Middle East

Palestinian reconciliation hits rock bottom

A year after rival Palestinian nationalist movements Hamas and Fatah agreed to end their bitter divisions, the unity deal they signed appears to be on the brink of collapse.

This week, a ministerial delegation from the Ramallah-based consensus government headed to the Gaza Strip, the stronghold of Hamas, for what was to be a week-long visit focused on resolving a long-running dispute over employees.

But they stayed only one day, ordered home by prime minister Rami Hamdallah as the scope of the row became clear.

The Islamist Hamas movement has ruled Gaza since 2007 when it expelled forces loyal to president Mahmud Abbas's West Bank-based Fatah from the tiny coastal enclave.

The rival factions agreed to bury the hatchet on April 23, 2014 thanks to a surprise reconciliation agreement which led to the creation of a national unity government.

The aim was to bring governance of the Palestinian territories under one authority, a cabinet of independent technocrats acceptable to both sides which would work to hold elections as quickly as possible.

But a year on, little has changed — and the reconciliation pact is showing signs of severe strain.

"Nothing has changed on the ground. The reconciliation has stalled and we are heading for an even greater division," said Mukhaimer Abu Saada, a Gaza-based political scientist.

Sworn in last June, the so-called national consensus government has rarely set foot in Gaza where Hamas remains the de facto power, despite formally standing down.

– 'Failure' in Gaza –

And the two movements have repeatedly accused each other of blocking moves to facilitate the reconstruction of Gaza, which was devastated by a 50-day war with Israel last year.

The promised elections, which were to have taken place before the end of 2014, have not materialised and officials admit the ballot is unlikely to happen any time soon.

The extent of the dispute was highlighted on Monday when a group of eight ministers and around 30 senior officials hurriedly left Gaza after admitting the "failure" of their mission.

Cabinet secretary Ali Abu Diak said there had been no talks, laying the blame squarely at the feet of Hamas, which he accused of "repeatedly throwing a spanner in the works".

"It's not the government's job to negotiate: it is the government of all the people and Hamas does not respect either the government or the law," he said.

Since last year's agreement, Hamas has demanded the government cover the salaries of its 50,000 employees who have been on the books since the Islamists seized power in the enclave.

They took over from 70,000 employees of the Palestinian Authority (PA) who were forced out of their positions but have still been paid their salaries.

Since the deal, the Hamas employees have not received wages, except for a one-off payment to around half of them in October.

The consensus government has pledged to return the 70,000 former PA employees to their positions, and the delegation which went to Gaza had aimed to register them all.

It has said Hamas workers would be hired only "according to need" in a move denounced by the Islamist movement as "discrimination".

– An intractable dispute –

"Without a solution for these employees, there will be no remedy or progress in the reconciliation," said Abu Saada, the political scientist.

During their brief visit to Gaza, the delegation members did not leave their hotel, with Hamas saying it was "by choice".

But Mahmud al-Zaq, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), said it was due to the "thuggish" and "terrorist" methods of Hamas.

For the Palestinian Authority, the biggest problem is the question of up to 30,000 armed Hamas employees who work for its security services whom it does not want to pay.

Constrained by various international agreements, the PA says it is unable to send money to Gaza to pay them because Hamas is blacklisted as a "terrorist" group by Israel, the United States and the European Union.

This week, Hamas employees were again demonstrating in Gaza over plans to replace them.

"Discriminating against them is hindering the reconciliation," warned Daud Shihab, spokesman for Islamic Jihad, the second force in Gaza.

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