succeed in achieving unity and regaining control of Gaza while Hamdallah failed to do so.

Hamdallah carried out all of Abbas’s sanctions against Gaza, causing the Palestinians to reach an unprecedented level of suffering and exhaustion. Despite this, national reconciliation was not achieved, and Gaza did not return under “legitimate” control. Azzam Al-Ahmad, who is close to Abbas, has recently referred to Gaza is currently being held hostage by an armed gang, which is discourse causing further tension and does not fit in with Palestinian political discourse.

Hamdallah’s final speech, following Ishtayeh’s appointment as his successor, carried some unmistakable hints at absolving himself from any shortcomings during his government career in the past five years. He talked about his work “under extreme hardship and financial and political siege, facing very complicated conditions.” However, this did not stop Hamas from holding him responsible for Gaza’s losses and sanctions and stating that his departure would not exempt him from popular accountability and would remain a black mark against him in the history of the Palestinian people.

Mahmoud Abbas turns a blind eye on Gaza's blockade - Cartoon [Latuff/MiddleEastMonitor]

Mahmoud Abbas turns a blind eye on Gaza’s blockade – Cartoon [Latuff/MiddleEastMonitor]

We have two weeks before Ishtayeh presents his government, as he announced the beginning of his talks with the PLO factions and national competencies to form a government. However, it does not seem that he will have much in doing so. It seems that this government will further intensify the Palestinian division existing since 2007, as most factions are refusing to participate in this government.

However, it is worth noting that in the mandate granted by Abbas to the new prime minister, he clearly mentioned regaining Gaza There are two options to achieve this, either through a genuine and serious reconciliation that restores national unity between the Gaza Strip and turns the page on the horrible division or through efforts on the ground which aim to end Hamas’s control over Gaza either by causing internal security disorder in Gaza by increasing sanctions on Gaza and forcing the people to protest against Hamas, or perhaps there is already a regional international plan put into place, with Israeli participation, to achieve this.

Regardless of the political and constitutional justification for achieving the goal of restoring Gaza to the control of the Palestinian Authority, by any means, the announcement of this in writing means that we may be facing some effects and consequences that affect all areas of life in Gaza, which are as follows:

Politically: If this measure is implemented, then it will make all calls for national dialogue a thing of the past because resorting to a means other than reconciliation to resolve the internal Palestinian conflict will not result, in any case, in everyone sitting at one table. It will return the sad scenes of brothers fighting, as well as misery and hardship.

Security: The decision will not be limited to a paper signed by President Abbas, but will require tools in the field to “stop Gaza from being held hostage” according to the PA. This may tempt those who chose this option to resort to Arab and international forces to achieve this, especially if it took on a legitimate Arab and international cover, which I believe is unlikely at the moment.

Economically: The blockade imposed on Gaza, which is entering its thirteenth year, has cast its disastrous shadow over all of Gaza’s facilities and sectors including the financial, commercial, maintenance, agricultural, and industrial. The promised measure will add another burden to the Gazans. No one can predict the magnitude of this or their ability to bear it, especially since some of the leaks regarding this measure addressed various aspects of the Gazans’ lives.

However, it is expected that all the services provided to the Gaza Strip will be suspended, including the coordination of food entry, payment of electricity and water expenses, payment of employee salaries, stopping educational and medical services, and perhaps stopping the issuance of any passports or official documents issued by the PA. There are Palestinian fears in Gaza that all banks are officially instructed to stop all services and close their doors until further notice in the Gaza Strip. The PA may also stop the export of cash into it.

All these punishments and others that are filling the PA’s catastrophic schemes may be resorted to under a noble cover and beautiful goal referred to as “restoring Gaza to the bosom of national legitimacy”.

As well as rejecting the decision to form Ishtayeh’s government, Hamas may not remain content with a media position and political statement because if it believes that the aforementioned sanctions and punishments are on the verge of implementation, the movement may move towards cutting the hair of Muawiya, the last diplomatic link, with the PA. It may also back down from the concessions it made to achieve reconciliation since October 2017.

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Militarily: Hamas is threatened day and night with a harsh Israeli strike, which Israel and some of its Palestinian and Arab allies hope to be fatal. This has caused Hamas to be prepared around the clock, even at the height of the truce. I believe that the movement has interpreted the goal of “restoring Gaza” as possibly including the implementation of an Israeli military operation to overthrow it, even though Israel does not sacrifice its soldiers for goals other than its own.

Perhaps Hamas’s fears are based on the PA’s encouragement of the Israeli generals’ victory in the upcoming election, as they have declared their desire to return Gaza to PA control, but have not mentioned the means and methods to be used to achieve this.

At the same time, the goal of forming the new Palestinian government, and the decree’s mention of restoring Gaza, coincides with the announcement made by US envoy Jared Kushner in late February regarding the American administration’s vision of seeing the Gaza Strip and West Bank under one leadership. This is an unprecedented call by President Donald Trump’s administration.

Finally, the Palestinian Authority’s formation of a new government is far removed from national consensus on the one hand, and on the other, its announcement of its intention to restore Gaza under its control is far removed from the efforts of dialogue and reconciliation. Instead, it further establishes the state of Palestinian division and will take the Palestinians from one crisis to another due to the policy of retaliation and vengeance adopted by President Mahmoud Abbas, which is far removed from logic and wisdom in dealing with his partners at home.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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