Gaza takes back seat to PA-Hamas infighting and Islamic State threat

By Sean Savage/JNS.org

Click photo to download. Caption: From left to right, senior Hamas leader Moussa Abu Marzouk, senior Fatah official Azzam Al-Ahmed, head of the Hamas government Ismail Haniyeh, and deputy speaker of the Gaza-based Palestinian Parliament Ahmed Bahar attend a meting in Gaza City on April 22, 2014. Hamas and Fatah signed a deal to establish a unity government this spring, but since then little progress has been made as the Palestinian factions continue to feel deep mistrust toward one another. Credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90.

Since the declaration of a final cease-fire between Israel and Hamas last month, there has been very little movement to resolve the situation in Gaza. With the Middle East preoccupied by the threat of Islamic extremism as well as the growing rivalries between Arab states over how to handle these threats, there appears to be little appetite in the Arab world to deal with the Palestinian issue. 

“It’s not at the top of the agenda for many Arab states at this time,” Elliott Abrams, who served as deputy national security advisor for President George W. Bush and is currently a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told JNS.org

“It is striking to me that even during [this summer’s] Gaza war, you were seeing widespread demonstrations in Europe, but not in the Arab world,” he said. 

Furthermore, “the level of public agitation in the Middle East was lower than it was in past Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. People’s attentions are elsewhere, like on the role of Iran, the Syrian civil war, the Islamic State and even Libya,” Abrams said.

This relative disinterest amongst the Arab states regarding Gaza has led to a stalled situation, and there has been virtually no change to the status quo over the past few weeks. 

According to the Palestinian Authority (PA), it will cost around $7 billion to rebuild Gaza. While a major donor conference, chaired by Egypt and Norway, has been set up for October 12 in Cairo, it is unclear who will provide the necessary logistics and funds to undertake the efforts.  

Looming large over any efforts to rebuild Gaza is the ongoing split between Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party, which controls the West Bank, and Hamas, which continues to control the Gaza Strip. 

The relationship between the Palestinian factions has been strained since Hamas violently ousted the PA from Gaza in 2007. In May 2014 Abbas signed an agreement with Hamas to establish a unity government between the two Palestinian factions. But since then little progress has been made as both sides continue to feel deep mistrust.

“Both Hamas and Fatah are basically wrestling with each other to try to figure out a way forward with Gaza reconstruction,” Neri Zilber, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told JNS.org

“Abbas has told Hamas that the only mechanism for opening up Gaza for humanitarian aid, as far as the international community is concerned, is through the PA, not a through terrorist organization like Hamas,” Zilber added.

In August it was revealed by Israeli security services that Hamas planned to launch a series of riots and attacks in the West Bank in an effort to overthrow Abbas. As a result, at a meeting in Qatar on August 21 between Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Maashal, Abbas slammed Hamas for plotting his overthrow, as well as for provoking Israel by kidnapping and murdering three Israeli teens in June, which led to a crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank by Israel this summer. 

“As a result of this action [the kidnapping and killing of the Israeli teens], 20 Palestinians were killed and [Palestinian teenager] Muhammad Abu Khdeir was burnt alive. Their purpose is to destroy the West Bank and create a state of anarchy to orchestrate a coup against us. Hamas wants to drive me crazy,” Abbas told Qatari Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad at the meeting in Doha in August, the Times of Israel reported. 

For Israel as well as Egypt, the dispute between the Palestinian factions over control of Gaza has prevented the two countries from allowing more humanitarian aid and construction materials to enter Gaza from their territories, and from other potential international donor regions like the European Union or the United States, over fears that these materials will be used by Hamas to replenish its rocket arsenals or to rebuild terror tunnels. 

“What they [Israel] are trying to do is establish a secure system like we have in the West for imports. Trying to set that up when Hamas doesn’t want one is going to be very difficult to do,” Abrams told JNS.org

“Egypt and Israel are not willing to approve a system that lets Hamas rebuild its strength.”  

Nevertheless, reports emerged on September 12 that Abbas had reached a deal with Israel to allow for the import and export of goods to and from Gaza under the auspice of the Palestinian Authority.

The report emerged after Abbas threatened to sever the unity deal with Hamas if the deal did not allow the PA to operate in Gaza.

“We won’t accept a partnership with them if the situation continues like this in Gaza, where there is a shadow government…running the territory,” Abbas recently stated. “The national consensus government cannot do anything on the ground,” he said, according to the official Palestinian news agency WAFA.

However, it remains unclear how other components of the August 26 cease-fire, such as Israel’s demand that Gaza be demilitarized, will unfold. Israel and Hamas agreed to indirect talks, but a date for the resumption has not been announced.

Amid the stalled plans over Gaza, another report emerged on September 8 that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi had offered Abbas land in the Sinai Peninsula for a Palestinian state, Israeli Army Radio reported.

According to the plan, Egypt would provide 1,600 square kilometers in the Sinai near the Gaza Strip that would enlarge the coastal enclave by about five times. This area, which would be demilitarized and under the control of the Palestinian Authority, would then serve as land where Palestinian refugees could eventually settle. In exchange, Abbas would have to give up claims to a Palestinian state within pre-1967 lines. 

However, both Egypt and the Palestinian Authority denied the report, with one Palestinian official calling it a “fabrication,” Ma’an News Agency reported. 

Nevertheless Zilber believes that “Jordan and Egypt need to play a role in the future final status resolution of the conflict,” he said. “The difference between that being true and these two state ceding territory to a future Palestinian state is very wide.”

But Egypt and Jordan are also threatened by radical Islamic movements and face serious economic issues in their own countries.

“Both countries don’t want to solve Israel’s very real Palestinian question for Israel,” Zilber told JNS.org

Likewise, emerging rivalries in the Arab world over how to handle the growing threat of Islamic extremism have contributed to the lack of enthusiasm for the situation in Gaza. 

While Qatar and Turkey were outspoken in their criticism of Israel’s conduct, Egypt and Saudi Arabia were rather subdued in their reaction, with some Egyptian officials openly criticizing Hamas for its actions and its repeated rejection of Egyptian cease-fire proposals. 

“They understand Israel is not their enemy but their ally in the fight against this common enemy,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a major foreign policy speech on September 11, indicating a growing desire to forge a closer relationship between Israel and these Arab neighbors.

“I believe that presents an opportunity for cooperation and perhaps an opportunity for peace,” Netanyahu said.

With the ongoing distraction by the Islamic State and concerns over broader Islamic extremism across the Middle East, as well as the Palestinian infighting over control of Gaza, “there is a limited bandwidth for the Palestinians,” Zilber said. 

“While it is important, it is not front and center as it may been in the past, as new realities emerge.” 

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Posted on September 14, 2014 and filed under Analysis, Conflict, News, World.