Chasing a mirage?

11/06/08

Hamas leaders arrive in Cairo to resume efforts, mediated
by Egypt, aimed at addressing numerous issues currently
deadlocked on top of which is the elusive Palestinian
reconciliation, Dina Ezzat and Khaled Amayreh report

A Hamas delegation arrived in Cairo Tuesday for talks with
Egyptian officials to resume truce negotiations frozen by
the movement last week as well as discuss a prisoner swap
deal involving Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit held captive
since 2006.

Hamas hopes to exchange Shalit for a number of Palestinian
prisoners held in Israel. There are over 10,000
Palestinians in Israeli prisons.

The Hamas delegation, which includes leaders from both the
Gaza Strip and the Diaspora, will also ask the Egyptian
leadership to step up efforts to bring about Palestinian
national reconciliation between Fatah — which Egypt leans
towards in support — and Hamas.

Rafah is also high on the agenda with some Hamas leaders
privately criticising Egyptian reluctance to reopen the
border crossing, saying that keeping it closed is causing
unwarranted distress for desperate Gazans. Hamas leaders
also take issue with Egypt’s refusal to release Hamas
members held by authorities in Egypt — some for years.
Egyptian officials acknowledge that tension has marred
contacts with Hamas.

Egyptian officials argue that Egypt can’t unilaterally
reopen the Rafah crossing given that such a step would go
beyond an outstanding international agreement regulating
Palestinian movement in both directions across the
Egypt-Gaza border. Refuting this argument, Hamas believes
the agreement was unfair — since it allowed Israel to have
the final say in an exclusively Egyptian-Palestinian matter
–and that it has expired anyway.

According to sources close to Ismail Haniyeh, prime
minister of the Hamas-dominated Gaza government, the Hamas
delegation will also brief Egyptian officials on as many as
50 Israeli violations of the fragile Hamas-Israel truce
struck but a month ago.

Egyptian officials speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly say that
Cairo has become impatient with the “inability of Hamas to
show necessary determination to complete” the prisoners
swap deal. The officials add that Egypt is “offended” by
the insistence of Hamas to include the European Union in
the deal, almost as a co-sponsor.

This said, Cairo appears determined to press ahead with
attempts to consolidate the truce and eventually expand it
to include the West Bank. “Hamas wants this [expansion]
within weeks, but it looks like it is going to take a few
more months,” commented one official.

In parallel, Egypt is also maintaining what its officials
qualify as a “reasonable pace” in handling the prisoners
swap deal. “Last month we were more optimistic, but we are
not pessimistic now,” an informed official said.

Ever since the conclusion of the truce deal four weeks ago,
Israel kept border crossings with Gaza partially closed,
allegedly in response to rockets fired on Israel from
inside the Gaza Strip.

However, there are indications that elements affiliated
with Fatah, and that are directly answerable to Palestinian
Authority (PA) intelligence officials in the West Bank, are
responsible for the firings.

PA leaders have publicly given their general support for
the truce in Gaza. However, some elements within the Fatah
leadership consider the truce as benefiting Hamas and
disadvantaging Fatah in their internal power struggle.

This week, the Israeli occupation army raided, vandalised
and ransacked schools, charities, an important medical
centre and a large department store in Nablus, alleging
that these targets were affiliated with “religious”
individuals close to Hamas. Israel said the rampage was
aimed at strengthening PA President Mahmoud Abbas. Although
Fatah condemned the Israeli aggressions, Abbas has remained
reticent to speak out.

Hamas, while asserting its commitment to the ceasefire with
Israel, has condemned the “criminal and Nazi-like
ransacking of Palestinian interests in Nablus and other
parts of the West Bank.”

The perceived collusion between the PA and Israel against
Hamas, which Fatah leaders vehemently deny, comes as
efforts to reconcile the two camps have suffered a series
of setbacks. In the West Bank, Fatah-affiliated security
agencies have arrested scores of Hamas sympathisers,
including the elected mayor of Al-Sammou, a small town near
Hebron.

The general atmosphere of mutual mistrust this week
culminated with Abbas’s refusal to meet with Khaled
Meshaal, the Damascus-based politburo chief of Hamas.
Abbas, who held talks with Syrian President Bashar
Al-Assad, has reportedly been offended by a strongly worded
letter sent to him by Meshaal via Arab League
Secretary-General Amr Moussa.

Hamas interpreted Abbas’s refusal to meet with its chief as
further proof that Abbas “is answerable first” to the US,
which opposes rapprochement between the two Palestinian
political factions. Fatah leaders deny that Abbas is at the
Bush administration’s beck and call. “It is unfair that
whenever the brothers in Hamas don’t like a certain
statement or conduct on our part, they start calling us
traitors and agents of America,” said Rafiq Al-Natsheh, a
former Fatah cabinet minister.

More than a month ago, Abbas called for national
reconciliation dialogue — inclusive of Hamas — that Cairo
was going to host. In fact, last week Egyptian officials
said the dialogue would be held “soon”. Now Cairo officials
are saying, “it is around the corner.”

“The factors necessary to launch the dialogue are there.
Both Fatah and Hamas are interested in ending the national
split that they are both finding difficult to handle,”
commented an Egyptian diplomatic source. He added that
Israel and the US are now less reluctant about this
dialogue than they were a few weeks ago, especially in view
of the negative impact of the split on progress in
Palestinian- Israeli negotiations.

“Today, the US is especially aware of the need for
President Abbas to secure some victory that he can
capitalise on,” said one source; all the more so if he is
to run for the Palestinian presidency again in elections in
the near future.

Palestinian columnist Hani Al-Masri believes that both
Hamas and Fatah — but especially Fatah — are reluctant to
make the necessary efforts to reach reconciliation at this
time. Al-Masri told Al-Ahram Weekly that Abbas wants to
exhaust all possibilities for reaching a broad agreement
with Israel before the end of President Bush’s term in
office.

Al-Masri said Hamas, too, would like to wait until its
estimated 45 lawmakers, now held in Israeli jails as
political hostages, are released. “If they are freed, Hamas
then would have the parliamentary majority to sack the
Ramallah-based Fayyad government, and Abbas would have
little manoeuvrability,” Al-Masri said. (see pp. 3&7)

[Caption: THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM: Armed with the national
flag, a Palestinian young man stands in silent
confrontation with an Israeli soldier in the occupied West
Bank following protests against the construction of the
apartheid wall deemed illegal by the World Court. A
reminder, perhaps, for rivals Fatah and Hamas that the
Israeli occupation remains the gravest threat to the
survival of the Palestinian people]

[C a p t i o n 2: THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM: Armed with the
national flag, a Palestinian young man stands in silent
confrontation with an Israeli soldier in the occupied West
Bank following protests against the construction of the
apartheid wall deemed illegal by the World Court. A
reminder, perhaps, for rivals Fatah and Hamas that the
Israeli occupation remains the gravest threat to the
survival of the Palestinian people]

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