Israeli warning as Palestinians edge closer to reconciliation

(AFP) – The Palestinian cabinet met in Gaza for the first time since 2014 Tuesday, as Israel warned it would reject any reconciliation deal between the Palestinian factions unless Islamists Hamas disarm.

The meeting comes as part of moves to end a decade-long split between the internationally recognised Palestinian Authority, based in the occupied West Bank, and Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip.

The return of the PA to Gaza had been cautiously welcomed by the United States and the United Nations, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it could be a “bogus” reconciliation “at the expense of our existence”.

Hamas has controlled Gaza since seizing it from the PA in a near civil war in 2007, and since then multiple reconciliation attempts have failed.

But following Egyptian pressure the Islamists announced last month they were willing to hand over civilian control to the PA, which is dominated by Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas’s Fatah movement.

Tuesday’s cabinet meeting was the first in Gaza since November 2014, and comes a day after Palestinian prime minister Rami Hamdallah entered the territory for the first time since a unity government collapsed in June 2015.

At the beginning of the meeting, which took place at the official Gaza residence of Abbas in Gaza, Hamdallah pledged to end the rift.

“We are here to turn the page on division, restore the national project to its correct direction and establish the (Palestinian) state,” he said.

Afterwards government spokesman Yusuf Al Mahmud said a full reconciliation deal would take time.

“The government does not have a magic wand,” he told reporters.

Egypt has brokered the rapprochement between the two sides.

Its intelligence chief, Khaled Fawzi, visited the strip in the afternoon and met with Hamdallah and Hamas head Ismail Haniya.

In a pre-recorded speech played at the meeting, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi backed the talks.

“The whole world is waiting for your efforts to achieve reconciliation among the Palestinian people,” he said.

The sides will hold further talks on Tuesday in Cairo.

– Hamas disarming –

More than two million people live in impoverished Gaza, which has been blockaded by Israel and Egypt for years.

Hamas hopes to convince Egypt to ease its border restrictions, which, along with the isolation of key regional ally Qatar, have left the Islamists weak.

The Palestinian Authority has also sought to punish Hamas for setting up what was seen as a rival government, reducing electricity payments for Gazans.

A key sticking point between the two Palestinian sides will likely be Hamas’s powerful military wing that has fought three wars with Israel since 2008.

The Palestinian Authority has signed peace deals with Israel, but Hamas was not party to them and does not recognise Israel’s right to exist.

The United States and the European Union blacklist Hamas as a terrorist organisation, complicating the formation of any potential unity government.

Israel said any deal would be unacceptable unless Hamas disarmed.

“We are not prepared to accept bogus reconciliations in which the Palestinian side apparently reconciles at the expense of our existence,” Netanyahu said in a statement.

“Whoever wants to make such a reconciliation, our understanding is very clear: recognise the State of Israel, disband the Hamas military arm, sever the connection with Iran — which calls for our destruction.”

In response Hamas said Israel was the primary beneficiary of the division.

In an interview on Monday night Abbas said there would be “one state, one system, one law and one weapon” — in an apparent reference to Hamas’s military wing.

Hamas could not “copy or clone Hezbollah’s experience in Lebanon,” he added, referring to a situation where an independent armed group exerts major influence on national politics.

Hamas officials reject the possibility of disarming.

Hamas leader Haniya said they were willing to “pay any price” for reconciliation but analysts say disarming would effectively mean the end of the movement.

The United States cautiously welcomed Hamdallah’s visit Monday.

But US special envoy Jason Greenblatt also said any Palestinian government “must unambiguously and explicitly commit to nonviolence, recognition of the State of Israel, acceptance of previous agreements and obligations between the parties and peaceful negotiations.”

UN Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov said he was “encouraged” by the developments and wanted to see the Palestinian Authority government exercise full control in Gaza.

“This is essential for resolving the humanitarian situation as soon as possible, most notably the crippling electricity and health crises,” he said in a statement.

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