As Palestinian reconciliation drags on, Gazans downbeat
The heavily surveilled and fenced-in kilometer-long corridor travellers pass through in transit between Gaza and Israel has been newly decorated in recent weeks-rows of Egyptian flags now line the approach to the Palestinian side.
Like the posters of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas and his predecessor Yasser Arafat plastered on the walls at the Erez checkpoint, the flags celebrate an Egyptian-sponsored Palestinian reconciliation process, intended to end a decade-long split between Abbas' Fatah faction and Hamas, who have been ruling Gaza since 2007.
The offices where Hamas once searched luggage and its intelligence officers interviewed foreign visitors now lie abandoned, their contents looted since the group handed Gaza's borders over to the PA at the beginning of November, marking the first concrete change since the reconciliation process started. Attention has since shifted southward-to the border with Egypt.
While the changes at Erez meant little for ordinary Gazans, who are unable to enter Israel without rarely-obtained permits, the supposed opening of the Rafah crossing on Wednesday would mean the population of 2 million being able to travel outside the coastal strip after a decade of almost total blockade on all sides.
"[If Rafah opened], it would bring trade to the country and improve the economic situation," Yusuf Habboush, 23, a currency exchanger in central Gaza, told Anadolu Agency.
But like others in Gaza, he has stopped buying into initial optimism prompted by the fanfare and promises surrounding the reconciliations talks because of the lack of changes almost two months after the process started.
"We would expect from the reconciliation for borders to open, the creation of jobs for the youth and more business in the country but nothing's happened until now, it's all empty."
Rafah crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip is the enclave's only terminal not controlled by Israel.
The reconciliation process started in September when Hamas agreed to hand over the reign of government to the PA but frustration about the lack of change has been building, especially as punitive measures introduced by Abbas to pressure Hamas into relinquishing power have remained in place, including a cut that reduces electricity to no more than six hours a day and the slashing of salaries for his own PA employees.
Mukheimar Abu Saada, a Gaza-based political analyst, told Anadolu Agency that removing those measures would be a basic step towards showing Abbas was committed to the reconciliation process.
"The return of electricity to Gaza would be a positive sign. The opening of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt would definitely be a positive sign towards removing the siege and giving a sign that reconciliation is moving forward," he said.
"Palestinian reconciliation is a good thing for the Palestinians, it's a must for the Palestinians-we really need it to save the nation and to save our cause but unfortunately Palestinian reconciliation is going very slowly."
He said he cannot see any real progress being made in the short-term and doubted Rafah would open as scheduled, noting Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah's comments last week that the PA could not fully police the borders until it had control of security inside the Gaza Strip.
Hamas has also voiced its disapproval over the official plan for Rafah's policing, which would involve U.N. and Israeli supervision at the crossing, throwing up concerns about whether they would accept such a set-up.
And while Hamas have agreed to co-operate in handing over internal security duties to PA forces, they have refused to disband their military wing, the al-Qassam brigades, as demanded by Abbas as well as Israel and the U.S., who have made it a key demand in exchange for recognizing a unity deal.
"Lately the comments coming from the PA government in Ramallah regarding security and Hamas are making the Palestinians feel once again that they're skeptical about Palestinian reconciliation," said Abu Saada.
"Unless we see something tangible on the ground, people won't believe anything is going to change."