Ramallah, West Bank – At first glance, it was an angry, even hostile speech: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas took to the podium at the United Nations, accused Israel of genocide and vowed to seek a deadline for ending the occupation.
While his language was striking, his 30-minute address was short on details: no explicit mention of the Palestinians joining the International Criminal Court (ICC), no time frame for a Palestinian state or even submitting a resolution to that effect. It was a series of empty threats, suggesting that the PA is reluctant to take any meaningful steps.
The one subject he did discuss at length was the reconstruction of Gaza – ending the blockade, a donors conference in Cairo due on October 12. Gaza had suffered through three wars in six years, he said, and the cycle needed to stop: “And now, where do we go from here?”
After a tumultuous summer, Abbas could also ask that question about himself. Five months ago he inked a unity pact with Hamas, a move condemned by the Israeli government, but also boosted his domestic popularity and diplomatic position.
By September, that situation was almost entirely reversed. The war brought renewed popular support for Hamas, which, earlier this year, was beleaguered and nearly bankrupt. Abbas was sidelined, reduced to a hapless observer while thousands of Palestinians were killed, and his patrons in Jerusalem and Washington were left searching for a way to salvage his position.
Yet Abbas ultimately survived, emerging as the interlocutor of last resort for both Israel and Hamas. The former refused to talk with Hamas directly, or through interlocutors like Qatar and Turkey, and Egypt’s hostility towards the Islamist group made it a biased mediator.
Despite the rhetoric, Israel also needs the unity government to preserve calm and quiet in Gaza: It's also the 'punching bag' in case anything goes wrong there.
Hamas, meanwhile, is now reliant on Abbas for the construction materials and other goods needed to rebuild Gaza.
On September 16, the United Nations, Israel and the PA reached a deal to allow reconstruction work in Gaza, almost a month after a ceasefire pact was reached between Israel and Hamas, ending 50 days of Israel’s war on Gaza.
All three parties have kept up their hostile rhetoric towards each other: mutual accusations of genocide and ethnic cleansing at the United Nations, for example, and charges that Hamas was running a “shadow government” in the Gaza Strip.
Beneath the rhetoric, though, they have developed a symbiotic relationship, quietly working together to preserve the status quo and their own self-interests.
“People here aren’t paying any attention to Abbas. He needs the unity government, backed by Hamas, to market himself as the leader of the Palestinian people,” said Adnan Abu Amer, the dean of arts and humanities at Gaza’s Ummah University. “Despite the rhetoric, Israel also needs the unity government to preserve calm and quiet in Gaza: It’s also the ‘punching bag’ in case anything goes wrong there.”
Only earlier this week, Hamas and Fatah reached a consensus in Cairo to allow the unity government composed of independent figures, and sworn in on June 2, to reinstate PA security forces at the Rafah crossing.
However, it remains unclear how the national government would disperse the salaries of at least 40,000 Gaza-based civil servants previously employed by Hamas.
Azzam al-Ahmad, a senior Fatah official who heads the reconciliation talks, said the consensus government would resume its duties in Gaza in October. And on Thursday October 10, Palestinian Prime Minister Rami al-Hamdallah was in Gaza convening the national consensus government’s first cabinet meeting.
Hamdallah’s visit marked the first time a Palestinian prime minister enters the strip since the Hamas-Fatah discord began in 2007. There, Hamdallah said the new government’s priorities were lifting the blockade on Gaza and easing tensions between the two factions.
But what is being touted as a proposal to kick-start Gaza’s reconstruction process is essentially enabling a resurgent Fatah in the strip – something that the faction’s leaders have not been shy to admit.
“The PA, as it stands, is an authority without an authority,” said Mohammad Shtayyeh, another senior Fatah party official. The PA, he added, has to extend its reach over all walks of life in Gaza … and should be fully in charge of [its] financial needs.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to Abbas with his own address on Monday night, by dismissing charges of genocide, arguing that Israel tried to avoid civilian casualties: “In what moral universe does genocide include warning the enemy’s civilian population to get out of harm’s way?”
More than 2,100 Palestinians, three-quarters of whom were civilians, were killed during the war while 69 Israelis, mostly soldiers, were also killed.
