Palestinian leader launches reconciliation push in Gaza

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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The Palestinian prime minister traveled Monday to the Gaza Strip to launch an ambitious reconciliation effort with the rival Hamas militant group, receiving a hero’s welcome from thousands of people as the sides moved to end a bitter 10-year rift.

Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, representing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party, was joined by dozens of top officials, aides and security men on the trip from the West Bank through Israel and into Gaza to meet with the Hamas officials. It is by far the most ambitious attempt at reconciliation since Hamas seized power of the coastal strip in 2007.

The sides exchanged smiles, handshakes and pleasantries — a reflection of the changed climate that has ripened conditions for reconciliation after other failed attempts. But difficult negotiations lie ahead, and key sticking points, particularly who will control Hamas’ vast weapons arsenal, could easily derail the effort.

On Monday, at least, the two sides put aside their differences.

Well-wishers surrounded Hamdallah’s car as it entered Gaza through the Israeli-controlled Erez border crossing, and dozens of Palestinian youths gathered alongside a barbed-wire fence to glimpse the welcoming ceremony. Some waved Palestinian or yellow Fatah flags, and many chanted Hamdallah’s name.

“The only way to statehood is through unity,” Hamdallah told the crowd of about 2,000. “We are coming to Gaza again to deepen the reconciliation and end the split.”

Conditions in Gaza have deteriorated greatly in a decade of Hamas rule, and the feeling of hope by desperate residents was palpable Monday.

Thousands lined the streets to watch Hamdallah’s 30-vehicle convoy. The crowd forced the delegation to delay its first meeting at the home of the top Fatah official in Gaza and instead take a break at a beachside hotel.

Dozens of vehicles later returned to the Shejayeh neighborhood for the lunch. Hamas’ top leaders, Ismail Haniyeh and Yehiyeh Sinwar, said next to Hamdallah and West Bank security chief Majed Faraj.

“This is a day of joy,” said Shaima Ahmed, 28, a women’s rights activist who covered her shoulders with a Palestinian kaffiyeh. “Yes it’s difficult and not easy to go forward, but we only have to be optimistic this time.”

Hamas ousted the Fatah-led forces of the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority in the summer of 2007, leaving the Palestinians torn between rival governments on opposite sides of Israel. Hamas has ruled Gaza, while Abbas’ party has controlled autonomous enclaves in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Abbas seeks both territories, along with east Jerusalem, for a Palestinian state, and the division is a major obstacle to any possible peace deal. Israel captured all three areas in the 1967 Mideast war, although it withdrew from Gaza in 2005.

While previous reconciliation attempts have failed, years of international isolation and steadily worsening conditions in Gaza have pushed Hamas toward compromise.

In a significant concession, Hamas has offered to turn over all governing responsibilities to Hamdallah. His ministers are expected to begin taking over government ministries Tuesday, with negotiations in Cairo on more difficult issues in the coming weeks.

Hamdallah said the reconstruction of Gaza, which is still recovering from a 2014 war with Israel, would be a priority.

“We realize that the road is still long and hard. We will be faced with obstacles and challenges, but our people are able to rise again from among destruction and suffering,” he said.

Several factors appear to be working in favor of reconciliation.

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