The stage appears set, if the Palestinian leadership chooses, to reconcile the Gaza Strip with the West Bank and end the unjust siege that has fallen on Gaza for the past seven years.
Palestinian-Israeli peace talks scheduled over a period of nine months are due to end in April. Palestinians had agreed in late July 2013 to talks in return for Israel implementing a previous agreement to release 104 prisoners held in Israeli jails before the Oslo Accord. At the same time, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas agreed to postpone any movements to join international agencies, such as the International Criminal Court, during the period of negotiations.
Both Israel and the United States are keen to extend the talks that have yet to bear any fruit. US Secretary of State John Kerry made this US position crystal clear when he publicly called for an extension of the talks for another nine months. Top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat immediately responded by refusing any extension of the talks.
Israel has been regularly leaking stories to the media indicating its desire for an extension of the talks. The Israelis and even Kerry are concerned that the international boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) would get a huge boost if the talks ended without result. US universities are in the midst of a week-long anti-Israeli campaign under the title Israel’s Apartheid Week.
With both Israeli and Palestinian leaders set to visit Washington to confer with US President Barack Obama, a single Palestinian demand of lifting the Gaza siege and allowing the free flow of people and goods between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank will accomplish many results for the embattled Palestinian leadership.
In making such a demand, the Palestinian president can suggest the return of the presidential guard at both the Rafah and Beit Hanoun crossings. The Hamas government had previously refused such an idea but media reports suggest that they are now much more willing to accept it. A move like this will ensure that such a lifting of the siege will not be used by any rogue elements to destabilize the situation in the West Bank or cause any security threat to Israel. Israeli and Palestinian security officials have been cooperating on security issues with a strong record of effective results.
Allowing Gazan and West Bank Palestinians to move freely should not be seen as an Israeli compromise. Every agreement signed between Israel and the Palestinians starting with the Oslo Accord calls for a safe passage between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and refers to the Palestinian territories as a single territorial unit. The issue was further clarified in all subsequent agreements including the Wye River Memorandum of Oct. 23, 1998, and the Sharm el-Sheikh Memorandum. In fact, a specific agreement was focused on this very issue. The 1999 safe passage protocol was intended to allow the movement of people and goods between the two territories, but unfortunately has never been implemented.
The Gaza Strip has been under the control of the Islamic Hamas movement since June 2007. But the movement has suffered multiple setbacks with the loss of their Syrian and Iranian patrons as well as the escalation of their problems with the current Egyptian government, which has publicly accused Hamas of aiding Sinai terrorists and harboring wanted Egyptians.
Ismail Haniyeh, who heads the Gaza government, has been sending strong messages to the Ramallah leadership calling for stepping up the faltering reconciliation efforts. Al-Monitor has also reported that Hamas is sending messages to Israel, possibly exploring options to alleviate its isolation. As Al-Monitor’s Rasha Abou Jalal reported, Hamas has also been losing public support in recent months due to the continued financial crisis. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also conditioning a return to normal relations with Israel on lifting of the Gaza siege.
The Palestinian leadership would get a strong foothold in Gaza if such an agreement is reached and would be poised to retake the beleaguered Gaza Strip. Gaza has been the Achilles' heel for the PLO leadership, which has been unable to answer the question of who represents Gaza in the peace talks.
It will be difficult for the Obama administration, which regularly talks about the need for a Palestinian state to be contiguous, to refuse such a Palestinian offer to extend the peace talks. The rights of the 1.6 million Gazans as well as those of the West Bank to exercise a basic human right of being able to freely move within their own country and to the outside world can’t be ignored. The United States adopting such a position would go a long way in ending the unjustly imposed siege on the Gaza Strip, and will be seen as tangible proof to ordinary Palestinians that peace talks are bearing fruits and are not just limited to meetings in hotels.
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