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Storm recovery could bring Abbas to Gaza

The recent devastating storm could prompt a visit by Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to the Gaza Strip and potentially expedite Palestinian reconciliation efforts.
Palestinians man a boat carrying food supplies, to be passed to people whose houses were flooded with rainwater on a stormy day, in the northern Gaza Strip December 14, 2013. Northern Gaza Strip has become a disaster area following an icy storm that led to the evacuation of hundreds of Palestinian families from their flooded houses to UNRWA facilities, Chris Gunness, UNRWA spokesman, said. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem (GAZA - Tags: ENVIRONMENT SOCIETY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTX16HYD

The Dec. 16 Facebook message was simple yet powerful: “Imagine if President [Mahmoud] Abbas visited Gaza and took a look at his people there following the winter storm. Imagine how he would be received by Ismail Haniyeh. … People who have been drowning will certainly come out and welcome him,” she concluded.

The entry was by Rawya Shawa, a prominent independent member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. It is unclear if this was an innocent wish or if she was privy to any information about the state of Palestinian reconciliation. The entry coincided with two important phone calls, one between Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and Abbas. That phone call followed what has been reported as a thank-you call from Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal to the Palestinian president. Press reports have said that Meshaal thanked Abbas for his efforts since the snowstorm to help out Gazans by sending badly needed supplies and intervening with the Israelis to loosen Gaza’s blockade.

Gaza’s humanitarian situation has been horrendous. The UN has reported that more than 10,000 Gazans had to relocate because of the flooding. Photos circulating around the world showed Gazans being rescued in front of their flooded homes with boats and other floating devices. Electricity has been cut off for some time because of the lack of fuel, and the desperation of the population expressed in various social media outlets is heartbreaking. Gazan blogger Mohammad Omer appealed for help online, including from his Twitter account: "I am charging my computer using a car battery to get this message out. It is so cold in Gaza."

The inclement weather has affected the local infrastructure as well. The conditions have been the Hamas government’s worst trial by far. The United Nations succeeded in getting pumps into Gaza but its spokesperson said five more pumps are needed to pump out all the water that has turned streets into still lakes. Homes have been overtaken by water, and it will be difficult to return to them even after the water has been pumped out.

Politically, Gaza has been spinning its wheels in a reconciliation process halted due to lack of implementation. The Hamas-led government seems to be suffering from deep internal division. The delay in implementing steps toward reconciliation appears to be the result of a lack of enthusiasm by the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing. It is unclear whether either Meshaal or Haniyeh have any say in the brigade’s decision-making structure. Nevertheless, the one Gazan who has influence over the Al-Qassam Brigades is Mahmoud Zahar, who has reflected on the current crisis by sharply criticizing Abbas and the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority over its talks with Israel.

The issue of the talks was said to have been brought up in the 10-minute discussion between Meshaal and Abbas. Abbas reassured the Hamas leader of his steadfastness on Palestinian rights and reiterated that any agreement to be reached will be placed in front of the Palestinian people in a referendum before it becomes effective.

If and when Abbas does visit Gaza, he will not meet one of the most popular independent civil society leaders. Dr. Eyad Sarraj, the founder and director of the Gaza Mental Health Center, has died at the age of 70 after suffering from cancer. Sarraj, whose work on the mental health of Palestinian children has brought attention to this segment of society, was a fierce independent figure calling regularly for the reconciliation of the Palestinian factions.

As in most politically charged conflicts, the big losers are the people who continue to suffer in the tug of war between politicians who are fighting for political power. The outrage over the situation in Gaza should overrule any petty political differences. If a visit by Abbas to Gaza could shake up the current stalemate, so be it. Doing nothing and hoping that one side or the other will give in has become unacceptable for Palestinians.

If Gaza is indeed part of Palestine, the president of Palestine must do everything he can to help rescue his people, including visiting, if needed. The 90-minute drive from Ramallah to Gaza will shake up the political situation and more importantly, give a tiny glimmer of hope to a hopeless population that has long given up on politicians.

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