GAZA CITY (Palestinian Territories) • Hamas is due to end its decade-long dominance of Gaza by Friday in its biggest step yet towards Palestinian unity, but hopes raised by a reconciliation deal have already given way to doubts.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) is supposed to take control of the strip by Friday under a landmark unity deal signed last month, but its power is likely to be limited to civilian affairs for now - and perhaps only partially.
Hamas' armed wing, which includes about 25,000 militants, remains a major force in the Gaza Strip and has no plans to relinquish its weapons despite calls for it to do so.
Officials from Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas' Fatah have also criticised what they call the slow progress so far in transferring control - civilian or otherwise - to the PA.
Still, any handover is likely to be heralded by Palestinian leaders as a major breakthrough in their efforts to end the 10-year split between Islamist movement Hamas and Fatah, based in the occupied West Bank.
Gazans hope it will help alleviate suffering in the blockaded enclave of two million people, where basic amenities such as electricity and clean water are severely lacking.
PLEA FOR NORMALCY
All we want is to improve the economic situation and open the borders. We don't ask for a lot - we just want to live like the rest of the world. I am afraid reconciliation will fail like the last times.
MR ABU ABED ABU SULTAN, 53, formerly a tailor in a company that exported to Israel before the blockade began and now a coffee seller.
"All we want is to improve the economic situation and open the borders," said Mr Abu Abed Abu Sultan, 53, formerly a tailor in a company that exported to Israel before the blockade began, now a coffee seller. "We don't ask for a lot - we just want to live like the rest of the world. I am afraid reconciliation will fail like the previous times."
Gazans have reason to be doubtful, considering previous reconciliation attempts have failed, but few initially thought the latest accord, mediated by Egypt, would have even made it this far.
Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007 in a near civil war with Fatah after a dispute over elections won by the Islamists. Since then, Israel and militants in Gaza have fought three wars, the latest a devastating 2014 conflict.
Israel has kept the strip under a blockade for more than a decade, while Gaza's border with Egypt has also remained largely closed in recent years.
Beyond that, Mr Abbas issued a series of punitive measures against the Gaza Strip earlier this year to pressure Hamas, including cutting electricity payments, further worsening an already severe power crisis.
Faced with deteriorating conditions, Hamas turned to Egypt for help and in turn came under pressure to reconcile with Mr Abbas' Fatah. A deal was signed on Oct 12 in Cairo setting out parameters for reconciliation.
The first major deadline was kept, with Hamas handing over the Gaza Strip's borders to the Palestinian Authority on Nov 1. It was a precursor to the deadline on Friday for Hamas to give up control of the strip.
But in recent weeks, PA officials have signalled that true reconciliation will not be possible unless Hamas hands over security control.
Hamas officials have signalled that a compromise is possible concerning the police, but they flatly refuse to disarm its armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades.