Hamas due to hand over Gaza in major step towards unity

Hamas is due to end its decade-long dominance of the Gaza Strip by Dec 1, in its biggest step yet towards Palestinian unity. PHOTO: AFP

GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories (AFP) - Hamas is due to end its decade-long dominance of Gaza by Friday (Dec 1) 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 in October, but its power is likely to be limited to civilian affairs for now - and perhaps only partially.

Hamas's 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's 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 infrastructure such as electricity and clean water are severely lacking.

"All we want is to improve the economic situation and open the borders," said Abu Abed Abu Sultan, 53, formerly a tailor in a company that exported to Israel before the blockade began and 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 last 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's 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 Dec 1 deadline 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.

In a reference to Hamas's armed wing, Mr Abbas has spoken of wanting to avoid a situation akin to Hezbollah in Lebanon, where the Shiite movement's militia wields major power.

Hamas officials have signalled a compromise is possible concerning police, but they flatly refuse to disarm its armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades.

"With all the difficulties inherent in the Egyptian-led process and concerns about the timing and modalities of the Palestinian Authority's assumption of full civilian and security control of Gaza, the process must not be allowed to fail," UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process Nickolay Mladenov has said.

"If it does, it will most likely result in another devastating conflict."

Other major stumbling blocks lie ahead.

Hamas is labelled a terrorist group by the United States, the European Union and Israel.

It has faced pressure to disarm and recognise Israel, but Hamas officials say both are out of the question for now.

A technocratic unity government could be formed to avoid potential issues internationally with Hamas's participation, or the Palestinians could agree to stick with their existing government for now.

Some analysts say progress in the reconciliation effort may be difficult to judge.

"Maybe this reconciliation process will take just too much time or a long time, so we won't know whether it's going to succeed or not in the foreseeable future," said Mkhaimar Abusada, political science professor at Al-Azhar University in Gaza.

"And we will just see some kind of gradual steps by Hamas and Fatah to try to tell the Palestinians that the process is moving - it's moving very slowly, but at least it's moving forward."

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