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Abbas’ traditional backers on the Israeli centre-left, though, have been more supportive. “You can criticise Abbas, but at the end of the day, we prefer the Palestinian Authority taking control of Gaza, and we prefer Abbas and the PA’s full security cooperation in the West Bank,” Labor Party chief Isaac Herzog told the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot.
Abbas’ strongest ally has been Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who led last year’s aborted negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).
A central issue in the Cairo talks was the Rafah crossing: Hamas wanted it reopened, but Egypt was unwilling to discuss the issue unless Abbas’ security forces took control. Livni began to see this as a way to help the Palestinian Authority reclaim the entire strip after more than seven years of Hamas rule. She adopted a two-point message: tough on Hamas, but eager to resume talks with Abbas.
At one point, she proposed digging an underground moat to separate Gaza from Israel.
But the hawkishness, she said, would eventually pave the way for peace talks. “We are talking about the long term, the return to Gaza of effective and legitimate PA control,” Livni told reporters earlier this month. “Beginning with, of course, the Gaza crossings.”
Without explicitly acknowledging it, Israel seemed to have dropped its opposition to the Abbas-led unity government. The change in rhetoric left the PA feeling vindicated. “The world has started to notice that the president’s model, the unity government, is what we need to go back to,” said Hussam Zumlot, a top foreign policy adviser in Fatah. “And that there is no other solution except a united West Bank and Gaza under one institutional government and one political leadership.”
The handover of power at Rafah, and other border crossings, eventually became part of the final ceasefire proposals. It was a tacit admission that Israel’s military campaign had failed to weaken Hamas politically; the only means left is to boost the PA’s role in Gaza, at Hamas’ expense.
“All the main players – Israelis, Egyptians, the West and last but not least the PA – have an overriding interest that Hamas does not emerge politically strengthened from this crisis,” said Mouin Rabbani, a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies.
It is not yet clear how having the Presidential Guard man the border crossings would strengthen the PA within – as opposed to around – the Gaza Strip. A senior Israeli defence official admitted that Abbas could not be seen “riding into Gaza on a Merkava [tank],” as the expression goes. “I don’t see how Abu Mazen is going to have control in Gaza,” he said. “He doesn’t want to come back on the backs of Israelis.”
The idea that sending a few presidential guards is going to reverse Hamas' seizure of power in 2007 is a bit of a pipe dream.
A more significant boost for the PA could come from its control over aid and reconstruction of the strip which would cost $7.8bn, according to the PA’s assessment.
“If the PA takes sole responsibility for the reconstruction, then the homes and structures affiliated with Hamas members will not be prioritised,” said Abu Amer. “This may look like a trivial matter, but on a grass-roots level, it will cause bitterness and disappointment among Hamas’ members.”
Israel finds itself in a difficult situation: It does not want Abbas completely sidelined, nor does it want to boost his stature too far. Livni wants Abbas strengthened enough to resume negotiations, but when asked how he might regain control of Gaza, she offered a vague and rambling answer. “I’m not going to decide for the Palestinians what is the best way to do it,” she said.
Nor does the entire cabinet share this goal. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman warned ministers that helping Abbas would be a “serious blunder”, and this week he said the Palestinian president “has lost touch with reality”.
Hamas’ acquiescence to a deal that boosts the PA may be linked to its financial crunch and its souring relations with many regional powers, especially Egypt. These new arrangements, however, do not mean Hamas is going to disappear.
Both Hamas and Israel could spin a PA role in Gaza as beneficial: Hamas could finally get what it wanted all along, which is an easing of the blockade. Israel can claim it made no concessions to the group; it instead pushed Hamas to relinquish power to its rival.
For both sides, the agreement helps to preserve the political status quo, leaving Hamas in power in Gaza and allowing Israel to preserve the division between the territories.
The only benefit for Abbas is the thankless job of manning the border, which opens the PA up to criticism from both Israel and Egypt without enhancing the organisation’s political and public standing.
“The idea that sending a few presidential guards is going to reverse Hamas’ seizure of power in 2007 is a bit of a pipe dream,” Rabbani said. “If I were in the Hamas leadership, I certainly wouldn’t be concerned about it, and if I were in Ramallah, I wouldn’t be jumping for joy that this is somehow going to lead to a reversal of 2007.”