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Palestinian unity visit: rebirth or another false dawn?

PALESTINIAN UNITY VISIT: REBIRTH OR ANOTHER FALSE DAWN?

West Bank-based Palestinian prime minister Rami Hamdallah is to make his first visit to Gaza since 2015 on Monday, in a fresh attempt to reconcile with the Islamist movement Hamas which rules the Israeli-blockaded coastal enclave.

The trip by Hamdallah and several of his ministers aims to crown a rapprochement between Hamas and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas's Fatah party after a decade of animosity and spurts of violence.

The talks are intended to prepare for a transfer of power in the Gaza Strip from Hamas to Abbas's Palestinian Authority.

The renewed attempt at rapprochement, backed by Egypt, has the potential to impact both the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and the wider Middle East.

For the two million residents of Gaza, the hope is to see an improvement in the miserable living conditions in the overcrowded and impoverished territory.

Battered by three wars with Israel since 2008, it is under Israeli and Egyptian blockade and suffers from severe water and electricity shortages, an economic slump and unemployment of more than 40 percent.

Hamas and its rival Fatah, which dominates the Palestinian Authority, have both expressed confidence that the latest unity initiative will fare better than the failures of the past.

But among many questions to be answered is the central issue of whether Hamas is really prepared to give up its Gaza security apparatus and share power with the PA.

- TURN OF THE SCREW -
Senior Hamas official Mussa Abu Marzuq has said there is "great hope" for the success of the reconciliation efforts but that disarming Hamas personnel is not on the agenda.

"This never was nor will it be up for discussion," he said in a statement.

Azzam al-Ahmad, a leading Fatah member, said he was now "more optimistic of ending Palestinian division in Gaza than at any previous opportunity".

But he said the PA must be able to fulfil its responsibilities, "including security, without any interference from any faction".

Hamas, blacklisted as a terrorist group by the European Union and the United States, won a landslide victory in 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections.

It ousted Fatah from Gaza the following year after wrangling over the formation of a new government degenerated into bloody clashes.

Since then, Abbas's limited power is confined to the West Bank which is under Israeli military occupation and located, at its nearest point, 40 kilometres (25 miles) from the Israel-Gaza border.

The Palestinian schism is seen as a major obstacle to a peace agreement between Israel and a future Palestinian state combining the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Abbas has this year turned the screw on his rival, halting payments to Israel for electricity it supplies to Gaza, cutting the salaries of officials in the territory and limiting the number of Gazans given approval to receive medical treatment elsewhere.

Hit by a fall in financial aid from longtime benefactor Qatar and facing the prospect of social unrest among disgruntled Gazans, the increasingly isolated Hamas finally agreed to demands from Abbas.

- HOT POTATO -
Hamas is now waiting for Abbas to revoke his sanctions.

"These measures will be cancelled the moment the Palestinian government takes over its responsibilities in Gaza," Fatah's Ahmad promised.

Those responsibilities include a PA takeover of Gaza border crossings with Egypt and Israel, he said.

Other issues include the future of the tens of thousands of public officials hired by Hamas since 2007.

Ghassan Khatib of the West Bank's Birzeit University says Hamas's initiative is purely tactical.

"Hamas seems to be trying to throw the hot potato into the lap of the Palestinian Authority," he said.

Analyst Jihad Harb said Egypt was the key player.

"It is evident that this time it is playing a serious role, not only in sponsoring reconciliation but in actually implementing it."

An Egyptian delegation is to monitor the return of central government to Gaza.

Harb said there were signs of wider international support for the plan too.

"So far, we have not seen any American or Israeli veto of the reconciliation as in the past," he said.

"It is clear there is an international will, whether at the European Union or at the United Nations, to achieve the reconciliation."

The UN special envoy for the Middle East, Nickolay Mladenov, said the chance must be grasped.

"If we miss this opportunity, I don't think another opportunity will come anytime soon," he said.

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