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Abbas warns Hamas against potential pact with Israel

In the West Bank, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas is threatening to impose punitive measures on the Gaza Strip if Hamas signs a truce agreement with Israel.
NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 20: President of Palestine and Palestinian National Authority Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a United Nations Security Council concerning meeting concerning issues in the Middle East, at UN headquarters, February 20, 2018 in New York City. Abbas called for an international Middle East peace conference to be convened later this year. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas continues to threaten severe consequences for Hamas if it pursues a truce with Israel that doesn't include the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Abbas said during closed talks Aug. 28 that he will not allow Israel and Hamas to sign a cease-fire agreement without the PA's approval, according to Israeli Channel 10.

Saeb Erekat, the secretary-general of the PLO's Executive Committee, warned during an Aug. 25 television interview on Al-Mayadeen that Hamas plans to sign the Egyptian-sponsored truce with Israel in the next two weeks. Erekat said leaders of a Palestinian delegation headed by Hamas — and excluding the PLO — will sign the pact. The PLO is an umbrella organization representing most Palestinian factions, but not Hamas, and has been considered the official negotiator on behalf of the Palestinians with Israel to resolve the conflict.

Egypt has tried for years to reconcile Abbas' Fatah political party, which leads the PA and administers the West Bank, with its rival Hamas, which administers the Gaza Strip. The two Palestinian factions split violently in 2007.

Previous agreements were approved by the PLO, which is the only legitimate and internationally recognized representative of the Palestinian people. It seems Hamas is trying to flex its muscles in the political and military arenas. The PLO has boycotted the current deliberations held in Cairo, and Erekat said Hamas’ monopolization of an agreement with Israel would destroy efforts to unite Hamas and Fatah. The PA will halt funding to the Gaza Strip if deals are signed that would widen the division or pave the way for the US peace proposal, Erekat said. "Signing the truce would entrench the rift between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and would destroy the Palestinian cause," he said.

Hamas senior spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri responded to Erekat’s statements, saying the threats to stop sending funds to the Gaza Strip reflect the PA’s insistence on suffocating Gaza and preventing any chance to save it.

On Aug. 28, Fatah informed the Egyptian presidency that it rejects the truce and put forth conditions for a reconciliation with Hamas that the latter describes as impossible to achieve, such as Hamas halting appeasement negotiations with Israel and agreeing that its possession and use of weapons are subject to national consensus. Hamas refused.

Abbas has vowed to implement unprecedented punitive measures that would affect Hamas mainly, but also the United States and Israel, according to Al-Araby al-Jadeed website.

Yet political analyst Talal Okal told Al-Monitor, “Abbas does not see his steps toward Gaza as punitive. He believes they are pressure measures to achieve reconciliation according to Fatah’s conditions.” Still, Okal warned that the Gaza Strip will suffer a huge crisis if Abbas implements those measures, which will depend on the progress of the current Cairo talks.

“Abbas is sending a message to Hamas … that maintaining rule over the Gaza Strip entails handling all responsibilities, solving all its financial and economic problems, and finding alternative funding methods to replace the PA.”

Okal noted that Hamas does control the situation in the Gaza Strip and wants to end the blockade there, provide a sense of comfort to Gazans and resolve their crises. Therefore, Hamas responded to the proposed truce with Israel to avoid Fatah’s reconciliation conditions.

The proposed Israel-Hamas truce includes provisions such as implementing a cease-fire between Gaza and Israel and halting the weekly Great March of Return protests in exchange for easing the Israeli siege on Gaza, opening the Rafah border crossing, inaugurating a maritime route between Gaza and Cyprus, and increasing the maritime fishing space for Gazans.

Okal stated that the current negotiations with Israel provoked the PA because Hamas has no authority to make a deal and prioritized the truce over the Palestinian reconciliation.

He added, “The bilateral negotiations between Hamas and Israel are not led by Hamas only. Egypt is managing the issue with the US, too, and they both have the last word. Hamas is influential, but Egypt is trying to solve the reconciliation issue to set the stage for a truce.”

Ibrahim al-Madhoun, a political analyst close to Hamas, told Al-Monitor that Abbas is being harsh with the Gaza Strip for political and moral reasons. Abbas is afraid to tackle Gaza’s thorny issues and is being strict because he knows that rapprochement with Gaza would bring out strong competitors with whom he would have to share power.

Madhoun added that Abbas is issuing threats because Israel, Egypt and the United States ignored the PA and led direct talks with Hamas, which gives the movement political weight that could pave the way for it to be recognized as an international and legitimate power. Madhoun believes the threats have nothing to do with Abbas’ reconciliation concerns.

About the political dimension of the agreement, Madhoun said the negotiations mark Hamas’ political development, which might enable it to bridge the gap where the PA failed. He ruled out the agreement being historical, however, as it won’t go beyond a field and humanitarian truce. He expects the agreement to alleviate the PA’s pressure on Gaza, and he noted that reconciliation with Abbas as head of the PA will be tough.

“Israel wants to neutralize the Gaza front and avoid confrontation with Hamas because it has other plans, like establishing a new regional alliance," he said. "Israel is well-aware that a confrontation with Hamas would be costly.”

Hani al-Masri, the director general of the Palestinian Center for Policy Research and Strategic Studies-Masarat, told Al-Monitor that Abbas tries to link calm in Gaza to toppling Hamas or forcing it to succumb to his demands that Hamas reconcile with Fatah. Masri said, “Hamas and Israel’s second round of shuttle talks are going in the same direction as the Oslo Accords, although the movement considered those a national catastrophe and rejected them. These negotiations indicate that Hamas would tacitly recognize Israel.”

He added, “Hamas must think twice while negotiating with Israel, as the movement [had] claimed it was different from the PA and would not negotiate with Israel. But here it is leading the negotiations under the pretext of lifting the blockade.”

Masri believes a truce is unlikely unless the PA leads it. Egypt cares about its relations with the PA and will not accept a signing without the PA’s leading presence, he added.

He stated that the US administration prefers the return of the PA to negotiations but isn't insisting on it. Appeasement might happen, but not a truce. Masri called on Hamas to show flexibility in a potential reconciliation with Fatah, as the price it would pay for that rapprochement is much less than what a truce with Israel would cost in the long run.

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