Tags: Egypt | Israel | Hamas | Gaza

Egyptian-Brokered Truce May Boost Abbas Leadership in Gaza

Wednesday, 13 Aug 2014 10:00 AM

As negotiators seek an enduring truce between Israel and Gaza Strip militants, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas may be the one person who will emerge strengthened by a month of fighting.

The U.S. and Egypt want Abbas’s Palestinian Authority to play a bigger role in the Hamas-ruled enclave after hostilities end. So do Israel and some Arab nations opposed to political Islam. Giving Abbas and his security forces greater control over the territory for the first time in seven years may put him in a stronger position to demand concessions in any future peace talks with Israel. It could also saddle him with Gaza’s many problems and a renewed rivalry with the Islamist Hamas.

Allowing Abbas’s forces to control the Palestinian side of border crossings with Egypt and Israel would ease Israeli and international concerns, Mkhaimar Abusada, a political science professor at al-Azhar University in Gaza City, said by phone. “However, there are other issues that need to be resolved in a long-term agreement — such as opening a Gaza seaport and airport, and freeing more political prisoners held by Israel — that won’t be solved just by Abbas being involved,” he said.

Abbas’s future role in Gaza will become clearer in truce talks taking place in Cairo and expiring midnight. So far, no breakthroughs have been reported. One of Hamas’ chief aspirations is to end the blockade of Gaza that Israel initiated in 2006, citing security concerns, and Egypt joined. Israel, which like the U.S. and European Union considers Hamas a terrorist organization, wants to see Gaza demilitarized.

Abbas has governed only the West Bank and hasn’t set foot in Gaza since losing control of the smaller of the two territories Palestinians seek for a future state to Hamas fighters in June 2007. In his West Bank stronghold, his stature has suffered from a weak economy and his failure to win Palestinians a state through diplomacy.

The vehicle for his return to Gaza, an impoverished territory of 1.8 million people, would be the Hamas-backed Palestinian government formed in June, said Martin Indyk, vice president and director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution research center.

The Palestinian Authority should take control of Gaza’s border crossings, “which I think everybody is ready to agree to,” and then extend this to the rest of the territory, Indyk said.

The presence of Abbas loyalists in Gaza, together with his government’s commitment to a non-violent resolution of the conflict with Israel, could also give international donors the cover they need to send money into Gaza for its reconstruction, despite the territory’s militant taint.

“The people in Gaza see Abu Mazen as the savior for them,”said Jehad Harb, a researcher on governance and policy issues at Birzeit University in the West Bank. “He’s the only one that will be able to bring money for reconstruction.”

The United Nations says more than 10,000 homes have been rendered uninhabitable in the fighting, which claimed the lives of more than 1,900 Palestinians, according to Gaza health officials, and 67 people on the Israeli side. It also damaged Gaza’s sole power station, schools, mosques and medical centers. The UN has estimated the reconstruction tab at $6 billion.

Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid proposed a plan Aug. 11 to demilitarize the enclave and hand control back to Abbas, who would oversee its reconstruction. Lapid’s ideas about Gaza’s future are supported by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, according to two U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to comment.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had shunned the Hamas-backed government, has also warmed to Abbas, saying Aug. 6 that he was “prepared to see a role” for him in postwar Gaza. Even so, neither Netanyahu, nor Lapid’s plan, said anything about a return to negotiations or steps Israel might consider in the West Bank to shore up the Palestinian leader in any future talks.

Any talk about putting Abbas in control of Gaza depends on the outcome of meetings in Cairo, said Yoram Meital, a political scientist at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba.

“The two parties aren’t even on the same planet in terms of their demands,” Meital said. “We should all remember that the struggle isn’t over yet.”

The notion of a wider role for Abbas draws jeers from some in the West Bank.

“Abbas should leave office,” said Naif Sobeih, a taxi driver in Bethlehem, complaining about the state of the Palestinian economy.

Unemployment in the West Bank and Gaza increased to 25 percent at the end of 2013, the International Monetary Fund said. One in four Palestinians lives below the poverty line, with rates in Gaza twice as high as in the West Bank, according to the World Bank. Discontent with him is also high because years of on-again, off-again negotiations with Israel on the establishment of a Palestinian state have gone nowhere.

Abbas’s ability to maneuver in Gaza will also depend on Hamas agreeing to let the Palestinian leader make inroads into Gaza that might threaten its hold there. While Hamas has balked at sharing power with Abbas in the past, its fortunes have suffered over the past year with the ouster of its Egyptian patron, Islamist President Mohamed Mursi, and the loss of its financial lifeline with Egypt’s destruction of hundreds of smuggling tunnels leading from Gaza.

That said, Hamas will remain a player even if Abbas’s stature has improved, according to Khalil Shaheen, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy Research and Strategic Studies in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

“It’s impossible to exclude them as they have gained popularity in Gaza and in the West Bank after the performance they delivered in the Gaza war,” Shaheen said.

Mustafa al-Sawaf, a political analyst who writes a daily column in the Hamas-backed Felesteen daily, said the Islamic group backs the unity government Abbas agreed to form with Hamas’s backing after peace talks with Israel collapsed in April.

“Hamas’s intentions are positive,” al-Sawaf said in a phone interview. “Abbas can join Hamas in the responsibility of helping the people in Gaza change their painful reality.”

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MiddleEast
As negotiators seek an enduring truce between Israel and Gaza Strip militants, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas may be the one person who will emerge strengthened by a month of fighting.
Egypt, Israel, Hamas, Gaza
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2014-00-13
Wednesday, 13 Aug 2014 10:00 AM
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