Omar Ghraieb
The Media Line (Opinion)
January 23, 2012 - 1:00am

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip –Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of the Hamas government in control of the Gaza Strip, will allow 80 members of the rival Palestinian Fatah movement into Gaza for the first time since they were expelled nearly five years ago.

“We have given our approval to the return to Gaza from abroad of 80 sons of Fatah,” he declared at a news conference in Gaza over the weekend. Hours later he offered to release Fatah prisoners his government is holding so long as Fatah reciprocated in the West Bank, where it rules. “We are studying a request that was presented by the committee to free a number of political prisoners in Gaza in two days, coincided with the release of political prisoners in the West Bank,” he told the Freedoms Committee in Gaza.

But if experience is any use, neither the Fatah activists nor the prisoners should be packing their bags anytime soon. Personal rivalries and ideological differences – not to mention strategic calculations about who will benefit as the Arab Spring brings Islamists like Hamas to the fore – are keeping the two sides apart. Hamas itself is divided over whether it should embark on a more conciliatory policy toward Israel or keep to its tradition of armed resistance.

In that context, Haniyeh’s two declarations are the latest moves in the reconciliation tango being performed by the two bitter enemies. The audience is the Palestinian in the street who would like to see the division of the nation into Hamas-ruled Gaza and Fatah-ruled West Bank end in a joint government with elections later this year. But the onlookers are unimpressed.

“I don’t take their media crap,” Atteyah Abu-Hasna, 44-year-old Gaza taxi driver, who doesn’t hesitate to express his resentment. “They’ve wasted years in failed attempts of reconciliation with several mediations and supporters. It’s not going to happen -- no elections in 2012, take it from me. They spoke about a lot of things but we see nothing on ground. That speaks louder than media propaganda.”

About half of the public is optimistic about the chances for reconciliation, but only 21% believe that a reconciliation government will be formed any time soon, according to a poll conducted last month by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) in the West Bank and Gaza. It showed that support for national unity was so strong, however, that Palestinians were prepared to risk the loss of U.S. financial assistance and Israeli sanctions.

Abu Hasna’s son Mohammed, 25 and also a driver, expressed that cautious optimism. “Look at the Shalit deal,” he said, referring to the exchange Israel and Hamas arranged of some 1,200 Palestinian prisoners for the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. “It took years and a tremendous amount of mediation, but it worked out in the end, didn’t it?” Mohammed said.

The two sides declared their plans to reconcile last May. After various fits and starts, they looked like they were moving forward again at the end of last month when Hamas and Fatah announced that they would meet in Cairo – yet again – in December. They indeed met and agreed to reactivate the National Reconciliation Committees, hold elections in May and resolve issued like passports and political prisoners.

They also agreed to call a ceasefire in the media bashing that both sides regularly engage in. But, as in the past, the timeout lasted a few days before both sides went back to using the media to hurl accusations at each other.

It started when a Fatah convoy asked to come to Gaza on January 6, just a few days after the anniversary of Fatah’s founding.

But the Fatah convoy coming through Israel from the West Bank headed back to Ramallah after waiting for two hours at the Gaza border as Hamas officials weighed whether to let them in. Once in Ramallah, the Fatah officials rushed to issue statements and talk to the press, accusing Hamas of banning them from Gaza and blocking efforts at reconciliation.

The Hamas Interior Ministry fired back with its own accusations. “They waited while we made our routine calls to ensure and coordinate their entrance. They didn’t want to wait and started cursing and verbally attacking Hamas police. Sakhr Bseiso, a member of Fatah’s central committee, crossed the line by insulting us and demeaning God.”

Bseiso himself then issued a statement in response saying: “Hamas committed two crimes. The first was making us wait forever and treating us badly when all we wanted was to enter Gaza, which is a part of Palestine. The second was issuing false claims about me.”

New sparks began flying when Haniyeh left Gaza on a tour of the Middle East – his first ever as prime minister – paying calls in Egypt, Sudan, Turkey and Tunisia. When he got back to Gaza, he complained at a press conference that Fatah officials created problems at every stop of his journey.

“My tour faced internal and external disruption. Reconciliation shouldn’t be agreements on papers only; it should take place on ground. We should consider it as a partnership and work together,” he said.

Two days later, it looked like they had patched thing up again. At a behind-the-scenes meeting between Hamas and Fatah officials at Haniyeh’s home, Hamas agreed to hand over the Gaza residence of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president and Fatah leader, to Fatah and open the offices of the local elections committee. Everyone agreed that the meeting was positive.

More good news came days later when Mustafa Bargouthi, a member of the Freedoms Committee, which was created during the latest round of reconciliation talks in Cairo, announced that Abbas had given the green light for all newspapers, even those aligned with Hamas, to appear in the West Bank and that all journalists would be released. “Any newspaper that isn’t published from now on will be because the owners have decided so, no one else,” he said. Bargouthi also ensured that the passports issue had been resolved.

But Bargouthi turned out to be wrong on both counts. Neither Gaza nor the West Bank saw the return of any banned newspapers to the kiosks and the National Reconciliation Committee is still discussing the passports problem, such as recognizing Palestinians who entered without visas, and organizing renewal logistics.

The feud continues.

Ahmed Assaf, Fatah’s spokesperson, charged on Sunday that the movement’s offices in Gaza are still closed and that despite Hamas’ agreement, neither have the local elections committee offices been re-opened. To which Hamas responds: “Despite the reconciliation talks, the [Fatah] Palestinian Authority still detains Hamas supporters and the West Bank. Five were detained for interrogation,” it said, without saying when it occurred.


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