Palestinian prime minister Rami Hamdallah (C) visits patients at Gaza City's Al-Shifa hospital on October 5, 2017. For three days it was all smiles as the Palestinian prime minister held talks in Gaza with Hamas but as the symbolic visit draws to a close the real work for reconciliation is just beginning. / AFP / MOHAMMED ABED Image Credit: AFP

The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could soon be deprived of his pretexts for shying away from serious peace negotiations with Palestinian leaders, which he may find discomforting. While he has paid lip service to a long defunct peace process, he has always maintained that the acrimonious split between the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and Hamas that controls the Gaza Strip translates to the absence of a single peace partner.

Thanks to the quiet diplomacy of the Egyptian President Abdul Fattah Al Sissi reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas is well underway with a view to holding elections, the first since 2006 when Hamas swept the board.

Egypt’s intervention is appreciated by the people of Gaza where Egyptian flags are seen fluttering and posters of the Egyptian leader are in evidence on the streets.

“I tell the Palestinian people it’s extremely important… to overcome the differences and not to lose opportunities and to be ready to accept co-existence with the other, with Israelis in safety and security,” urged Al Sissi during his recent address to the UN General Assembly.

For its part, Hamas agreed to dissolve its shadow government to permit the PNA to regain the control it lost to Hamas in 2007 following the ousting of the PNA’s Security chief Mohammad Dahlan and his men by Hamas militants.

Last Tuesday witnessed the convening of the Palestinian cabinet led by Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah in Gaza City and on Thursday, Hamas confirmed in a statement that the Palestinian National Consensus Government is now the official administrative authority in Gaza.

Rebranding move

Hamas, which has historically been known as the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, made surprising U-turns earlier this year. The organisation withdrew its call for Israel’s destruction, agreed to accept a Palestinian state based on post-1967 borders and severed its ties with the Brotherhood branded terrorist by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain.

Last week, Hamas leader Esmail Haniya further expressed his desire to open “a new page” with Cairo. He pledged that his movement would not provide sanctuary to persons plotting harm to Egypt and is willing to cooperate with the Egyptian government on counter-terrorism.

Signs are that Hamas is keen to rebrand itself due to needs must. Its tenure of Gaza has spelled misery for the 1.7 million inhabitants of the tiny and massively overcrowded Gaza Strip. The Israeli blockade has turned Gaza into the world’s largest open-air prison. Israeli military offensives have killed thousands and destroyed homes and infrastructure. The movement’s soured relations with Egypt over its alleged collusion with the Brotherhood and Islamist militants in the northern Sinai Peninsula resulted in the infrequent opening of the Rafah border post, the Egyptian Army’s destruction of cross-border tunnels and the demolition of homes within Egyptian territory to create a buffer zone between Egypt and Gaza.

Sanctions on Gaza imposed by President Mahmoud Abbas designed to pressurise Hamas to reconcile have served to make life even more punishing for Gaza’s long-suffering population; they included reduced salaries, the suspension of welfare to needy families as well as medical and educational expenses, and, hardest of all, a reduction in the supply of electricity.

Tough love meted out by Abbas seems to be working but there is many a slip between cup and lip. Hamas, which still maintains its role as a resistance group has vowed not to disarm or disband its military wing.

“I won’t accept the reproduction of the Hezbollah experience in Lebanon,” said Abbas who refuses to lift sanctions on Gaza until this matter is successfully concluded during an upcoming meeting in Cairo scheduled to be attended by all Palestinian factions.

Netanyahu remains sceptical of the proposed reconciliation. He does not believe in Hamas’ apparent change of heart but thinks the group is out to gain international legitimacy through its absorption into the PNA while retaining its weapons. He says his attitude towards Hamas will remain unchanged until it recognises Israel, disarms and ends its relationship with one of its major funders, Iran.

Abbas is under no illusion that Israel’s hard line stance will be softened by the existence of a unity government. But it cannot be denied that without a single Palestinian governing entity a Palestinian state recedes into a mirage. Unity represents the founding brick in a long process that can only begin once Israel’s political dinosaurs including Netanyahu and his ilk are finally extinct.

Linda S. Heard is an award-winning British political columnist and guest television commentator with a focus on the Middle East.